Although the coronavirus may be ravaging public gatherings and music concerts in Japan and around the world and having a devastating impact on Western film releases, Japanese film releases have, for now at least, remained mostly unaffected by the disease. Fewer people are venturing out, but the rate of releases has yet to slow down. In turn, my column soldiers on; the written word will not be slowed by the spread of COVID-19! Having spent my last column discussing the wonderful work of director Mika Ninagawa, this week I want to turn to the topic of Japanese movie musicals, a rather ironic choice considering the mass cancellation of concerts as a result of the recent pandemic.
The timing is coincidental, I assure you (I’ve been wanting to write about this topic since early in the column’s life), yet with the recent news, I could hardly have timed this topic of discussion better. Although the domestic Japanese musical in the recognizable style of a Broadway show or a Hollywood musical such as La La Land is much less common in Japan, music is a central theme and component to many major releases, especially in movies and films aimed at a younger demographic. Although musicals in the Broadway-style are much less common, with more than a few coming out of the woodworks since the beginning of 2019, and multiple musical movies having released this year already, it only felt right to direct my attention towards the reasons for the song-and-dance musical’s absence from Japan’s domestic output, as well as its Japan-infused boom in the last few years.
This has been a rather fun column to work on as a fan of the genre, so let’s get right into it.
The Japanese Movie Musical’s Unique Existence
When most people hear the word musical, they think of Broadway musicals like Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Les Miserables or even Hamilton, while movie musicals immediately bring to mind the likes of The Sound of Music or the many Disney animated musicals which take cues from the aforementioned classics. Musicals in the medium of film have existed ever since sound was introduced to the medium, but became a wide-scale phenomenon in the 1950s and 60s. At this time, many stage shows made the leap to cinemas and remain some of the most iconic film musicals ever made with worldwide recognition and acclaim. The list of classic movies from this period including Singing In the Rain only scratches the surface of the many, many musical films released at this time.
They became the dominant output for Hollywood for two decades, and it’s perhaps inevitable that these films would be exported to other countries and find success elsewhere. In Japan, musicals like The Sound of Music were massive hits, and though these weren’t the first musical films to hit Japanese screens with a limited domestic output in the decades prior, the musical boom in the West inspired a similar boom of musicals such as Oh, Bomb (ああ爆弾) and Happy-Go-Lucky/Irresponsible Era of Japan (ニッポン無責任時代). These never reached the quantity of Hollywood’s production cycle, however, and outside of that, domestically-produced musicals were the exception, not the rule. Instead, it was much more common to find Japanese films which tell a story centering around music which features music at the center of its narrative, while not fitting the traditionally-defined bounds of the movie musical.
More recently, especially within the Seishun Eiga (youth movie) genre, films that center around adolescents using their talents in music, training in music for competitions or who simply enjoy listening to music, and are therefore films which feature music prominently, were produced in abundance. Films like Prodigy/Wonder Child (神童), a 2007 film by Koji Hagiuda about a 13-year-old girl who plays the piano, and Swing Girls, a 2004 film by Shinobu Yaguchi about a group of delinquent girls who attempt to cut remedial classes by poisoning and replacing the school’s brass band, are prominent. Meanwhile, films like Kiseki (キセキ あの日のソビト), a 2017 biopic about pop group GreeeeeN’s origins, are particularly common and popular in recent years.
The reason for the prominence of this type of film over the traditional musical is twofold and mainly relates to how the signature tropes of the genre are viewed by Japanese audiences. A Broadway musical is often successful when the songs are used to express an emotion, even when it perhaps wouldn’t make sense for a person in real life to act in such a manner. When a person’s emotions are too much, they sing, and when the singing becomes too much, they dance. In Japanese musicals, even during the 1960s initial peak, and in the Seishun Eiga examples cited above, the use of music is fundamentally different. Characters in these films will sing or perform music because it’s their passion, with the performances making sense within the context of the film. Characters won’t break out into song and dance on command, they’ll perform a concert with a song they wrote featuring lyrics that confesses their love for someone, or that encompasses their experiences and pain.
The artificiality of the spontaneous break-out into song was the issue impeding the genre’s success, with the examples which lean into this formula like Irresponsible Era of Japan using comedians to poke fun at how conceited this trope is, how silly it is for someone to act in such a manner. On top of that, promotion would state the film was a comedy above all else, and rarely mention that it was also a musical. Even a more recent example of this type of musical, 2019’s Dance With Me, contextualizes its musical scenes through the main character’s central conflict (she’s hypnotized in a way which causes her to burst into song and dance upon hearing music, even music as banal as company jingles).
As an aside, I recommend this film a lot as a sincere, enjoyable musical road-trip which cares about nothing other than ensuring audiences and those involved in its production had as much fun as possible.
However, musicals in the traditional Broadway-style have become more popular in recent years thanks to the recent growth of Japanese theatre productions in this vein. Whether its locally-produced interpretations of American classics like Hairspray or musical adaptations of popular properties like the long-running Death Note musical or the recent Your Lie in April stage musical, the musical has finally become a mainstay on Japanese theatre stages in a way that was never seen before on a similar scale. With this, films that take this style to the big screen have managed to find success as a result.
