Including Takashi Miike’s Monty Python-esque The Happiness of the Katakuris, Sogo Ishii’s landmark indie Burst City, and a B-horror musical about noodles courtesy of Yoshihiro Nishimura
The arrival in UK cinemas of Leos Carax’s experimental musical Annette – starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, and written and scored by Sparks – has prompted furore from critics and patrons alike. A major UK newspaper has even gone so far as to claim that “the musical is back” – highlighting six further musicals due to hit screens in coming weeks.
With Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, West End drag drama adaption Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, and Broadway reboot West Side Story all hitting our screens before the year is up, they may have a point. But as the aforementioned string of re-adaptions seems to hint – the 2021 Western musical boom doesn’t exactly seem the most inspired.
Turn instead, then, to the East – where it should be little surprise to learn that the country that invented karaoke has maximised the ridiculous concept of musicals (and music films). And with bizarre hybridisations from celebrated directors, school of rock subversions, a rich legacy of punk cinema, and all manner of surreal sing-a-longs marking out a wildly creative niche, Japan remains king when it comes to fusing music and cinema.
No need to tag along to the latest family screening of The Greatest Showman at the cineplex this autumn, then; have a hand at these wild and wacky musical takes instead. (Who cares if the language barrier means you can’t sing along).
MIND-BLOWING MASH-UPS FROM DEIFIED DIRECTORS
It would be inaccurate to claim that for every La La Land there’s a zombie-fuelled Japanese counterpart – however, Japan does have an answer to The Sound of Music and it does involve zombies.
That it was directed by arguably the country’s most infamous director when he was at the peak of his powers makes it the ideal entry point to this melody-dotted yarn. And as far as surreal cult musical-comedies go, Takashi Miike’s Monty Python-esque The Happiness of the Katakuris does not disappoint.
Adapted from 1998 Korean comedy The Quiet Family (starring Parasite’s Song Kang-ho and Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik), The Happiness of the Katakuris explores a family-run hotel in the valley by Mount Fuji where guests keep inexplicably dying. An instant crossover classic coveted by stoners and midnight movie fans alike, it features stop-motion animation sequences and a host of larger-than-life characters. The film’s cult appeal was perhaps best summed up by the 2003 VHS cover – which visually pastiches Robert Wise’s 1965 musical classic while declaring: “the hills are alive with the sound of screaming!”.
Miike’s not the only controversial Japanese director known to dabble in musical filmmaking. The similarly provocative and prolific Sion Sono – who marked a dynamic entrance into Hollywood this month blowing up Nicolas Cage’s balls in samurai-western Prisoners of the Ghostland – delivered a genuine career highlight in 2014 with hip hop gangster flick Tokyo Tribe. An all-out mob warfare manga-adaption in the vein of The Warriors or Escape From New York, it pits rival Tokyo gangs in bloody conflict – only the vast majority of dialogue is delivered via rap and hip hop verses. The film’s manic world, full of beatboxing servants, breakdancing lock-pickers, and a lecherous and cannibalistic crime lord who wields a Gatling gun, rides along to the beat of an elderly turntablist’s eclectic vinyl collection.
The following year, Sono returned with another musical oddity. Love & Peace is the story of an office worker who becomes a rock star after flushing his pet turtle down the toilet – only for it to go on a Pinocchio-style adventure and become a kaiju monster akin to a miniature Godzilla. Miike, meanwhile, would deliver another zany musical effort in 2012 – with For Love’s Sake marking his take on the Romeo and Juliet tragi-romance.
PUNK ROCK PICTURES
Rock music – specifically punk music – is an entire film tangent of its own in Japan.
Sogo Ishii’s landmark indie movie Burst City, a Mad Max-style dystopian showpiece that laid down the blueprint for the entire cyberpunk cinema movement, was something of a revelation in 1982. Not only did it star punk bands like The Stalin, The Roosters, and The Rockers as warring tribes in a dilapidated future wasteland, but the film was intercut with footage of chaotic live performances recorded on set – where the bands and crew lived for the entirety of the film’s production. Director Ishii’s career would increasingly blur the lines between rock music and filmmaking in the years thereafter.
Thoroughly brilliant 1999 midnight movie Wild Zero, re-released on Blu-ray in May 2021 via Rapid Eye Movies, might be the ultimate punk picture out of Japan, though. Full of pompadour haircuts, leather jackets, pitch-black shades, and a soundtrack that combines Dick Dale, Bikini Kill and the Cramps-style garage punk of the film’s stars – legendary Japanese punk band Guitar Wolf – the film itself concerns a Dawn of the Dead-style zombie apocalypse. What’s not to love?
