Sannin Musume is the name given to the informal starring trio of Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri and Izumi Yukimura, the three ranking pop singers in Japan in the 1950s, when they made movies together. They made a total of four and I’ve written about the second and third ones here, ROMANCE MUSUME (1956), on November 9, 2014, and ON WINGS OF LOVE (1957) on March 8, 2015. I’ve seen the fourth, HIBARI, CHIEMI, IZUMI SANNIN YOREBA (1964), but haven’t written about it here yet. The first was JANKEN MUSUME (1955), which I wrote about previously on my J-pop blog, but used lesser-quality screen grabs, so I decided it was high time to watch it again and cover it here. My emphasis in the earlier pieces was on the musical numbers and the films’ frequent uses of American pop songs of the era, sung in both English and Japanese.
When I first saw JANKEN MUSUME, I was quite taken with the musical numbers, this being my first exposure to a Japanese musical, and with the cinematography and set design. This was, after all, one of the earliest color features to be made in Japan, following CARMEN COMES HOME (1951), GATE OF HELL (1953) and the first two films in the Samurai trilogy, SAMURAI I: MUSASHI MIYAMOTO (1954) and SAMURAI II: DUEL AT ICHIJOJI TEMPLE (1955). The film offered two songs that I was already familiar with: the French song, “La Vie en Rose,” sung in English here by Hibari Misora:
…and “Smile,” a song written by Charlie Chaplin for his 1952 film, LIMELIGHT, sung in Japanese here by Izumi Yukimura:
There are 12 songs total, although one of them is sung offscreen and some of them are pretty short. Eight of the songs are clustered together in two sequences, one in the middle and one at the very end. I was only able to identify one other song in the film besides the two I mentioned above and one that I’d never heard before. Izumi Yukimura does a solo of “Sweet and Gentle,” an American hit in 1955 sung by Georgia Gibbs, which she starts in Japanese and switches to English for these lyrics:
How can I be gentle
Sweet and sentimental
While the Cha Cha’s playing
And my heart is swaying
I find that I am even Dancing when I’m walking
I’m haunted by that Cha Cha beat I hear the rhythm start
Whenever we are talking I do the Cha Cha in my sleep
In addition to the songs, there are some dance numbers, including a Kabuki dance solo by Hibari in a theater near the end.
We see her rehearsing it a couple of times in the movie, with vocal accompaniment provided by a recorded song on a tape recorder.
Early on, Izumi is practicing a traditional dance in full costume, with Hibari singing the song. At some point, Chiemi joins Izumi in an impromptu Latin dance duet, with Latin music suddenly pumped in magically from somewhere.
Chiemi is quite the tomboy here and is never seen in full traditional dress, only in a casual kimono, more of a bathrobe, while at a resort.
The musical highlight, for me, is the sequence in the middle where the three girls all go to a theater and fantasize seeing themselves on stage instead of the actual featured performers.
Izumi sings “Sweet and Gentle” and even has eight female backup dancers:
Chiemi sings a number seemingly called “Happy Africa,” which incorporates English lyrics, Japanese lyrics and mumbo-jumbo “native” lyrics:
The motifs look more Caribbean than African.
And Hibari sings two songs, “La Vie en Rose”:
…and one I can’t identify about an “eskimo no musume” (Eskimo daughter or Eskimo girl):
At the end of the film, they ride in a roller coaster together and each sings a solo song, one at a time, with Hibari’s solo including these English lyrics: “I, I, I, I, I love you/You, you, you, you, you love me…” which sounds familiar to me although I’m not sure if it’s based on an American song or not. It also includes “Rendezvous” in the lyrics. This song happens to be on one of the Hibari CD albums I own.
The solos are followed by the title song, sung by all three, the only time the three sing together on camera in the whole film. It has a jankenpyon (rock, paper, scissors) theme, which is also reflected in the film’s title.
As is obvious, the girls’ singing shots are all accomplished in the studio against rear screen projection. There are actual shots of them on the roller coaster, though. At least it looks like them in the quick glimpses we get.
Of course, if one tried to sing on an actual roller coaster, it would have been difficult to hear yourself or hit the right notes given the clatter of the coaster, the screaming of the riders, and the constant lurches and jolts of the ride itself. Kind of like the water skiing scene finale of ON WINGS OF LOVE:
This reminds me of a regular segment (“Zekkyou commercial”) that used to be seen on Morning Musume’s TV show, “Hello! Morning,” in which the girls would have to endure a thrill ride at an amusement park while reading a commercial for a new album release and being recorded by a small camera attached to them or to the ride. Sometimes they would have to do it on a roller coaster. It was never easy.
Of all four musicals featuring Sannin Musume, JANKEN MUSUME is the only one in which Hibari sings in English.
What is the plot of this film? Like the other films, this one came to me in Japanese with no subtitles and, in watching it again after five years, I realize that it’s the hardest one to follow. There are many long dialogue scenes between characters whose relations to each other weren’t obvious. Let me try to piece it together. Hibari and Chiemi are high school classmates and they’re on a class trip to Kyoto when they fall into a lake and have to separate from the others and dry their clothes in a local resort where they’ve opted to take a room. There they meet Izumi and watch her dance rehearsal, while Hibari, in kimono, sings a traditional song as accompaniment. Later in the scene, Chiemi joins Izumi for the cute little Latin dance duet mentioned above. It’s never clear to me who Izumi is or how they meet or what their relationship to her is. Or, for that matter, why no alarms are raised when Hibari and Chiemi go off on their own.
