Color musical with the three biggest pop stars in postwar Japan
ROMANCE MUSUME (1956) is a follow-up to JANKEN MUSUME (1955), which I reviewed here on December 12, 2009 and was the first movie in the "Sannin Musume" series featuring the three most popular singers in Japan at the time, Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri, and Izumi Yukimura. After ROMANCE MUSUME, the trio did two more films together, OHATARI SANSHOKU MUSUME (1957) and HIBARI CHIEMI IZUMI SANNIN YOREBA (1964). Like JANKEN MUSUME, ROMANCE MUSUME mixes musical numbers with light dramatic subplots focused on the lives of three teenage girls in contemporary Japan. Neither film comes with subtitles, so I'm not able to divulge much in the way of plot, but I enjoyed the musical numbers a great deal and the beautiful Eastmancolor cinematography and lavish studio sets.
The film stresses the delights of female friendship as the girls spend a lot of time together and clearly enjoy each other's company way more than that of family members or boys. We see them eating together, cooking and preparing food, playing tennis and collaborating at their place of employment, a large Tokyo department store. Two of them visit the third to watch her flip male opponents in a judo class. At one point, joined by one male friend and a little girl entrusted to their care, they visit a sprawling amusement park, captured in a mix of location shots and a large set depicting the interior of a haunted house attraction. The girls' parents all run shops in working-class neighborhoods, so we see the girls frequently in those settings, a noodle shop, a bakery, and a florist shop. Each girl has a male companion, but they're never seen in any kind of romantic situation.
Hibari's male friend, played by Akira Takarada (GOJIRA), lives in a large western-style house with his wealthy retired grandfather, who likes the girls' company and allows them to spend a lot of time there. A key subplot centers around a sad-eyed middle-aged man wearing a bow tie who brings a little girl to Grandpa's house with the intention of getting the old man to adopt her or simply allow her to live there. It's not clear to me what the man's relationship to the girl is or why he thinks Grandpa should take her, but Akira and the three girls, Rumiko (Hibari), Eriko (Chiemi), and Michiru (Izumi), spend a lot of time entertaining the quiet, unsmiling little girl. The middle-aged man also carries around a photograph of Izumi's mother, who is shown to be single, which implies some kind of relationship between the man and Izumi. Is he her father? I was unable to tell if this question was ever resolved.
Another subplot involves the three girls getting the attention of the press, although I'm not entirely sure why. In any event, a newspaper photographer snaps a picture of them in the store manager's office, followed by a story in the paper the next day. This is followed by the girls attending a live musical performance by...Sannin Musume! Yes, they go to a theater to watch their real selves perform! There was a similar scene in JANKEN MUSUME, but in that one, it was clear that the three girls were fantasizing themselves on stage. Here, the three shopgirls actually watch Hibari, Chiemi and Izumi perform live. When they enter the lobby to sit and wait, they even sit under a poster advertising the three performers with their real names. I don't quite understand how this was possible, but the three musical numbers are great. Izumi does a lively mambo dance number with male backup dancers. Chiemi does a slow jazzy number in elegant adornments, accompanied by dinner-jacketed male backups, that morphs into a Latin dance number. Hibari does a traditional Japanese festival song in full male period garb, complete with samurai sword, and is joined at the end by the other two girls, also in costume.
Chiemi and Izumi both sing popular American songs of the era, with English lyrics interspersed with Japanese lyrics. Izumi sings "Ivory Tower," which was a big hit in 1956, and Chiemi sings "Rock 'n' Roll Waltz," a hit in 1955. In addition to the number Hibari performs at the show, she's seen doing another traditional-style number at a street festival right at the beginning of the film, in full kimono costume, with the other two girls appearing in the accompanying dance troupe. The finale is a six-minute number at the end, recorded as the girls ride bicycles, with long shots on location mixed with studio-filmed close shots of the performers on bicycles built for two with their boyfriends positioned behind them. Each girl sings a solo number, followed by the title song which they all sing together, the first and only time in the film in which the girls perform as a trio.
JANKEN MUSUME had more songs and more location scenes, including shots of Kyoto landmarks. It also had more complicated plot elements, none of which I was able to decipher. Hibari sang some lyrics in English in JANKEN, but absolutely none here. This film has more elaborate sets, including the massive department store where the girls work and the ornate western-style mansion where Grandpa lives.
In his book, "The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture," Japan-based journalist Mark Schilling has this to say about the Sannin Musume films: "Harmless fluff that were little more than showcases for the singing talents of the three stars, the Sannin Musume movies were wildly popular, especially among teenage girls. Izumi Yukimura played a with-it rock 'n' roller who sprinkled her conversation with English words. Chiemi Eri was a good-natured, tomboyish country girl who sang Japanized versions of American pop tunes. Hibari was the old-fashioned Japanese girl, who betrayed no hint of foreign influence in speech or song and stood foursquare for traditional values." This description matches ROMANCE MUSUME better than it does JANKEN MUSUME. Now to see the two later films in the series.
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