The four films playing this month in the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Umetsugu Inoue series represent only a fraction of the Japanese director’s work. Inoue, who died in 2010 at age 86, directed more than 100 theatrical features and 300 television productions. Yet the series does spotlight his prolificness—three of the four selections were made in 1957—as well as his versatility. The films include a backstage melodrama (The Stormy Man), a boxing picture (The Winner), a nautical adventure (The Eagle and the Hawk), and a family musical (The Green Music Box). These selections reveal Inoue to have been a consummate studio director: not only could he move easily from one genre to another, he also elicited charismatic performances from all his stars. For these reasons Inoue was consistently in demand in the 1950s and 60s; in fact he was one of the few directors to have worked for all six of the major Japanese movie studios.
Despite his ability to conform to whatever genre he worked in, Inoue was hardly an impersonal filmmaker. The three films in the series from 1957 develop similar themes and motifs, and one senses a personal vision in the repeated color schemes and narrative developments. All three center on romantic triangles and the transformation of a rowdy young man (played in each one by Yujiro Ishihara) into a responsible adult, and in all three, Inoue emphasizes the straightforwardness and intensity of his characters’ emotions through his bold use of primary colors. The films reflect postwar Japan’s rapid westernization in their incorporation of jazz, American fashion, and European-style ballet, but they also feel classically Japanese in their thematic focus on discipline and hard work. Fusing tradition and the zeitgeist, the films proved irresistible to Japanese audiences—all three were big commercial hits.
The Stormy Man (which plays Friday at 4 PM and on Tuesday at 6 PM) was so successful that it brought producing studio Nikkatsu out of the red. (Inoue, for his part, liked the film enough to remake it twice.) It centers on a jazz drummer named Shoichi (Ishihara), a rough-and-tumble playboy who at one point claims to love drumming as much as he loves fighting. Shoichi has a tender side—he singlehandedly supports his younger brother, raising money to send him to music school—but his combative nature prevents jazz club managers from hiring him. When his younger brother manages to get him a gig at the club where he works, Shoichi decides to clean up his act and become the best drummer in Japan. In his efforts he wins the romantic attention of the club’s cynical manager, who moves him into her house so he can have a room to practice night and day. This development inspires the jealousy of his old neighbor, a good-natured young woman who has long loved Shoichi from afar. Inoue generates tension from the romantic subplot (which woman will Shoichi choose?), developing in tandem with the hero’s unsteady rise in the music industry.
One reason The Stormy Man was such a hit was that it featured numerous performances by then-popular bands. Audiences at the time had few opportunities to see their favorite musicians perform, so the film satisfied their curiosity about what these musicians looked like when they played. Some film historians cite the performance sequences of Stormy Man as precursors to music videos, although these scenes don’t feel like stand-alone numbers. Rather Inoue integrates the performances into the plot, focusing on Shoichi’s development as a performer. The charismatic Ishihara sells these numbers, particularly when Shoichi refashions himself as a singing drummer.
Ishihara is even more charismatic in The Winner (which screens on Friday 6/15 and Sunday 6/17), though he isn’t the main character in that film. The hero is a boxing promoter named Eikichi, who takes on Ishihara’s character after seeing him win an amateur fight. As in The Stormy Man, the plot follows Ishihara as he buckles down and improves himself, but here his development is paralleled by that of a young ballerina in whom Eikichi also takes an interest. Inoue took inspiration for this subplot from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, and like that film, The Winner features a lavish ballet sequence that incorporates dazzling special effects to render a theatrical performance cinematic. Again Inoue provides his hero with two romantic interests—in this case, the ballerina and a patient fiancee who’s waited three years for Eikichi to set a date for a wedding. The director complicates the scenario by making the boxer fall in lover with the ballerina as well, creating a polyphonic romantic melodrama. Whereas Inoue punctuated The Stormy Man with musical numbers, here he breaks up the narrative with extended fight scenes and dance routines.
There’s no such narrative punctuation in The Eagle and the Hawk (screening on Friday 6/8 and Saturday 6/9), though Inoue generates a sense of spectacle in a rousing climactic set piece shot during an actual typhoon. Set aboard a cargo ship bound for Hong Kong, the film centers on two mysterious new recruits and their tenuous relationship with the rest of the crew. Ishihara plays one of the new hires, who’s followed onto the ship by a young woman who’s madly in love with him. She’s not the only female stowaway on board—the captain’s headstrong daughter also gets onto the ship, and (not surprisingly, given Inoue’s fascination with love triangles) she ends up falling for Ishihara’s character too. Yet romance generally takes a back seat to the interpersonal drama between the crew members—one of whom is suspected of being a murderer—and the vivid portrait of nautical life. Inoue achieves some wonderful wide-screen imagery here, finding various ways to frame the boat against seascapes as well as numerous compositions of the men onboard. In its boisterous depiction of hard-fighting men at work, The Eagle and the Hawk sometimes recalls the films of Hollywood director Raoul Walsh, though the interplay between group portrait and sensitive romance seems distinctive of Inoue.
I was unable to preview The Green Music Box (1955), which concludes the series on June 29 and July 3, but it sounds rather eye-catching. The first film shot in Japan’s three-strip Konicolor process, Music Box has something to do with a group of orphans protecting the title object from spies who want it for the secret formula it contains. Based on the Inoue films I was able to see, I suspect that the director made expressive use of Konicolor here; his other movies certainly do, and given the historic opportunity of the production, I wouldn’t be surprised if he foregrounded color in the movie’s sense of spectacle. Inoue knew how to give audiences what they wanted, whether in terms of popular narrative tropes or visual delight, and Music Box, which will screen from a new 35-millimeter print, is sure to feature plenty of both.
“Umetsugu Inoue: Japan’s Music Man.” 6/1-7/3: various times, Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, 312-846-2800, siskelfilmcenter.org, $11, $6 members.