JANKEN MUSUME (1955): First “Sannin Musume” Musical

14 Jun

JM 1

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:

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Chiemi sings a number seemingly called “Happy Africa,” which incorporates English lyrics, Japanese lyrics and mumbo-jumbo “native” lyrics:

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The motifs look more Caribbean than African.

And Hibari sings two songs, “La Vie en Rose”:

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…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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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:





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.

4 Responses to “JANKEN MUSUME (1955): First “Sannin Musume” Musical”

  1. Carlos Alberto July 6, 2015 at 2:56 PM #

    Hi – I lived in Japan between 1959-1962 when I was 11 to 15 years old and Izumi lived across the street from a friend’s house. They knew her and I met her once, briefly. She’s still around and perhaps you could get in touch with her to ask her about Janken Musume. Cheers.

  2. heinrichvon April 9, 2016 at 9:14 PM #


    I just saw a subtitled print of this film at Japan Society and I can clear up a lot of the mysteries you raised in your plot summation. (Sorry for the length of this post.)

    First question: Is Kyoto the city to which Yumi (Chiemi Eri) and Ruri (Hibari Misora) go on their class trip? Yes. It said so in the subtitles, but I would have recognized it anyway by the landmarks shown, such as the famous Zen rock garden that the class visits there.

    Second question: Why are the teachers of the class to which Yumi and Ruri belong so casual about losing track of the two girls during the class trip? Actually, they aren’t, or at least not so much as you imply. When the class returns to what I assume is the hotel where they are to stay overnight, the teachers do a head count and discover Yumi and Ruri are missing. Later, the two girls, at a geisha house, talk to the head geisha (who is an old friend of Ruri’s mother, herself an ex-geisha), who informs them that she had phoned the teachers to tell them that the missing girls are with her and are okay.

    Third question: What’s the deal with Ruri and Yumi and that third girl (Izumi Yukimura)? In the story, the two girls have never before met Daisy (the name she is given in the subtitles; later we learn her real name is Mitsuko). She is an orphan and a maiko (apprentice geisha), who is on the verge of becoming a full-fledged geisha — at which time a “bald company president,” who is never seen, intends to make her his mistress. Daisy had developed a crush on a young man named Saito from Tokyo who had recently visited her geisha house in Kyoto, and who she thinks returns her amorous feelings. So the search for Saito not only involves reconnecting Daisy to a boy she likes, but perhaps saving her from the fate-worse-than-death of becoming an “old” man’s mistress.

    Fourth question: When Saito goes to Yumi’s house, how does he know where she lives anyway? When he encounters Yumi and Ruri in their underwear washing their clothes (for some reason, they pretend to him that they are washerwomen and that this is their job), Yumi gives Saito the brush-off. He is charmed by her aggressiveness and surreptitiously takes a snapshot of the tag on her baggage, which reveals her home address.

    Fifth question: What’s the deal with Ruri’s mother and that older man who seems to be Ruri’s father? You are correct that he is her father. The dialogue is skimpy on details, but it seems that the man, a married ambassador, started a relationship with the mother when she was still a geisha, and gave her the money to set up an inn which she is now managing, where she can raise Ruri as a respectable girl. (The man’s wife, by the way, is totally down with all this.) Ruri’s mother suggests that she go with the father to have a wealthier and more privileged upbringing, but Ruri, who resents her father, whom she’s never met, isn’t having it and wants nothing to do with the man.

    Sixth question: Where do the girls go to meet up with Saito, and what happens there? On a tip from Saito’s friend, Yumi and Daisy learn that the boy has gone to Izu, about an hour-or-so’s drive outside Tokyo. They go there to track down Saito, but can’t find him until Yumi meets him by chance. Yumi then tries to persuade Saito to marry Daisy to rescue her from the geisha life, but he actually wants to marry Yumi, who tells him “No chance.” On the beach, they listen to Daisy in her room singing Chaplin’s “Smile” in Japanese. Later, Saito goes to Daisy’s room with Yumi and explains that he doesn’t love her and cannot marry her… but that he’ll help her out in any way he can. On the train ride back to Kyoto, Daisy look defeated, but the rich young man turns out to be as good as his word.

    How does Saito help Daisy? Saito goes to see his rich businessman father, who has high blood pressure. Dangerously, Saito lies to his father that he intends to marry a geisha. In perhaps the funniest line in the whole movie, the father says, “Article 4 of our family’s code states ‘Never marry a geisha'”! The boy promises that he’ll break off relations with the geisha… if his dad will agree to pay him off. The father asks him how much he wants. The son extends five fingers. The man says, “Only one finger” and writes out a check for one million yen. The boy, who was actually asking for 500,000 yen, is delighted. The father is pleased rather than miffed at his son’s extortion, because it proves he has good business sense! Then, instead of pocketing the money, Saito goes to the geisha madam who had put up Yumi and Ruri after they fell in the river and buys out Daisy’s contract with the check… under the condition that she never reveal this fact to Daisy herself. Later, Daisy (now Mitsuko) informs Yumi that the geisha madam had told her that she (Daisy) would never work out as a geisha and just impulsively decided to let her go. (It seems to me that Daisy/Mitsuko is very gullible to believe this.) Then, ironically, they go see Ruri dance… in traditional (that is, geisha-style) dress.

    Final question: What happens after the performance between Ruri and her parents? After first resisting the father, telling her that she would rather stay with the mother, the father pats her on the shoulder and tells her that he will be a “real” father for her from now on, and she breaks down in tears, though their relationship seems unresolved.

    I loved this movie. To me, it seems a bit odd that Misora was, in Japan, the biggest superstar among the trio, because Yukimura seemed to me by far the prettiest of the three girls, and it was Emi (who later married Ken Takakura) who possessed the big, confident, charismatic personality. It seemed to me that Yukimura was also the best singer, though admittedly they were all good. The audience applauded loudly at the end, and so did I.

    By the way, the actress who played Ruri’s mother, the ex-geisha, was Chieko Naniwa, a very prolific character actress, who was about 47 years old when she appeared in this film. She did indeed work for Ozu, in his Equinox Flower (1958) and his penultimate film, The End of Summer (1961), as well as in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) and in Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff and The Crucified Lovers (both 1954).

    • briandanacamp April 10, 2016 at 12:01 AM #

      I was at the same screening. Thanks for posting. It saves me the trouble of updating my blog entry.

      • John Baldwin (@dylanexpert) April 10, 2016 at 11:56 AM #

        I thought you might be there. I was glad to fill in the details. I had been intrigued by the “Three Girl” films ever since I read about them in Donald Richie’s book The Japanese Movie.

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