On November 9, 2014, I wrote about ROMANCE MUSUME (1956), the second in a series of movie musicals starring the group, “Sannin Musume,” consisting of the three top pop stars in Japan of that era, Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri and Izumi Yukimura. The third film was OHATARI SANSHOKU MUSUME (aka ON WINGS OF LOVE, 1957) and was the last film they made as “Sannin Musume” before going their separate ways (although sometimes two of them would appear together in films). They reunited in 1964, as adults, for HIBARI CHIEMI IZUMI SANNIN YOREBA, which I haven’t written about yet here. The third film, which I’ll refer to as ON WINGS OF LOVE, the English title given on IMDB, is notable for being the first film made in Tohoscope, the first Japanese widescreen process to be used in Japan (by Toho Pictures, naturally). I first heard about this film in a reference in Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s autobiographical manga, A Drifting Life, as depicted in this frame, the caption of which confuses Toho with rival studio Toei:
While all four films are available only in English without subtitles, this one was the hardest to follow. I’ve seen it more than once and I still have no idea what the girls do in it. In the first film, JANKEN MUSUME (1955), they were high school students; in the second, ROMANCE MUSUME , they were still students but also worked after school at a department store. In the later film, HIBARI CHIEMI IZUMI SANNIN YOREBA, they were all adults with full-time jobs. Here, they’re not students, but they’re also never shown working.
Here’s a shot of them from the opening number in a more domestic pose than we’ve seen before:
And here are some typical shots of them from the film:
Hibari is seen late in the film performing a solo dance in traditional costume at a theater, but we never see her rehearsing nor does she ever meet with a director, voice coach or manager. (She talks with her mother a lot, though.)
What’s most significant about this film for me is the number of American songs that pop up on the soundtrack. Two of the girls, Chiemi and Izumi, sing four songs that originated as American popular recordings in the period immediately preceding the film’s production. Three of the songs are sung partly in Japanese and partly in English. I had heard none of them before seeing this movie so I took the English lyrics and Googled them in order to identify the song and the recording that inspired the song’s use in the film. The fourth song is the only one I was familiar with and the only one sung entirely in English (by Izumi).
The first song comes at the 17:38 mark as Chiemi walks alone down a roadside. Four men on bicycles ride past her singing a Calypso-style song in English.
The lyrics for the chorus are:
All day, all night, Marianne,
Down by the seaside siftin’ sand.
Even little children love Marianne,
Down by the seaside siftin’ sand.
Chiemi stops and joins in, singing the first verse in Japanese. The men stop and join her in singing as well. Chiemi’s lyrics include “Hula dance” and “G-man” (or “Gee, man”), words that aren’t in the English lyrics at all. She then sings the chorus in English.
The song turns out to be a folk song, “Marianne,” which had been a hit in early 1957 as recorded by a group called Terry Gilkyson and the Easy Riders. The chorus in that version sounds very close to the version heard here, so I’m guessing that Gilkyson’s recording provided the inspiration for the song’s use in the film. Burl Ives did another popular recording of it. Someone suggested to me that Harry Belafonte sang a version of it, which seems like a natural to me, but when I checked YouTube, I found two songs by Belafonte, “Marianne” and “Mary Ann,” neither of which matched this song.
Curiously, the number in the film consists entirely of long shots on location where the participants are unrecognizable (obviously doubles) intercut with close shots done in the studio against a painted backdrop.
The next song begins at the 33:44 mark, where we find Izumi, at home, rehearsing a song. She does a verse in English before being interrupted by Chiemi at the window.
Then, at 34:55, the rehearsal begins in earnest, with musical accompaniment arising by magic out of nowhere (extra-diegetic, as the academics say), and she sings the whole song, starting with the chorus and first verse all in Japanese and then the chorus and second verse in English, and then the third verse in Japanese, followed by the chorus again in English.
Here are the English lyrics she sings:
Cindy, oh Cindy Cindy don’t let me down Write me a letter soon I’ll be homeward bound
I know my Cindy’s waiting As I walk the deck alone Her loving arms reach out to me Soon I’ll be heading home Then my sailing days will be over No more will I roam
The song is “Cindy, Oh Cindy,” from 1956, and was recorded by Eddie Fisher.
At 37:55 mark the action cuts to a lake where one of the girls, Hibari, is in a rowboat with a date, played by Akira Takarada (of GOJIRA fame). The other girls show up in another boat.
Hibari feels compelled to hide her date from the other girls. I’m not sure why this is so, since she winds up with him as a boyfriend by the end of the film, but it could be because both of the other girls seem to like Akira as well.
This leads to a series of fantasy numbers where the girls sing songs on stylized sets, all accompanied in one way or another by Takarada. Hibari’s number is done in different modes of period dress and is sung entirely in Japanese. It has a “Madame Butterfly” theme as she sings of Cio-Cio San, the main character in Puccini’s opera, a Japanese girl who married an American officer, only to be abandoned by him. Hibari sings in European (or 19th century American) dress while she also plays Cio-Cio San in traditional Japanese dress, but her singing voice is offstage in those scenes. I’m wondering if the woman in western dress is supposed to represent the officer’s American wife.
