Few Japanese will dispute that we are a nation of dedicated music fans and, though it may not seem like it at first, this goes for musicals, too.
Shizuko Kasagi, widely revered as the “Queen of Boogie” was the first to perform at the reopened National Theater in November 1945, three months after our country’s World War II surrender. Legendary director Akira Kurosawa was so impressed by Kasagi, he cast her in his 1948 film “Drunken Angel” as a cabaret singer, and even wrote the lyrics to her song “Jungle Boogie.”
Two years later, child star Hibari Misora appeared in “Tokyo Kid,” one of the first, Hollywood-style musicals to come out of Japan. Misora also charmed audiences five years later when she appeared in “So Young, So Bright” (“Janken Musume”) with young divas Izumi Yukimura and Chiemi Eri.
Misora and Co., had a lot of competition: the 1950s was the golden age of the Hollywood musical and Japanese audiences rushed to see films such as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “South Pacific.” These were followed by the huge success of “West Side Story” in 1961, which played for a whopping 511 consecutive days at the Marunouchi Piccadilly cinemas.
Hollywood musicals were symbols of American vibrancy and vast wealth, showing a glittering world where beautiful people sang and danced with impossibly long limbs. Not to be outdone, actors like Frankie Sakai, who was a badass jazz drummer and English speaker, starred in “You Can Succeed, Too” (“Kimi mo Shusse ga Dekiru”) in 1964. It featured song-and-dance numbers on the streets of Tokyo, just like the Hollywood product.
Sadly, the musical petered out as, one by one, the big stars of the postwar period disappeared from screens. Bollywood takes the crown now, but there are still occasional forays here — 2006’s “Memories of Matsuko” (“Kiraware Matsuko no Issho”) highlighted the incredible singing and dancing talents of Miki Nakatani, for example.
The Japanese musical has moved from screen to stage, and relies heavily on the translated lyrics of imported material (read: Disney). Consider the current roster at Shiki Theatre Company, Japan’s largest: “The Lion King,” “Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid” — it’s our childhoods all over again.
Critics predict “La La Land” will be a hit here, the Japanese audience is prone to swooning. Who knows, by this time next year fans may be staring down the barrel of a Shiki adaptation. And if we’re lucky we can get the producers to take the popular freeway traffic-jam number and put it on a packed train instead.