When I started attending Japanese film festivals in Manhattan back in the 1970s, there were loads of samurai films and films by major directors like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ozu. The handful of color Japanese films from the 1950s shown back then were chiefly the few done by Mizoguchi and Ozu; the SAMURAI trilogy (1954-56) and other samurai films directed by Hiroshi Inagaki and starring Toshiro Mifune; and a few sci-fi films directed by Ishiro Honda, including RODAN and THE MYSTERIANS (although I first saw both of these on TV). Also shown back then was Teinosuke Kinugasa’s GATE OF HELL (1953), which I was led to believe at the time was the very first Japanese color feature (and an Academy Award winner for Best Costume Design and recipient of an Honorary Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film released in the U.S. in 1954).
What was missing from these festivals back then were tons of Japanese comedies, dramas, and musicals from the 1950s that were made in color and hugely popular among Japanese audiences. It wasn’t until 2009 that I discovered some of these, including CARMEN COMES HOME (1951), a comedy starring Hideko Takamine that was the very first Japanese color feature, and JANKEN MUSUME (1955), a musical starring “Sannin Musume,” a trio consisting of three popular singers of the time, Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri, and Izumi Yukimura. I wrote about JANKEN MUSUME in my J-pop blog on December 2, 2009 and reviewed it on IMDB ten days later. Only this past week have I finally gotten around to seeing the second film in the Sannin Musume series, ROMANCE MUSUME (1956).
Like JANKEN MUSUME, this one comes without any subtitles, so I miss out on key plot points. But what I get are some delightful songs and musical numbers and some beautiful Eastmancolor cinematography. Even though most scenes are shot on Toho studio sets, one does get a sense of contemporary Tokyo in the 1950s, newly prosperous after years of hardship and turmoil after the war. The three girls play high school students who work after school in a department store and whose parents are all shopowners, so we get a sense of how ordinary Japanese lived in those years. We also get a look at a wealthier household when the girls visit the grandfather (oji-san) of one of their male classmates, who lives in a western-style house on a large piece of property.
The girls sing ten songs contained in seven musical numbers. (The six-minute couples-on-bikes finale contains four songs: three solos and one group number.) The first number is done in traditional costume by Hibari at a festival (matsuri) on a lavish street set three minutes into the film.
The second number, at the 27 minute mark, is a solo by Izumi, accompanied on piano by Chiemi, at Grandpa’s house. It’s an American song, sung partly in English and partly in Japanese, called “Ivory Tower” and was a hit that year in the U.S. in two separate recordings, one by Cathy Carr (whom I’d never heard of before) and one by Gale Storm (the sitcom star from “My Little Margie”). I’m not sure which one was the bigger hit. The lyrics ask the addressee to “Come on down from your ivory tower / let love come into your heart…”
The next set of numbers comes at a live musical show that the girls attend at the 43-minute mark. Each of the girls, performing as themselves, appears in a solo number, one right after the other. The three, as their high school characters, also sit in the audience and watch. This was very confusing to me. I’ve asked for help in understanding this from various Japanese speakers who might be able to translate this page for me:
…so we’ll see if I can get any info that clarifies how the girls were able to portray fictional characters watching their real selves perform. The poster advertising the show does indeed list the performers’ real names and the trio’s name, “Sannin Musume.”
And the girls are pictured sitting under the sign as they wait to be allowed in to find their seats:
Chiemi’s song includes these English lyrics: “I gave my heart to you in old Lisbon that night / Under the spell of your charms, I felt your arms hold me so tight…” A little research turns up the title of the song, “Lisbon Antigua,” which was a hit for Nelson Riddle in 1956. I was unable to determine who might have sung the song on an American recording that Chiemi might have heard.
Finally, we get a more traditional Japanese number with Hibari, dressed in full male garb as a samurai. She even sings in a deeper voice than usual.
And here is Rumiko (Hibari) in the audience:
Of the three, two of the songs have English lines in them. Only Hibari’s traditional song does not. I should point out that in the girls’ previous film, JANKEN MUSUME, there was a similar set of musical numbers that the girls watched themselves perform, but in that case, it was clearly indicated that the girls were fantasizing and imagining themselves on stage. Here, they’re seen entering the theater and sitting under the sign announcing the real performers’ names.