Takarada plays the naval officer.
In her fantasy number, Chiemi sings a soulful song, partly in Japanese and partly in English, on a stylized “London” set, complete with fog and is joined late in the number by Takarada.
The song concludes with these English lyrics:
Just you and I over the river
Two hearts suspended in space
And there so high over the river
A miracle took place
Two empty arms found love to hold
Two smoke rings turned to rings of gold
A simple dress became a wedding gown
When London Bridge came tumbling down
The song turns out to be “On London Bridge” and was sung in 1956 by Jo Stafford, who was famous for hits like “You Belong to Me” and was active from 1944 to 1959.
Izumi’s song turns out to be the one I was familiar with and is performed entirely in English, “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” described by Wikipedia as “a rockabilly song first recorded in 1956 by Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps.” (Vincent sang the song in the movie THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, 1956). It’s a big production number on a stage set with lots of costumed extras, mixing rock ‘n’ roll and beatnik motifs.
The lyrics include these lines:
Well, she’s the girl in the red blue jeans
She’s the queen of all the teens
She’s the one that I know
She’s the one that loves me so
Say be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby
Be-bop-a-lula, I don’t mean maybe
Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby
Be-bop-a-lula, I don’t mean maybe
Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby love My baby love, my baby love
And that’s it for the American songs in the film. I’m guessing that Izumi got the full song in English because she was the best of the three at English pronunciation. (Hibari doesn’t sing a word of English in the entire film and didn’t do so in the previous film either.) I wish I had YouTube clips of these numbers to share with you, but the only film clips I can find of these girls are the songs they did in JANKEN MUSUME (1955), their first film together. Those are worth seeking out. There are also numerous recordings by these singers available on YouTube, as well as the original versions of the songs cited above. I would post the clips from ON WINGS OF LOVE on YouTube myself, but the last time I tried that with a Toho film, the clip got immediately tagged with “Video blocked worldwide.” I’d rather not mess with Toho.
One odd thing about the film is the girls’ constant references to “James Dean.” I counted five scenes in which the name is mentioned and each of the three girls refers to him. My guess is that they’re comparing Akira to the American star of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and EAST OF EDEN. Dean would have been dead for nearly two years by the time this film was made, but it’s clear that he had an impact well beyond American shores. (I’ve seen Hong Kong films with James Dean references also, made much later than this.)
James Dean lookalike? You decide:
Later on, Hibari performs a traditional dance in a theater with the choral singing coming from offstage, followed by a love song she sings in Japanese to Akira in a park scene after she leaves the theater.
The film opened with a group song, all in Japanese, performed by all three before the opening credits and making use of the TohoScope dimensions:
And at the end, the final song, which happens to be the title song, is performed by the girls as they water ski together(!) with their boyfriends piloting the motorboats. Again, close shots in the studio against a nondescript backdrop, with the participants untouched by wind or water spray, intercut with long shots (presumably of doubles) done on location.
And their boyfriends:
Interestingly, one year earlier, in 1956, a Japanese singer appeared in an MGM musical, MEET ME IN LAS VEGAS, with Dan Dailey and Cyd Charisse. In the film, Gus (Frank Kumagai), a Japanese worker at a Las Vegas hotel, keeps asking the hotel manager (Jim Backus) if he’ll listen to his daughter sing. Eventually, he gets Backus while he’s in a good mood and the girl is allowed to audition.
She was played by Mitsuko Sawamura, who was imported from Japan at the age of 12 and was either 13 or 14 at the time of this film. She had already appeared on “The Judy Garland Special” on “Ford Star Jubilee” in 1955, singing Cole Porter’s “It’s De-Lovely” with Garland and David Wayne.
In the film, Mitsuko sings a song in Japanese first and is then urged by Backus to sing a song in English. When she’s intimidated by the band, led by Pete Rugolo, Dailey leaps up from the seating area to coach Mitsuko and winds up doing a full-fledged song-and-dance duet, one of the most delightful things I’ve seen in a Hollywood musical. And it’s right in the middle of a musical that wasn’t even one of the studio’s more high-profile productions that year. In fact, this film never even entered my radar until a friend who’s also a fan of J-pop turned me on to it.
And here is Mitsuko’s appearance with Judy Garland:
Wouldn’t it have been nice if the three stars of “Sannin Musume” had been invited to come over to the U.S. and perform? Certainly, Chiemi and Izumi would have attracted attention. In fact, according to IMDB, Izumi was a guest on “The Dinah Shore Chevy Show” on Feb. 1, 1959 and “The Ed Sullivan Show” on March 10, 1963, so someone else thought it was a good idea also. The second date holds special significance for me, as recorded in my blog entry of March 10, 2013. I was at the movies that day enjoying a movie with Japanese star Yoko Tani. We did not have a working TV set in the house at that time. If we’d had one, it’s a safe bet we’d have been watching “The Ed Sullivan Show” and I would have discovered Ms. Yukimura that evening, a good 46 years before I did discover her. Of course, who knows if she even would have registered on my nine-year-old brain at the time.
