5 Fun Japanese Musical Films That Will Put a Bounce in Your Step

  • CULTURE
  • La La Land’s box office success and numerous awards put the spotlight back to the nearly forgotten musical genre. This Hollywood film, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, is showing in Japan from February 24, 2017. While waiting for its theatrical release, how about checking out these five contemporary Japanese musical films?

    1. The Happiness of the Katakuris (カタクリ家の幸福 – 2001)

    Takashi Miike (三池崇史) puts his trademark zany spin on this remake of the 1998 South Korean film, The Quiet Family. Narrated by the youngest member of the Katakuris, the story begins when the entire family relocates after their patriarch loses his job and decides to run a guesthouse in the countryside. A road expansion is supposed to bring in many tourists, but not a single guest ever checks in. One stormy night, a guest finally arrives and the family welcomes him with enthusiasm. When they go to wake him up the next day, they find the man dead on the floor, and they literally burst into song to express their shock. Fearing bad reputation, they decide to conceal his death and bury the body. Soon, more guests arrive at the inn but for some reason (whether it’s by accident, murder, or suicide), they end up dying and the bodies buried in the backyard pile up. The Katakuris’ unity as a family gets tested as they continue to live in lies and fear.

    A dark comedy in the farce tradition, the film is exactly what you’d expect from its bizarre auteur. There are claymation sequences, cheesy musical production numbers, karaoke-style singalong, and a lot of overacting.

    The Happiness of the Katakuris is your usual love it or hate it Takashi Miike movie.

    You can get the DVD on Amazon Japan.

    2. Memories of Matsuko (嫌われ松子の一生 – 2006)

    Based on a Japanese novel by Muneki Yamada (山田宗樹), Memories of Matsuko is written and directed by Tetsuya Nakashima (中島哲也).

    We are introduced to a young man named Sho Kawajiri (川尻笙), an aspiring musician who seems to be at the point of giving up on life after getting dumped by his girlfriend. Sho’s father meets him one day while carrying the ashes of an aunt he never thought he had. He asks him to clean his late aunt’s apartment. Sho doesn’t know anything about Kawajiri Matsuko (川尻松子) except the fact that his father regards her as “someone who lived a meaningless life”. His interest in his aunt’s life grows as he declutters her shabby apartment and meets some of the people who were a part of her life.

    “Every child believes in a bright future, then you grow up and nothing goes as planned. There’s only pain, grief, and anger…”

    Indeed, pain, grief, and anger dominate the story in contrast to its vibrant, fairytale-like production numbers. As Sho continues to investigate, we (the audience) see Matsuko’s transformation through the years. Matsuko is a seemingly pathetic character devoid of self-esteem but at the same time, she is a woman who is capable of giving love as unconditional as a god.

    The film captures the zeitgeist of every decade in Matsuko’s life and the music is worthy of its Japanese Academy Award. The soundtrack features diverse music, including songs from famous pop-rock artists Kaela Kimura (木村カエラ), Bonnie Pink, Ai, and the lead actress herself, Miki Nakatani (中谷美紀).

    You can get the DVD on Amazon Japan.

    3. For Love’s Sake (愛と誠 – 2012)


    “Love is a battlefield.” – The movie takes this line literally as director Takashi Miike mixes high school violence with some tongue-in-cheek humor that parodies the shojo tropes and Japanese yankii (ヤンキー) genre. A modern adaptation of Kajiwara Ikki’s (梶原一騎) 1973 manga, For Love’s Sake (愛と誠) features two gorgeous leads, Satoshi Tsumabuki (妻夫木聡) and Emi Takei (武井咲).

    The film opens with an animated scene of a young girl who loses control of her ski gear; a boy manages to stop her from getting into a more serious accident. 11 years later, she recognizes the boy with the conspicuous scar on his forehead.

    For Love’s Sake is a love story of two people from different social classes. The beautiful Saotome Ai (早乙女愛) is a high school senior who comes from a well-to-do family. Both in athletics and academics, she’s always the top of her class. On the other hand, Makoto Taiga (太賀誠) is the prototypical bad boy who fights anyone who gets in his way. With the aid of the Saotome family’s strong political influence, Makoto gets out of reform school and gets admitted to a prestigious prep school. But instead of taking this chance to lead a better life, he blackmails Ai’s wealthy parents and demands more money. He then gets sent to the school of “his own kind”. The persistent Ai follows Makoto and enrolls herself in the trade school, where ruthless gangs rule.

    Set in the ’70s, the soundtrack pays homage to the great music of that time as the characters introduce themselves in the form of a song and dance number. The star-crossed lovers’ storyline, plus Saotome Ai’s hairstyle, reminds me of the late ’70s Japanese animation, Daimos.

    You can get the DVD on Amazon Japan.

    4. Tokyo Tribe (2014)

    Directed by Sion Sono (園子温), Tokyo Tribe is a live-action adaptation of the seinen manga Tokyo Tribe 2 by Santa Inoue (井上三太). Set in a futuristic neon-lit Tokyo where every district is controlled by stylish gangs, Suzuki Ryohei (鈴木亮平) and Young Dais play former best friends who come from two opposing factions. It’s been a while since the riots have stopped, but violence ensues with the death of Tera (テラ), the leader of the Musashino Saru (ムサシノSARU). Bleached-blond muscleman Mera (メラ), the leader of the Wu-Ronz, joins forces with Buppa (仏波), an obese bisexual yakuza crime lord, to wage an all-out war against the other tribes.

    Dubbed as “the world’s first battle rap musical”, Tokyo Tribe is a visual extravaganza. It’s like Sion Sono quirky meets Baz Luhrmann glamor. The film is vibrant in every frame, complete with impressive long shots that capture the cult audiences. However, the misogynistic elements, over-the-top violence, and a long expository dialogue in monotonous rap tend to get overbearing.

    You can get the DVD on Amazon Japan.

    5. Too Young To Die! (若くして死ぬ – 2016)


    Too Young to Die! is based on an original script created by its writer-director, Kudo Kankuro (宮藤官九郎). The movie stars Nagase Tomoya (長瀬智也), who hadn’t played a lead role in seven years, as Killer K, and Kamiki Ryunosuke (神木隆之介), who is still currently enjoying the worldwide success of Your Name (君の名前は), as Seki Daisuke (関大助).

    Seki Daisuke is determined to confess his love for his longtime crush, Hiromi (ひろ美), on the day of a school trip. However, before the students are able to reach their destination, the bus falls off a cliff and Daisuke wakes up to the blaring sound of rock music in Buddhist hell. This is where he meets Killer K, Cozy, and Jako (邪子), members of an underworld rock band called Hellz. Desperate to meet Hiromi again, Daisuke vows to return to the world of mortals. He makes an appeal to Hell’s guardian, Principal Enma (えんま校長). However, being reincarnated in human form is almost impossible. Only a few souls have succeeded and they did it by winning the Hell Rock Battle Royale. Daisuke joins Hellz and together, they try to succeed in the epic band competition.

    The soundtrack is obviously inspired by rock music and the lyrics of its main theme song were written by the talented Kudo Kankuro as well. Too Young to Die! does not have the grandeur of Tokyo Tribe’s backdrop, but the kitsch hell setting effectively makes the film look like a musical stage play inserted into a coming-of-age movie. It has the right amount of humor, religious, cultural and musical references that make it an interesting watch. But there’s poignancy amidst the crazy, and out of all the films on this list, Too Young to Die! has the most rewarding ending.

    You can get the DVD on Amazon Japan.

    If ‘bizarre’ is a genre, then all these films certainly fall into that category. Have you seen any of the modern musical films on the list? They are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but their eccentricity is exactly what makes watching a Japanese movie an amazing and unique experience in itself.

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