Genres never really die, but they often mutate into something different on foreign soil. John Ford’s cowboys became Akira Kurosawa’s samurai, and Kurosawa’s samurai became Sergio Leone’s serape-clad, cigarillo-chewing “The Man With No Name.” And the list goes on.
The same is true of that quintessential Hollywood genre, the all-singing and all-dancing musical, whose last rites had long since been pronounced by the time “La La Land” (2016) brought it back to triumphant box office life.
However, the Hollywood-style musical never really took root in Japan, though the local industry has made hundreds of films with singing and dancing in more “natural” settings.
In other words, there are nightclub and concert scenes galore, but hardly any in which the hero spontaneously bursts into song and sweeps his partner across the room like Fred Astaire or Ryan Gosling.
“Japanese people feel that it’s strange to suddenly sing and dance — and I’m one of them,” says Shinobu Yaguchi, the director of the new Japanese musical film “Dance With Me,” which hit theaters last week. “It’s all right if non-Japanese and animated characters do it, but if Japanese people do it it’s somehow embarrassing. I made ‘Dance With Me’ to break through that barrier.”
Since his box office triumph with the 2001 comedy “Water Boys,” a film which spawned two television series and a two-part TV special, Yaguchi has carved out his own commercial niche, turning out film after comically inflected film with a zero-to-hero arc, usually involving a field of endeavor considered odd or uncool by mass standards, be it high school boys forming a synchronized swimming club in “Water Boys” or musically illiterate high school girls drafted into a swing band in “Swing Girls” (2004).
But Yaguchi also adds variations to this formula, always based on his own original scripts.
In “Survival Family” (2017) a typical middle-class family — housewife mother, office worker father and their adolescent son and daughter — suddenly finds itself in a dystopian world without electricity and must learn to cope without computers and smartphones.
In “Dance With Me” the office clerk heroine played by Ayaka Miyoshi must sing and dance whenever she hears music, the result of a session with a mysterious old hypnotist (Akira Takarada).
“All the musicals I’ve ever seen are my inspiration for this movie,” Yaguchi says. But he also made those inspirations specifically Japanese — and his own.
Once again, the idea for the film was Yaguchi’s alone, as was the script. And, once again, the heroine faces a challenge — in this case, tracking down the hypnotist through the wilds of Hokkaido and getting him to snap her out of her hypnotic state. She is assisted by a loud-mouthed, big-hearted, plus-sized stranger played by the comedian Yu Yashiro.
But the story has another level, as she must also overcome personal obstacles, the most significant being her long-held aversion to musicals — and her consequent neglect of her own musical talent.
“The big difference between this and my other films is that I’m attempting a genre that originated in Hollywood,” Yaguchi says. “What it has in common with (Hollywood musicals) is that the story develops around the heroine’s crazy situation.”
But, as unlikely as that situation seems, Yaguchi grounds it firmly in his own brand of realism. Just as he rigorously trained Satoshi Tsumabuki in the art of synchronized swimming for “Water Boys” and Juri Ueno in swing saxophone for “Swing Girls,” he had “Dance With Me” lead Miyoshi practice singing and dancing intensively for two months at the brutal height of a Japanese summer.
“Her acting had a lived reality to it, but in her musical scenes she expressed something completely the opposite,” says Yaguchi. “For me, her appeal was that she could do both well.”
Miyoshi herself has a somewhat different take.
“The training period was the hardest, psychologically and physically,” she says in a program comment. “I was hospitalized just before the start of shooting.”
But in the film Miyoshi belts out the big production numbers with the sort of confidence and brio that erase any potential embarrassment about the film’s non-Hollywood setting — and have helped make it an audience favorite on the overseas festival circuit.
The film screened at international festivals in Toronto, New York and elsewhere earlier this year.
“To be honest, I was nervous about attending,” says Yaguchi. “I was worried that the film’s love of musicals might come across as somewhat sarcastic. Especially when it played in Canada and America, I felt like a martial artist invading someone else’s dojo. But all my worries proved groundless. The audience surprised me by laughing more than I expected and really getting into the musical scenes.”
Overseas fans also enjoyed seeing Akira Takarada as the elderly hypnotist, particularly ones familiar with his many appearances in the “Godzilla” series and other Toho monster movies from the 1950s onward.
Unlike Miyoshi and other cast members, Takarada was not selected by Yaguchi in an audition.
“When I was writing the script I wasn’t thinking of casting any specific person,” he says. “That all came after I finished writing. But when I thought of who most resembled the bogus hypnotist Martin Ueda, the answer that came to mind was Jafar in Disney’s “Aladdin” (1992). And the one who voiced him in the Japanese version was Akira Takarada.”
For all its differences from his previous cinema and television offerings, “Dance With Me” shares a common theme with them that Yaguchi describes as “personal growth.”
“It’s a universal theme,” he says. “In the final scene the hero acquires a fortune or defeats the monster. Or wins or loses. … But whatever the outcome, if the hero doesn’t grow in the process you feel that whatever they’ve gained is kind of empty and meaningless.”
Which does not, thankfully, give away anything specific about the ending of “Dance With Me.”
Not that anyone watches Hollywood musicals to learn what is going to happen to the hero.
Shinobu Yaguchi’s “Dance With Me” is now showing in theaters across the nation. For more information, visit wwws.warnerbros.co.jp/dancewithme/.