Testament to the movie’s cult legacy is the drinking game that goes with it: stick on the film and drink whenever A) anyone drinks, B) anyone combs their hair, C) a head explodes, D) fire shoots out of anything, and E) anyone says “ROCK AND ROLL!”. The larks don’t end there, either. A sequel, Wild Zero 2: The Strongest Blood of Humanity, was announced in July 2019 after a screening of the original at the New York Museum of Art and Design.
Meanwhile, there’s only one song of significance in 2009’s Fish Story, but it’s an important one. This impressive anthology film tells the story of an obscure 1975 punk song which, as detailed in a butterfly-effect style montage of interlinked stories across time, may be the key in preventing the world’s destruction by a meteor in 2012.
HIGH SCHOOL MUSICALS
School of Rock remains a touchstone in the West, but the theme of student salvation through music has proven recurrent in Japanese cinema of the 21st century, too.
2005’s Linda Linda Linda finds a group of teenage schoolgirls aspiring to form a punk band in the mould of The Ramones so they can perform at their school’s end-of-year rock concert. Starring South Korean actress Bae Doona (of Bong Joon-ho’s The Host) as vocalist, and Aki Maeda (Battle Royale) on the drums, this affecting coming-of-age story excels in part thanks to a soundtrack by former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha. A year prior, six-time Japanese Academy Award-winning Swing Girls had embodied similar themes – with a female student tasked with assembling the school’s new brass band in time for a baseball game, after the previous outfit are stricken with food poisoning.
2016 comedy Too Young to Die! flips the idea of battle-of-the-bands on its head, in a supernatural fantasy tale about a high school student who dies in a bus crash only to wake up in Hell. The only way to achieve reincarnation, he discovers, is by winning the Hell Rock Battle Royale with a demonic heavy metal band.
And more recently, director Kenji Iwaisawa bridged punk music, teen rebellion, and anime in the sensational On-Gaku: Our Sound in 2019 after a seven-and-a-half-year production. Hailed as “a film about musicians who can’t play music, animated mostly by people with no prior experience” by animation news website Cartoon Brew, this story of teen delinquents who pick up musical instruments to pass the time, only to develop a genuine passion for their craft, riffs on the 90s slacker movie boom with an animation style reminiscent of Bob’s Burgers or Beavis and Butthead.
CULT CLASSICS AND SURREAL SING-A-LONGS
As far as camp, B-movie musical gems go, The Legend of the Stardust Brothers has few peers. It’s comprised of Phantom of the Paradise-style musical numbers, psychedelic animated segments, and even a “Thriller”-style zombie sequence. It spans post-punk, bubblegum pop, and rock’n’roll to tell the (fictional) story of the titular silver jumpsuit-wearing duo who dared to dream big – and went all the way to the top before it all came crashing down in a flurry of dreams, egos, and candy-coloured film sets.
This was, in 1985, the debut feature of 23-year-old Macoto Tezka (son of Japan’s “Godfather of manga” – Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka); a visual adaption of a concept album written by musician and television personality Haruo Chikada five years prior. The film starred a host of popular musicians found in the director’s personal address book (though legendary directors Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima politely declined the opportunity to appear), but was a box office failure upon release, and was completely forgotten for nearly 30 years before being rediscovered in 2014. The film would reach Europe and America via film festivals, with the soundtrack even receiving a vinyl release in the UK after the film was reissued by Third Window Films.
Tetsuya Nakashima’s Memories of Matsuko, on the other hand, was an unmitigated success in 2006 – receiving nine nominations at the Japanese Academy Awards and winning three (including Best Music Score). A dreamlike musical odyssey that recounts the bizarre life of the Amélie-esque title character, it unfolds brightly through rainbow film sets, CGI sparkles, hyper-kinetic editing, and giddy dance routines.
Meanwhile, 2021’s Tokyo Dragon Chef – a kind of Japanese Hell’s Kitchen, only with less Gordon Ramsay and more musical numbers about noodles – is the latest feature from renowned body horror and make-up effects guru Yoshihiro Nishimura. A low-budget tale of retired gangsters who opt to open a ramen restaurant in a schism of violent set-pieces, it looks sure to enter the canon of cult movies in years to come.
Weirder yet, in 2011 Cannes Grand Jury Prize-winning cinematographer Christopher Doyle (best known for his collaborations with Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai) made a musical porno about a woman who falls in love with a folkloric water sprite. Underwater Love’s fittingly bizarre trailer assures that “yes, there is porn” alongside footage of the film’s impressively choreographed dance numbers.
It’s safe to say that when it comes to musical cinema, Japan dances to the beat of its own drum.