The most frequently revived Japanese prewar musical film, Makino Masahiro’s Singing Lovebirds (Oshidori Utagassen, 1939) is a light-hearted romance set in the samurai days that is full of verve, charm and invention. Composer Okubo Tokujiro and star Dick Mine were associated with the era’s jazz scene, but the score is a potpourri of influences, from native jojuri and naniwabushi to tango and even Cuban-African sounds.
Given the film’s classic status, its production was surprisingly hasty and slapdash. Shot during a break in production of On the Road with Yaji and Kita (Yaji Kita Dochuki, 1939) forced by star Kataoka Chiezo’s appendicitis, Nikkatsu ordered Makino to use the idle talent to make another film.
Makino quickly cobbled together a story. Okubo Tokujiro added and reworked music. Using the cast, staff and even sets of the suspended film, Makino went straight into production. Chiezo recovered and reportedly shot his scenes in two hours. The entire film had taken little over two weeks to make.
Asai Reisaburo (Kataoka Chiezo), an impoverished ronin (masterless samurai), is in love with Oharu (Ichikawa Haruyo), the girl in the nagaya (tenement house) next door. But Reisaburo is also pursued by Fujio (Fukamizu Fujiko), and the more persistent Otomi (Hattori Tomiko), a merchant’s daughter. Meanwhile, Tanba-no-kami Minezawa (Dick Mine), a playboy lord, has become attracted to Oharu but first has to win over her umbrella maker father (Shimura Takashi). To indulge his weakness for antiques, the father accepts Minezawa’s offer of 50 ryo for Oharu’s hand as his concubine leading to consequences that climax in Oharu seeking Reisaburo’s help. But when she is told that he has given his heart to Otomi and no longer wants to see her, is all lost – or is Otomi lying?
Makino tells this story with characteristic lively tempo, while cameraman Miyagawa Kazuo, who later worked with Mizoguchi Kenji and Kurosawa Akira, unobtrusively captures the charms of the three leading actresses, while adding visual grace notes that complement the music and action. It may not be Hollywood’s classic definition of a musical, but Singing Lovebirds is eminently watchable - and hummable.