The musical used to be among the rarest of Japanese film genres. Plenty of films here — going back to the early talkies — featured singing and dancing, but Broadway-style musicals, which integrate the songs into the story, never really caught on.
Is a revival underway? Last month, Sion Sono’s rap-musical “Tokyo Tribe” hit theaters. This month, it’s Masayuki Suo’s “Maiko wa Lady (Lady Maiko),” which could be called Japan’s first geisha musical movie.
In gestation for nearly two decades, “Maiko” is also Suo’s first mass-audience-friendly film since his 1996 smash “Shall We Dance?” Why the long blank? Basically, Suo decided to go into a more serious direction, making the 2007 legal drama “Soredemo Boku wa Yattenai (I Just Didn’t Do It)” and the 2012 medical melodrama “Tsui no Shintaku (A Terminal Trust).”
By head-spinning contrast “Lady Maiko,” which limns the struggles of a naive country girl (Mone Kamishiraishi) to become a Kyoto maiko (apprentice geisha), plays like an old-school, sing-your-heart-out Broadway musical. It’s “My Fair Lady” in kimono.
Yoshikazu Suo, Masayuki’s musician cousin and composer of the film’s songs, is no Lerner and Loewe, but his song-and-dance numbers — with choreography by Papaya Suzuki — are catchy, exuberant mixes of East and West, buyo (Japanese dance) and Broadway. Also, Kamishiraishi, the 16-year-old newcomer who beat out 800 other aspirants for the lead role, is a diminutive vocal dynamo and a good fit as the country-girl heroine, right down to her native Kagoshima dialect.
She plays Haruko, a rosy-cheeked bumpkin who arrives in Kyoto’s Shimohachiken district one momentous night. Her objective is to meet Momoharu (Tomoko Tabata), the only maiko at the Bansuraku chaya (teahouse). Momoharu’s blog, with its laments about the lack of new blood in the geisha world (Momoharu herself has been a maiko for an unseemly decade), has inspired Haruko to apply at the chaya. But when the elderly proprietress, Chiharu (Sumiko Fuji), discovers that the girl speaks an incomprehensible mix of back-country Kagoshima (far south) and Tsugaru (far north) dialects, she turns her away. Maiko must master the more refined Kyoto dialect, of which Haruko is totally ignorant.
Her rescuer is Professor Kyono (Hiroki Hasegawa), a chaya regular and professor of linguistics, who sees the girl as an interesting object of study.
Thus begins Haruko’s maiko apprenticeship. In addition to serving the chaya’s two geisha — the imperious Satoharu (Tamiyo Kusakari) and the earthy Mameharu (Eri Watanabe) — she takes lessons in the traditional geisha arts, such as dancing and drumming, and also studies the Kyoto dialect with Kyono. Unlike the crotchety Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” Kyono is a charismatic type who is all smiles and fun musical drills.
Try as she might, poor Haruko can’t even utter the three standard maiko words — ōkini (thank you), sunmahen (sorry) and otanomoshimasu (please) — without stumbling. Not to mention her pratfalls at dance class and other goofs that bring down the wrath of all and sundry on her muddled head.
In “My Fair Lady,” after finally getting her fill of the full-of-himself Higgins, Cockney-flower-girl-turned-society-lady Eliza Doolittle blows up and storms out. Haruko, on the other hand, can’t even imagine rebellion. Instead, she loses her voice — and not because of a sore throat.
Suo uses this twist to illuminate the humanity of his principals, particularly Chiharu, who has a heart behind her business-is-business exterior.
The film’s real find, however, is Kamishiraishi, who charms as both a befuddled hick and a poised show-tune belter. She even cuts some mean steps in full maiko regalia — no easy trick.
True, Haruko is something of a throwback and would have been even in the early 1990s, when Suo first conceived the character. In reality geisha are in the business of extracting money from men, as a jaded grad student (Gaku Hamada) tells Haruko. “(The geisha world) is part of the sex trade,” he adds, dismissively. Why would an ambitious young woman today, with career choices that don’t involve pouring sake for amorous drunks, want to join it?
But “Lady Maiko” is, as Suo notes in a program interview, “pure fantasy.” And in the film’s fantasy land, being a maiko is like being an idol. You’re a star in glamorous white make-up and a gorgeous flashy kimono, with fans taking photos every time you step, ever so daintily, out the door. Lady Maiko or Lady Gaga — what’s the difference?