The next day or so, in class, the teacher finds an album of pictures from the trip on her desk and she opens it only to find humiliating photos of her. The class laughs. I found this profoundly disrespectful behavior on the part of the students quite startling. I’ve never seen anything like it in a serious live-action film about Japanese high school students and I find it quite puzzling. (Even in most anime, the students are respectful toward the teachers.) The teacher asks who is responsible and the boy who took the photos stands up, but then Chiemi and Hibari stand up also, either to defend him or take part of the blame. In any event, the teacher does not go to the principal, as she should have done, but instead goes to Chiemi’s father and Hibari’s mother and provokes laughter from both of them, which, again, struck me as quite odd.
Chiemi’s father is a sculptor and usually has semi-nude male models posing in his studio. I have no idea what Hibari’s mother does, but she seems to run some kind of establishment (a hotel?). She’s a single mom and she has some scenes with an older man who appears to be Hibari’s father. He seems to have a new wife. Hibari’s mom is prepping her for a Kabuki-style dance performance at a local theater, for which Hibari is seen rehearsing with an instructor in a couple of scenes. We later see the performance.
In the meantime, Hibari, Chiemi, and Izumi spend the night together, presumably at Chiemi’s house. In her sleep, Izumi says “Saito-san” and this sends the girls off on a wild goose chase to find a young man named Saito. He’s actually someone we met earlier in the film who’d photographed Hibari and Chiemi in their underwear after their clothes had gotten wet—and they didn’t seem to mind. Later, this young man meets Chiemi’s father and shows him the pictures—and the father doesn’t seem to mind. So Saito is close at hand, but it takes another trip to the resort by Chiemi and Izumi (for reasons I can’t fathom) before they finally meet Saito.
It is on this trip that Izumi sings her solo of “Smile” while alone in her room.
Saito meets with the girls in their room and tells Izumi something that makes her cry and causes her to leave the resort alone on a train ride and the girls never see Saito again.
Saito meets with his father at his office in the city (which one?) and gets some kind of signed and stamped document from him (a bank draft?) and leaves, never to be seen again.
At the end, Hibari gives her big debut show. The girls are there to loudly cheer her on, behavior that, again, I found startling.
Backstage after the show, Hibari’s father and his new wife come to give compliments and as he embraces Hibari from behind with a smiling face, he’s telling her something that makes her cry. This is followed by the roller coaster finale.
So none of the drama seems resolved at all. Unlike the three later films, none of the girls have boyfriends in this one. Also, I found the lack of establishing shots somewhat frustrating. I never knew where they were! They seemed to visit each other’s homes, but I have no idea what the homes looked like. I’m not even sure what city they all live in. If there are any clues, I was unable to decipher them. The only evidence I have that they may live in Tokyo is when they go to the theater to see the live performance and fantasize themselves in it. There is a shot of the theater and I was able to learn that it was called Nihon Gekijo and was indeed in Tokyo. (It has since been torn down and replaced with a Toho Pictures multiplex.)
I’m not sure how I knew they were in Kyoto on the class trip, other than that I must have heard “Kyoto” in the dialogue. Or I may have read somewhere that the famous temple they visit in that scene is in Kyoto, although I’m not sure where I might have read that since there’s very little info in English on this film.
In any event, the later films gave us many more location shots and a better sense of where they were from one scene to the next. Still, the interior design here is quite lovely and I find a lot to admire in the Ozu-like compositions.
And I’m quite certain I’ve seen the actress who plays Hibari’s mother in Yasujiro Ozu movies, although I haven’t been able to identify her just yet, given the lack of an adequate cast list in English for this film.
According to the American Film Institute Feature Film index, JANKEN MUSUME was released in the U.S. in March 1963 as SO YOUNG, SO BRIGHT, and played in Los Angeles, although I’m not sure if it was dubbed, subtitled, or untranslated. I do know that lots of Japanese films played theaters in Los Angeles catering to the Japanese community there, but I don’t know if they had subtitles or not, nor did they get wider circulation. There’s no record of the film ever being released in New York and no review of it in The New York Times. Maybe Variety reviewed it. Variety’s reviews are not on-line, so I need to go to the library and check. According to Stuart Galbraith IV’s The Toho Studios Story: A History and Complete Filmography, JANKEN MUSUME was Toho Pictures’ highest grossing movie for 1955.
There’s one interesting bit of film history on display in the film. Early on, during their class trip, the boys in the class notice a film crew shooting a samurai film on location (and they even shout to each other, in English, “Location! Location!”). We see the director, Toshio Sugie, who happens to be the director of JANKEN MUSUME, and he gives direction to one of his cast, in full samurai garb, who happens to be none other than the young male lead from GOJIRA (GODZILLA) the year before, Akira Takarada, who would go on to play Hibari’s boyfriend in all three subsequent Sannin Musume films.
That’s Sugie in the yellow cap (below) and Takarada in costume on the left in the picture below it:
And thirty years after this film, a clip from Izumi’s “Sweet and Gentle” number…
… would be visible on a TV screen in Paul Schrader’s film, MISHIMA (1985), in a sequence dramatizing a scene from one of Yukio Mishima’s novels:
Here are links to my IMDB reviews of the four films featuring Sannin Musume:
And, finally, here are some YouTube links to performances from the film in clips that don’t reflect the high quality of the R2 DVD:
P.S.: After posting this piece this morning I took a nap and had a dream in which I’m in Japan and I see Hibari Misora and a schoolmate, both about the age they are in this film. I chase after them because I have questions related to this piece. When I reach them, I call out “Misora-san” and she stops and stares at me. I then stumble over the world “Sumimasen” (Excuse me), which I can normally pronounce quite well, but in the dream I mix up the vowels (“Su-ma-mi-sen”). I then resort to slowly enunciated English to tell her that I’m writing an article about her films and that I need to ask her a question. I’m not at all certain she can understand me. She gives me a jaundiced look as I stand there and I realize I’ve completely forgotten my question. I then woke up.