The 2014 Sion Sono film Tokyo Tribe handled this adaptation of the popular series by mixing gang turf wars with the music of the streets, hip hop, giving each gang in the film their own unique style of rap, mixing these styles for a thematic, over-the-top action film which remains fun from start to finish. Since the beginning of 2019, multiple large-scale musical films like Dance With Me and the live-action adaptation of Wotakoi, featuring music from preppy J-pop to a song as close to the Evangelion opening theme they could make without a lawsuit, have each proven to be massive box-office successes. What sets these musicals apart from Broadway and Hollywood is the music’s larger resemblance to chart-topping pop than classic stage music in most instances.
The appetite for the Japanese movie musical has arrived, with films like these paving the way for the genre’s future success now that the market for such films has been established. With the growth of stage musicals and their translation to the big screen, don’t be surprised if more musical films make a statement over the next few years.
Future Film Focus: Stardust Over the Town (星屑の町, 2020)
This year has already seen the release of a few music-infused films to moderate success, including the live-action adaptation of Wotakoi which retold the story of the series as a song-and-dance musical with a bunch of catchy songs punctuating every scene (the soundtrack is on streaming services worldwide and I recommend giving it a listen!).
Last week, the 6th March brought with it the release of a musical film in the form of Stardust Over the Town, filled to the brim with Showa-era pop tunes quite clearly targeting older audiences, with a bit of youth star power being utilized as an attempt to reach across the generational divide.
The film follows a group of older men who perform classic pop tunes known as Hello Nights. After over two decades performing together, they’ve found their own dedicated following but never achieved commercial success for their hobby. On a return to the hometown of their leader, they drunkenly invite a barmaid to perform alongside them in the next performance. With dreams of stardom herself, however, and the possibility that one from the group could be related to her, she wants to take the opportunity seriously and take the group to new heights.
Admittedly, I’m nowhere near the demographic for such a movie, yet I’m left intrigued by the film because of my love for 70s and 80s J-pop. Although the music of this film skews older again, taking songs from the 60s and 70s for the group’s library of classic hits, everything introduced in the film’s trailer is nice to listen to.
The big question is whether the movie has the story to match its catchy music and endearing cast. Trailers have me somewhat hopeful, and I look forward to the chance to catch the movie for myself.
Film Flashback: The Legend of the Stardust Brothers (星くず兄弟の伝説, Makoto Tezuka, 1985)
If I told you that the son of legendary mangaka Osamu Tezuka worked with music producer Haruo Chikada to turn a fake movie soundtrack they had created into an actual film, complete with acting and cameo appearances from manga creators like Monkey Punch and Yosuke Takahashi alongside directors like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, would you be interested? Because that movie exists, and it’s just as fun and enjoyable as that description makes it sound.
The Legend of the Stardust Brothers is a movie I was admittedly unfamiliar with until late last year when I discovered that Third Window Films in the UK were planning to release the film and submit it to multiple film festivals throughout 2019. Despite the name recognition attached to the film, it was critically panned and received little attention on its release and mostly faded from existence, only resurfacing in recent years after laying dormant for some time.
Which is a real shame. Even now, this delightfully cheesy Japanese musical embodies the joy and passion of music and the catchy sounds of 1980s J-pop, transforming it into a movie-length jam session that’s easily rewatchable and a great time throughout.
In many ways, this movie was ahead of its time. After the Western and Japanese movie musical booms of the 1950s and 1960s died out, few films in the style of Legend of the Stardust Brothers were released. Recent movie musicals like Dance with Me returned to prominence, yet over 30 years before the release of this 2019 hit, Makoto Tezuka was using the music and entertainment industry as the basis for a musical which utilized high-energy pop numbers as a basis to tell a tale of corporate corruption and government propaganda.
The Legend of the Stardust Brothers follows two young men who are given the offer to become famous musicians if they form a music duo under the name of ‘The Stardust Brothers’. Reaching the top of the industry almost overnight, they soon learn that the only way from there is down, as their talent catches the eyes of the government which wants to use their popularity for their own game. Meanwhile, the producer which brought them their fame is more than happy to drop them for anything which can replicate their success as soon as they falter.
In reality, though, you’re here for the music, not the story. The movie’s weaknesses come at moments where it can feel that the action on screen is in service of reaching the next song, not necessarily for creating a compelling narrative. Then again, when the interconnected music videos and visual sight-gags look this good, does it really matter?
With music from a variety of genres and a unique, hand-crafted 80s aesthetic, this is a joy of a movie to watch with passion oozing from every scene.
If you want to own the movie for yourself, the cheapest way to do so would be with a purchase of Third Window Films’ region-free blu-ray and DVD combo release, which is also bundled with a complete soundtrack of the film. This can be purchased at the Arrow Video Store or on Amazon.
That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. For a complete list of films recommended as part of this column, you can find them compiled together in a list, with links to their respective articles, over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl!