Unlike a lot of American 90s kids I know, I didn’t grow up watching cable television. What I had instead I was my parents’ eclectic VHS collection. It included many classic musical comedies that I religiously watched on repeat. Something about the grandiose art deco sets, oddball humor, nonsensical plots, catchy song and dance numbers of movies like Singin’ in the Rain fascinated me like nothing else.
I think it’s only natural as a creative person to find ways your different passions intersect. So when I came across a clip of a song-and-dance number from the 1964 Japanese movie You Can Succeed, Too (君も出世ができる; Kimi mo shusse ga dekiru) on Twitter, the MGM musical fangirl in me reawakened.
Thus began my foray into an era of Japanese cinema, when entertainers and studios sought to capitalize off trendy jazz music and American musical comedies.
From the Stage to the Screen
During the Showa era, silent cinema stars and the benshi who provided live narration saw their reign challenged by the advent of talkies spearhead, by the 1927 film The Jazz Singer. Musical films, including German operetta films, made their way into Japanese theaters. Entertainers took inspiration from film and stage stars like Fred Astaire and Eddie Cantor.
The latter drew the admiration of comedy king Enomoto Ken’ichi, better known by his stage name Enoken. A fixture in the Asakusa theatrical scene, his popularity skyrocketed after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 when he shifted to upbeat fast-paced musical comedy .
Enomoto’s success drew the attention of the newly established film company P.C.L Studios, an early successor of Toho Studios — yes, that Toho Studios. Enoken starred in the 1933 Music Comedy Intoxicated Life (音楽喜劇 ほろよひ人生; Ongaku kigeki horoyoi jinsei) which was half comedy, half tie-in advertising for a beer company. Eddie Cantor’s hit “Yes, Yes (My Baby Said Yes)” was used in the opening title to give it that Western flair so popular at the time .
Enoken was champing at the bit to bring more Hollywood-style musical comedy to the screen. So he and director Yamamoto Kajiro — who would later mentor the great Kurosawa Akira — teamed up with P.C.L to do just that. The result was 1934 Enoken’s Tale of Youth’s Folly (エノケンの青春酔虎伝; Enoken no Seishun Suikoden).
The film drew heavily on popular jazz songs and the physical athletic humor pioneered by Cantor and Buster Keaton. It was successful enough to launch Enoken into silver screen stardom and star in numerous musical comedies .
It wasn’t always well-known comedy stars crooning and dancing. In 1939, Nikkatsu Studios released Singing Lovebirds (鴛鴦歌合戦; Oshidori utagassen), widely considered to be Japan’s most popular prewar musical film. The story follows Oharu, the daughter of a ronin who finds himself in debt with no recourse but to sell her off. Actresses and actors not usually seen in musical roles, like Kataoka Chiezou and Kurosawa Akira favorite Shimura Takashi, amazed and entranced audiences .
WWII and Postwar Originality
With WWII came an era of censorship that forced film studios to get creative. Imperial authorities frowned on flashy Hollywood-style sets and peppy song and dance numbers. But some successfully skirted the censorship.
Singing Lovebirds director Masahiro Makino completed the Hollywood-style musical Hanako-san (ハナコさん) in 1943, featuring wartime hit “Running Errands on A Bicycle” (お使いは自転車に乗って; O-tsukai ha jitensha ni notte). However, the final scene featuring a husband leaving for war did reportedly attract the ire of the authorities, who called Masahiro in for questioning .
When the war ended, studios attempted to revitalize the industry, bringing back popular prewar stars like Enoken and his rival Furukawa Roppa. Furukawa starred in the first postwar musical comedy Five Tokyo Men (東京五人男; Tokyo gonin otoko) centering on five soldiers returning from war to a crumbling, destitute Tokyo .
Prewar musical comedies largely relied on imported jazz music to boost the musical aspect of the films. But postwar musical comedy films branched out into creating entirely original songs and scores. Composer and boogie-woogie trendsetter Hattori Ryoichi became a mainstay in these new musical comedies, even scoring a musical comedy-style scene in Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (醉いどれ天使, Yoidore Tenshi) .
Young girls also began claiming top billing in the 50s. Most notable is child star Hibari Misora, whose rise to stardom paralleled Shirley Temple and Judy Garland.
You Can Succeed, Too (Until You Can’t)
With the huge success of 1960’s West Side Story, Japanese studios threw serious money at musicals, both stage and screen. But one film truly stands out for its depiction of the postwar Broadway musical comedy. That’s Toho’s 1964’s You Can Succeed, Too (君も出世ができる; Kimi mo shusse ga dekiru) starring Sakai Frankie and popular jazz musician Takashima Tadao.
Its leading ladies included Yukimura Izumi, Nakao Mie, and Hama Mie. (You may recognize Hama as one of the Bond girls in 1967’s You Only Live Twice.) Prior to filming, director Sugawa Eizo spent two weeks in America studying Broadway musicals .
The choreography was far from the polished execution of Broadway. Yet the spirit and music were a true callback to the genre.
The movie sticks to a pretty typical Broadway movie musical plot, in that there’s barely a plot. We follow career-driven go-getter Wakayama (Sakai) and his humble, simple-minded subordinate Nakai (Takashima) as they blunder their way into making the company they work for the top tourism agency ahead of the Olympic Games.
Shenanigans ensue, conversations inevitably segue into singing and dancing, hearts are bruised, and characters fumble through their own epiphanies about what they really want in life. The film culminates in the rousing chaotic “Otoko Ippiki” (男いっぴき) featuring hundreds of salarymen dancing and grousing about the grind in Marunouchi.
As is par for the course, in the end the guys get the girls (or the dames, as my dad would say) and sing their way into their respective happily ever afters. Even if you’re not a musical fan, You Can Succeed, Too is well worth the watch purely from a cinematic historical perspective.
Back to the Stage
Sadly, You Can Succeed, Too didn’t fare well at the box office, signifying the impending end of an era.
Today, musicals have mostly reverted to the Japanese stage. Nowadays 2.5D musicals based on popular anime and manga hold sway. They attract fans seeking adaptations more faithful to the source material than live-action movies are. Perhaps the closest modern take of a Hollywood-style musical comedy is the 2019 film Dance With Me (ダンスウィズミー) about a young office worker cursed to break out into song whenever she hears a melody.
Of course, the all-female Takarazuka revue continues to dominate the stage, adapting Japanese and Western musicals. Tokusatsu and anime may be what immediately comes to mind when one thinks of Japanese cinema. But the early endeavors of talent like P.C.L and Enoken helped shape the cinematic legacy that successive studios would carry.
What to read next
 万人魅了したエノケン、今も影響 笑いと音楽、ダンスを融合. Sankei News.
 ザッツ・ニッポン・ミュージカル！ モダン・東宝・ミュージカル映画史. note.
 『エノケンの青春酔虎伝』（1934年・山本嘉次郎）. note.
 和製ミュージカル映画の最高傑作『君も出世ができる』を見てみた！. note.