Deanna Durbin and Her Japanese Fans

15 Aug

I was watching THE WHOLE FAMILY WORKS (1939), a Japanese film directed by Mikio Naruse about a family with seven kids trying to make ends meet in contemporary Japan, when I was struck by a scene 20 minutes into it where the second oldest son, Genji, who has left school to work, opens a magazine or workbook of some kind during a scene where he’s helping his younger brothers study in the room they share and reveals a photo of American movie star Deanna Durbin that he’s hidden in the book.

In a later scene, the father, a factory worker, searches through his sons’ belongings looking for money that one of them saved that he now needs to borrow and he finds the photo of Durbin. He looks over at his son, pretending to be asleep on the floor, grins and puts the photo back.

I’ve been aware for some years that Durbin was popular in Japan before and after the war, but it’s nice to see clear proof of this. In fact, the first Hollywood film released to theaters in Japan after the war, in January 1946, was indeed a Durbin film, HIS BUTLER’S SISTER (1943).

When I did a piece on my J-pop blog a decade ago comparing a musical sequence in a Durbin musical with a Japanese pop music video made 70 years later (by AKB48), it received an anonymous comment with a surprising bit of historical information about the relationship between Durbin and her Japanese audience:

It may not be so surprising. I’ve read that Deanna Durbin was the “Number One” star in Japan in the years before World War II. Reflecting that popularity, during the War it was reported in the American press that pictures of Deanna figured prominently in the scrapbooks of many Japanese POWs, and Deanna’s films were the first American films shown in Japan during the American Occupation in 1945.

I have not been able to confirm the bit about POWs with any other source, but I’d like to believe it’s true. In researching this, I found an article that offered another indication of Durbin’s significance at the time:

Here’s a quote from the piece:

When the Japanese wanted to crush the morale of the American families imprisoned at the Santo Tomas internment camp in Manila at the outset of World War II, they released the news that Deanna Durbin had died in childbirth, a sham presented so convincingly that it prompted a memorial service. Since the Japanese banned the use of radios, the prisoners continued to think the “can-do girl” was dead for almost three years, until a makeshift radio pulled in a broadcast from San Francisco and they heard her voice dedicating an evening of music “to the women of the Philippine Islands.”

The article also indicates that Anne Frank, Winston Churchill, and Benito Mussolini were all big fans of Durbin.

Getting back to Naruse’s film, it’s important to note that it came out two years before Pearl Harbor and the start of the war between Japan and the Allies. Hollywood films were being shown widely in Japan right up until the start of the war. Still, there are hints in Naruse’s film of the infusion of militarism into the fabric of everyday life in Japan. When adolescent son Eisaku, the fourth son, a diligent and promising student, expresses a wish to go on to middle school rather than leave school to work as his parents wish. He bluntly declares the following:

This is followed by one of his younger brothers, fifth son Kokichi, proudly making this declaration:

(Forgive the oversized fan-subs on this print.)

A few scenes later, we see military exercises being carried out by a group consisting of both young male workers in their work uniforms and boys in school uniforms. One of the sons, Genji, is sleeping during it all until forced to wake up. It isn’t made clear who was conducting the exercises or why older workers and schoolboys were combined in them.

Later in the film, Washio, a lawyer and family friend, gives a magazine to the adolescent son, Eisaku, with a picture of a young soldier on the cover. I don’t know the significance of this.

A crisis of sorts develops when the oldest son, Kiichi, expresses a desire to quit his factory job, leave home for five years and go to school so he can become an electrician and eventually earn enough to support a wife and help the family out also.

In hindsight, of course, we can see that this future almost certainly wouldn’t pan out for him. He would inevitably be drafted for military service once Japan embarked on war with the Allies.

Musical star Deanna Durbin made 21 movies for Universal Pictures from 1936 to 1948 before retiring and moving to France with her third husband in 1950 before she had turned 30. Her movies were so successful that she is said to have saved Universal from bankruptcy. She sang in each of the movies. Here are remarks I made about her in a previous blog post:

In her early films, she had a youthful glow, vitality and energy that were enchanting.

I later saw a few Deanna films on TV in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. I was struck back then by this perky, ever-cheery bundle of energy who sang in a beautiful coloratura soprano voice at the drop of a hat. My memory of her from those early viewings was of someone who was always smiling and always bursting into song. One scene, in a film called MAD ABOUT MUSIC (1938), really struck me because she rides a bike, barreling down the Swiss Alps, while singing at the top of her voice. She was some kind of musical superheroine. (When I finally re-watched the film two years ago, I realized that my memory of the scene was a tad exaggerated.)

Deanna was 26 when she made her last film, FOR THE LOVE OF MARY (1948).

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