And Chiemi Eri came to the United States also. According to the book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, by Michael Bourdaghs (Columbia Univ. Press, 2012):
Postwar performances in America by Japanese singers, especially female singers, helped promote this new, softer image [of Japan]. For example, Eri Chiemi, who would later become part of the celebrated Three Girls (Sannin Musume) trio along with Misora Hibari and Yukimura Izumi, traveled to the United States in 1953. While there, she appeared in a charity concert with the Harry James Orchestra in Los Angeles, recorded the orientalist song “Gomen nasai” and performed it on the popular Jukebox radio show, and sought out personal singing lessons from Kaye Starr, Rosemary Clooney, and Ella Fitzgerald. In all these activities, she was embodying the new image assigned to Japan: a place of fun and romance, a docile and cultured land that was eager to learn from the United States.
We should remember that in ROMANCE MUSUME Chiemi sang a song that had originally been recorded by Kaye Starr, “Rock and Roll Waltz,” with its memorable lines:
There in the night
What a wonderful scene
Mom was dancing with Dad To my record machine
And while they danced Only one thing was wrong
They were trying to waltz To a rock and roll song
So what about Americans going to Japan to perform at that time? Well, there must have been a lot of them. According to the same book cited above, we learn that Paul Anka toured Japan in 1958 and Gene Vincent (“Be-Bop-a-Lula”) in 1959. One wonders if the latter got to meet Izumi or experience her version of his song. Also according to this book, Izumi “recorded several rockabilly numbers. Yukimura’s ferocious Japanese-language takes on ‘Be-Bop-a-Lula,’ ‘Fujiyama Mama,’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’ are mind-boggling to anyone who knows her primarily as a singer of orchestral pops.” Having seen her English rendition of the Vincent song, I’d love to see her perform it in Japanese.
(On a related note, the book I cited includes a whole chapter on an even earlier Japanese pop singer, Shizuko Kasagi, who performed a number in Akira Kurosawa’s DRUNKEN ANGEL, 1948. I wrote about this singer and her scene in the film in my J-pop blog: http://madara-blog.livejournal.com/92235.html )
In looking for similar examples of U.S.-Japan popular music cultural exchange, let’s jump ahead 50-odd years to the live evening-long music special, “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” which airs every New Year’s Eve on NHK in Japan. In the last one, which aired on December 31, 2014, the performers included a black American male named Chris Hart, who has become a star in Japan by singing soft ballads in Japanese. Here he’s seen in shots from the special, including the intro in which he banters with the hosts in Japanese and is joined onstage by another American, Charlotte Kate Fox, an actress in the NHK morning drama, “Massan,” about the first whiskey distillery in Osaka, in which she plays the Japanese distiller’s Scottish wife. She is seen speaking Japanese also.
Still later, there’s a cut to New York City and a live broadcast in which singer Sayaka Kanda (daughter of 1980s pop star Seiko Matsuda) introduces Idina Menzel, who voiced Elsa in FROZEN and sang “Let It Go” in the film.
Sayaka sings a song from FROZEN in Japanese and is joined by Idina, who sings her part in English. (The song is “For the First Time in Forever,” but is identified on the NHK tracklist only by its Japanese title, “Umarete Hajimete.”)
This transitions to Idina’s solo of “Let It Go” in English, performed from an elaborate interior in Times Square (A theater? A hotel ballroom?) and broadcast live to the Japanese audience.
When she finishes she is joined by Kanda and they then sing it in Japanese with the entire ensemble onstage in Japan singing along in Japanese also. On the stage is Kanda’s mother.
So, the cross-cultural connections continue…
The first episode of “Kohaku Uta Gassen” I ever saw was the Dec. 31, 2011 edition. On that one, Lady Gaga performed in a video feed from New York and did two numbers. Cut to the Oscar Ceremony on February 22, 2015. Idina Menzel appears as a presenter and Lady Gaga performs songs from “The Sound of Music.”
Here are links to my IMDB reviews of all four of the films starring Hibari, Chiemi and Izumi:
JANKEN MUSUME (1955): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0204421/reviews
ROMANCE MUSUME (1956): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0301780/reviews
ON WINGS OF LOVE (1957): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0302065/reviews
HIBARI CHIEMI ERI SANNIN YOREBA (1964): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0362726/reviews
ADDENDUM: In the first paragraph, I cited manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi and included a panel from his 2008 manga autobiography, “A Drifting Life.” I learned on March 14, 2015, from the day’s New York Times, that Tatsumi died in Tokyo on March 7, the day before I posted this entry. Here’s a link to the Times obituary: