The Singing Lovebirds (1939)
Directed by Masahiro Makino

The Singing Lovebirds
Oshidori utagassen
Starring Cheizo Kataoka (Reiza Asai), Takashi Shimura (Kyosai Shimura), Haruyo Ichikawa (Oharu), Tomiko Hattori (Otomi), Dick Mine (Lord Minezawa), Fujiko Fukamizu (Fujio), Ryosuke Kagawa (Kagawa-ya), Kajo Onoe (Rokube), Hidemichi Ishikawa (Matsuda), Mitsura Toyama (Manemon Toyama), Eizaburo Kusunoki (Sugiura), Ryutaro Chikamatsu (Hinokiyama), Mitsuo Kobayashi (Sankichi)
Cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa

Nikkatsu, 69 minutes
B&W, 1.37:1 Academy ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Fan market only

The Singing Lovebirds is one of the most beloved films in Japanese cinema, widely considered Japan's most popular musical made in the World War II era. Although the movie has no official release with English subtitles, I have seen a fan-distributed version with a spotty translation. No doubt it fails to capture the clever wordplay in the song lyrics, but at least it lets us English speakers get some appreciation of this Singin' in the Rain of Japan.

The biggest attraction for me as a jidai-geki fan is the opportunity to see Cheizo Kataoka as a youthful star. He has become one of my favorite actors for his work as as a middle-aged avuncular figure, and The Singing Lovebirds is the first of his films I've seen from his prime as a young matinee idol. Ironically, his starring role here is actually a truncated one. The story goes that Kataoka came down with appendicitis, and this script was either rewritten or cobbled together as a replacement to make use of the other booked talent while Kataoka was ill.

The music-filled fairy tale plot revolves around the affections of Oharu, the daughter of a poor umbrella merchant. She is in love with the Reiza, the handsome ronin next door played by Kataoka, but two other young ladies named Otomi and Fujio are also vying for him. Once the knotty love rectangle is established, Reiza disappears for the middle act of the film.

Taking center stage as the heart and soul of The Singing Lovebirds is Oharu's umbrella-making father, played by the great Takashi Shimura. His character is incidentally named Shimura, and several other roles share names with their actors, which was either a convention of the era or evidence of how the rush-job script couldn't bother with fictitious names. And yes, the distinguished star of Seven Samurai and Ikiru gets to sing, and isn't half bad!

Shimura is an avid collector of antiques, freely spending what little he earns on trinkets and artworks instead of putting decent food on the table for Oharu and himself. Making matters worse, the local antique dealer hoodwinks him into overpaying for junk, saving the genuine treasures for Lord Minezawa, another collector with more refined tastes and much deeper pockets. When Minezawa takes a fancy for Oharu, he and Otomi's father hatch a plan to trick Shimura into going deeply in debt over a counterfeit painting. In return Minezawa demands to take Oharu as his concubine.

That synopsis may sound awfully dark for a singalong musical comedy, but it all works in the same way that Disney's Snow White or Sleeping Beauty have their heavy moments to create authentic dramatic stakes. It's very much a fairy tale, and as such there is happily-ever-after ending. The Singing Lovebirds is remarkable entertainment, a sparkling example of Japanese cinema whose lightness belies the turbulent era in which it was made. I would love to experience more films of its sort, but sadly so many were permanently lost due to bombings, poor archiving or outright censorship.

The Jidai-Geki Knights