by Marti McElreath
On October 9th the UCLA Terasaki Center welcomed Professor of Film Studies at Western University Michael Raine to UCLA to give a talk on Japanese musical cinema in the 1960s. Professor Raine, an expert in Japanese film, spoke about media theory in Toho’s early 1960s popular song film as part of his current book project, The Cinema of High Economic Growth: New Japanese Cinemas, 1955-1964.
Professor Raine began his talk by providing a background to Japanese film and media culture in the early 1960s, when the shift from cinema to entertainment became decisive. By this period, cinema audiences in Japan were younger than world audiences and majority male. It was also a time when cinema attendance was in steady decline. By 1962, television licenses had passed ten million, and film as a self-contained cultural media form was being replaced by a “celebrity culture” mediated by the magazine Heibon. With over one million copies sold a year, "Heibon was instrumental in creating a culture of cinema that isn't just something you go to see, but something you're always thinking and talking about." This was a part of a new "participatory culture" that broke down the fan-star boundary, where books, journals, conversation transcripts, radio shows, and pamphlets were all produced in tandem with celebrity film and TV appearances to make stars feel closer and stardom more accessible to the average consumer.
This change to everyday people living in a "media culture" coincided with the post-war economic miracle and an age of increased political activism among the masses, especially the young. This resulted in the rise of a counterculture that, while unsuccessful in preventing the US-Japan Security Treaty in 1960, solidified an anti-state and anti-system way of thinking. Film became an avenue for critical social commentary, and new wave film makers utilized youth musical film to dissect the insurgent commercial entertainment industry. Films such as Rokudenashi, directed by Yoshishige Yoshida, and Cruel Story of Youth, directed by Nagisa Oshima, parodied the cliches and stereotypes of the youth musicals made popular by magazines like Heibon. However, Professor Raine stressed that while these films may appear to be in total opposition to commercial entertainment in all of its forms, the critiques were "being made from the inside" - in other words, they were inescapably part of the industry that they were criticizing.
This leads to the lines being blurred between parody and engagement. Kawaita Mizuumi, a 1960 film collaboration between director Masahiro Shinoda, poet Shuji Terayama, and composer Toru Takemitsu parodied the "inserted song" cliche of the musical genre. However, Professor Raine pointed out, the 1962 film by the same trio, Tears on the Lion's Mane, is more ambiguous. The songs were written to be popular hits, and the lead actor, Takashi Fujiki, was a beloved entertainer famous for his rendition of the twist. Professor Raine proposed that Terayama was not simply an anti-establishment dissident, but an artist who attempted to engage with the new entertainment culture.
This new culture was also characterized by the rise of musical variety shows and increasing levels of media reflexivity spanning film, TV shows, and popular music. Shows such as Shabondama Holiday and Wakai Kisetsu, both produced by the influential Watanabe Productions, featured famous celebrities and singers performing skit-based mini-narratives around a variety of themes. Professor Raine suggested that the narratives themselves, however, were unimportant. Instead, these shows acted as platforms for stars to promote their music and solidify their identities through stereotyped poses and movements - a kind of "dynamic immobility." The sum total of these performances in turn created a social model through which viewers could identify their own appropriate role and purpose in post-war Japanese society. At the same time, expanded cross-referencing between various media genres increased the labor required to understand the material, requiring audiences to devote ever more attention in return for a deepened experience of engagement and participation.
Professor Raine showed the attendees a clip from the film Zoku Wakai Kisetsu, a spin-off of the TV show Wakai Kisetsu, in which a team of business people perform a chorus dance to a famous Japanese military march and sing about creating an advertising campaign. According to Professor Raine, this parody can be taken in a few ways. As well as putting forward the Japanese company as the post-war structure for the soldier, the use of a ubiquitous military song in a comedic scene also represents the change in its use and its ultimate disintegration, juxtaposing the high stakes of war against the low stakes of a modern company's advertising department.
Professor Raine proposed that Zoku Wakai Kisetsu, like all the films of its time, emphasizes the "idea of the fake" and promotes "imitation over authenticity and musekinin (irresponsibility) over the serious." Using the character of the irresponsible salaryman, musical films of the early 1960s both parodied fakeness and inauthenticity while simultaneously celebrating the art of monomane, or imitation. They also explored the consequences of irresponsibility and inauthenticity, concealing dark conclusions behind outwardly substanceless entertainment. For the salaryman who is "both musekinin and super salaryman…it always ends badly.” This, Professor Raine proposed, represents the darkness that underlies the kitsch in all of these films.
This led Professor Raine into his central topic, the 1964 film You Can Succeed, Too, and the darker commentary that is concealed behind the colorful musical numbers and absurd comedy. You Can Succeed, Too features a long-suffering salaryman who is trying to “make it” in the world. After showing a comedic string of his misfortunes and failings, the movie ends with “a protest against the fate of the salaryman” in the form of a musical number that has hundreds of salarymen experiencing a metaphorical "mass death." Professor Raine analyzed this as representing the disappointment of the failed US-Japan Security Treaty protests and of the unfulfilled promises of a mass consumer society that keeps people perpetually dissatisfied. There is no "succeeding" or "making it" in the world - these are illusions dangled in front of the soldier-turned-salaryman to keep him in line even though he is unescapably fated to failure. The film also contains multiple references to the war, placing the tragedy of the beleaguered salaryman next to the tragedy of the soldier and war criminal. These references suggest a hidden depth and subtle thoughtfulness in a film that could otherwise easily be mistaken for substance-less kitsch.
“It is easy to dismiss these films as kitsch,” Professor Raine finished, “but they also objectify the differences between us and Japan, and the life of the salaryman the the soldier.”