Next, at the 57-minute mark, Chiemi, back at Grandpa’s house, sings a children’s song, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Waltz,” to a shy, unresponsive little girl.
Adapted from an American chart-topper from 1955 that was sung by Kay Starr, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Waltz” retains some English lyrics including, “Mommy’s dancing with dad to my record machine.” I should point out here that Chiemi Eri had a hit in Japan in 1952 with her version of Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz.”
I’m not counting it as one of the songs on the soundtrack, but at one point, at Grandpa’s house, a middle-aged man who appears to be the guardian of the little girl, gets drunk on Johnny Walker Red with Chiemi and sings an old sad song:
Finally, in the last six minutes of the film, there’s a bike-riding finale where the girls sing while riding bicycles built for two with their boyfriends, neither of whom has played much of a romantic role at all in the course of the film. Each girl sings a solo in the finale, followed by the title song which all three girls sing together, the only time they sing together in the course of the film. Hibari’s solo is on an album of hers that I own. The sequence is done by combining studio-filmed close shots with long shots of them (or doubles, I presume) riding bikes on a country or seaside road.
The bicycle element recalls two numbers that I’ve written about in the past, one from Hollywood and one from Japan: The “I Love to Whistle” number performed by Deanna Durbin as she rides a bike in MAD ABOUT MUSIC (1938):
And the J-pop music video, “Iiwake Maybe,” from 2009, performed by the all-girl group, AKB48:
One of the most striking elements of ROMANCE MUSUME is the emphasis on female friendship. The three girls hang out together and eat together and laugh a lot. They spend a lot of time doing things together. They really enjoy being with each other. The boys in their life play second fiddle to the girls.
Female camaraderie is something I’ve seen in a lot of Japanese pop culture, whether in movies like the STRAY CAT ROCK series of the 1970s, anime series like “Sailor Moon” from the 1990s, and Japanese pop music (J-pop) where all-girl groups like Morning Musume and AKB48 not only proliferate but are often featured in TV shows and documentaries in various offstage activities doing fun things together without any guys around (except for cameramen and staff). Here’s a moment from the Hello! Morning Christmas Special of 2005 featuring Morning Musume:
I never notice this element much in American popular culture, except when it’s centered on chasing guys or sex, as in the 1960s musicals, WHERE THE BOYS ARE and FOLLOW THE BOYS, and such recent HBO series as “Sex and the City” and “Girls.” Despite the title, ROMANCE MUSUME, the romantic relationships are never developed much and seem to be something of an afterthought. We certainly never see the couples get romantic with each other at all. I called the guys their boyfriends in an earlier paragraph, but I’m not sure that either of the three relationships has even reached that far. Hibari’s romantic interest is played by regular Toho leading man Akira Takarada, who holds the distinction of starring in both the very first GODZILLA movie (GOJIRA, 1954) and the very last, GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (2004). (He made a cameo appearance in the recent American remake but was unceremoniously snipped out before its U.S. release.)
It’s funny that he plays a high school student here, just two years after playing a heroic coast guard officer in GOJIRA:
I love the glimpses of modern-day Tokyo seen in the film, whether on location, like the amusement park they go to with the little girl, or in studio sets that recreate the department store where the girls work and the shops and streets where their parents work.
And here they sit in a composition that was used a lot by Yasujiro Ozu, yet I never hear this director, Toshio Sugie, getting praised to high heaven by cinephiles for his sense of composition:
Journalist Mark Schilling describes the Sannin Musume films in his chapter on Hibari Misora in his excellent book, “Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture”:
“Harmless fluff that were little more than showcases for the singing talents of the three stars, the Sannin Musume movies were wildly popular, especially among teenage girls. Izumi Yukimura played a with-it rock ‘n’ roller who sprinkled her conversation with English words. Chiemi Eri was a good-natured, tomboyish country girl who sang Japanized versions of American pop tunes. Hibari was the old-fashioned Japanese girl, who betrayed no hint of foreign influence in speech or song and stood foursquare for traditional values.”
This description applies more to this film than the earlier film, JANKEN MUSUME (1955), in which we see Hibari perform “La Vie en Rose” in English in a pink gown and Izumi perform Charlie Chaplin’s song, “Smile,” entirely in Japanese. (That film also had more songs and musical numbers: 11 songs and 12 numbers.)
Hibari is the only one who doesn’t sing any lyrics in English in ROMANCE MUSUME. Of the three girls, Izumi Yukimura is still with us as of this writing. Chiemi Eri died at the age of 45 in 1982 and Misora died at the age of 52 in 1989. All three were born in 1937.
Hibari Misora was the top recording star in the postwar era in Japan. She starred in the very first Japanese production to feature an American star, FUTARI NO HITOMI (1952, aka GIRLS HAND IN HAND), which co-starred Margaret O’Brien, who was the same age.
Misora went on to become a star of enka music, described by Schilling in “The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture” as “sad, soulful Japanese ballads.” The traditional numbers Misora performs in ROMANCE MUSUME look forward to her TV appearances in the 1970s and ’80s performing enka songs. Also in his chapter on Misora, Schilling writes:
“After her comeback, in July 1957, [Misora] told columnist Al Ricketts that she would rather sing in English than Japanese and expressed a liking for the music of Julie London and Nat King Cole. Her dream, she said, was to have an American screenwriter write a real Hollywood-style musical for her. ‘I know it isn’t possible,’ she said, ‘But I’d like to read one just to see what it’s like.’”
This is, to me, is one of the great missed opportunities in pop culture history. Imagine if Elvis Presley had brought her over to Hollywood to co-star with him in a movie. Or, better yet, if he had gone to Japan. How great would that have been? What if she’d come to the U.S. and appeared on Nat “King” Cole’s TV show with him? (Cole was the first black performer to have his own network TV show in the U.S.) On one of her albums, Misora sings twelve of Cole’s hits, some in English and some in Japanese. Oh, the possibilities…
To me, Misora is the Japanese Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald and Rosemary Clooney rolled into one. Her role in the restoration of popular culture in postwar Japan cannot be overstated. She sang American-style boogie woogie, as well as age-old Japanese festival songs. Her singing bridged the gap between east and west and helped pull the country together during a difficult time. Listening to her older albums is like taking a time machine through certain parts of the 20th century and then back into pre-modern Japan through the Tokugawa era and back into the feudal era.
I now have eight or nine of Misora’s CD albums, two DVD sets of TV appearances and five of her movies on DVD (all in Japanese with no subtitles). I have yet to see the two remaining Sannin Musume movies: OHATARI SANSHOKU MUSUME (1957, aka ON WINGS OF LOVE, the first movie in Tohoscope), and HIBARI CHIEMI IZUMI 3NIN YOREBA (1964), although I now have the latter on DVD. All four of the films were directed by Toshio Sugie, who also directed entries in the Three Dolls series starring Reiko Dan, beginning with THREE DOLLS IN COLLEGE (1959). I’d like to see those films as well. Wouldn’t it be nice if this whole body of work came to the west with English subtitles? And while I’m at it, it’s time to begin seeking out recordings of both Chiemi Eri and Izumi Yukimura, something that occurred to me as I watched this film. Yukimura had the best English pronunciation of the three, at least while singing, and I’m curious to hear what English-language recordings she might have made, as well as anything else. Yes, all three performers have a presence on YouTube, but I love exploring singers’ work on albums that someone made the effort to curate and put together.
I was first intrigued by Sannin Musume because I thought the trio might have been a precursor of Morning Musume, a contemporary J-pop act that I’ve been following for the last nine years. I didn’t find any connection between them, although Misora’s traditional festival numbers in ROMANCE MUSUME look forward to a 2001 music video called “Dancing! Natsu Matsuri” by a special unit called 10nin Matsuri which included members of Morning Musume.
Finally, Morning Musume came to New York in October of this year and I got to see them perform at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square on October 5. Of the current membership, there is one, Sakura Oda, who reminds me of Hibari Misora, the first member to make that connection for me. She has a voice that can handle the traditional songs that Misora did and she handles English better than most Morning Musume members past and present, although that will change once the four recently chosen new members join, since one was raised in the U.S. Here is Sakura at the NYC concert, in the black dress on the right:
She’s singing front and center in this shot:
So it all comes full circle. For the record, musume means girls or daughters.