Saturday, July 9, 2011

REVIEW: Quick Change Tanuki Palace

七変化狸御殿 (Shichihenge tanuki goten)

Released: 1954

Director: Tatsuo Ohsone

Chizuko Ashihara
Misora Hibari
Chikako Miyagi
Koukichi Takada

Running time: 101 min.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman

By 1954, the 17year-old Misora Hibari had made over 50 films. Hitting the screen in 1949 (age 12) as a Japanese Shirley Temple in “Nodojiman-kyô jidai,” she also hit the airwaves with “Kappa Boogie-Woogie,” the first of her many hit songs. This phenomenal talent had a voice that no young girl should have – deep, full and already world-weary. Rushed into a grueling production schedule, in film after film, recording after recording she quickly built on her natural talent and presence to become a superstar. Even with 170 or so films to her credit - apart from her iconic role as the optimistic post-war orphan in “Tokyo Kiddo” (1950) – much of her film oeuvre remains largely unseen or neglected (at least outside of Japan).

Director Tatsuo Ohsone, a Shochiku stalwart since the silent era, allowed not only Hibari, but a host of great comic actors and musical talent to strut their stuff in “Shichihenge tanuki goten”* (Quick Change Tanuki Palace). He also threw in a lot of trick photography and simple, but inspired, sets and costumes, in his black and white opus that creates an equally camp and magical world. And it’s completely nutty, hilarious and totally enchanting.

“Shichihenge tanuki goten” is a tanuki musical. The tanuki (AKA raccoon-dog) is an animal native animal to Japan. Through legends and lore tanukis are considered to be shape-shifting tricksters and often portrayed as comic characters. They’re also famous for their big balls. Tanuki musicals enjoyed a certain popularity through the 50s (Hibari made another tanuki film in 1958). Seijun Suzuki’s “Raccoon Princess” famously capped the tradition, even featuring a loving homage to Hibari, bringing her back to screen life through CGI.

“Shichihenge tanuki goten” opens with a tanuki mambo odori, setting up the wild clash of contemporary signifiers, reworked traditions, inventiveness and mythical references that makes the film still lively after all these years. Quickly transported to the walnut grove where the tanukis live, we’re introduced to Ohana (Misora Hibari) and Ponkichi (Shunji Sakai), her comic sidekick – a sort of less menacing Ray Bolger. Hibari sings a bluesy number about how alone she is. Bringing her nuts to the tanuki palace she stumbles upon a talent competition. Here we are introduced to the sultry O-Yuu (Keiko Awaji), moll of the bat clan, dancing or rather striking poses to a rumba that would make Martin Denny Proud. Ohana appears as a scarecrow painted with the traditional henohenomohe face…

へ へ
の の

… patchwork clothes and arms tied to a pole, she blows the competition out of the water with a novelty song and dance. The prince of the Taro clan (Chikako Miyagi, in full Takaruzuka male drag) takes notice, adding a frisson of genderfuck to the whole thing. Next comes the bat clan – an inept group of semi-ninja clad umbrella-wielding bats headed by the ridiculously mustachioed and brilliant comic, Ichiro Arishima. The bats carry umbrellas to keep the radioactive rain from destroying their delicate wings. The bats capture the prince, shrinking him into in a bottle. This sends Ohana and Ponkichi on a series of adventures and set pieces to get the magic stuff – spider lilies and water from a holy well – that will free him. Along the way there’s some business with a quartet of Meiji period gaijin stereotypes – an American, a Chinaman, a Russian and a Dutch priest with a crucifix hanging from his nose; a few border crossings; lots of opportunities for costume changes; singing yakuza; a full-on kabuki battle with a spider; several appearances by ghostly spirits; and most famously, a swinging dance number with Frankie Sakai as Drum Tanuki. In this scene our heroes hear some drumming in the woods and find Frankie, in tanuki regalia, pounding the skins of a trap set. They have a percussion face-off, Frankie on the drums and Ohana on her stomach. Suddenly, Frankie’s in a white suit with a horn section behind him and Hibari’s in a fetching little bug costume going into a big band number. This gives a chance for Frankie out-Krupa’s Krupa and Hibara shows her chops as a tight scatting jazz vocalist.

Finally it all comes to a head at the bat cave. In freeing the prince a final face off – bats armed with brollies and Taro clan with swords – the film falls into a Tashlin-style fast-motion slapstick free-for-all. Various impediments – bats, tanuki bullies, more – out of the way, girl-prince and girl-tanuki drive away in their fairy-fey coach to a chorus of tanukis wishing them a happy ever after.

Hibari at 17 was already a monstrous talent. “Shichihenge tanuki goten” shows what a range she had. Of course, she would get even better and redefine herself as an enka diva until her untimely death at 52. Ichiro Arishima had been working hard in theatre, his film and TV career would take off within the next year. Frankie Sakai was well on the road to become the legend that he is. He would often work with Arshishima in a sort of Mutt and Jeff comic duo. Shunji Sakai would become “the God of comedy.”

Apart from all this great actorly and musical talent and crazy-fun story, what binds “Shichihenge tanuki goten,” and makes it shine, is the music. Tadashi Manjome was the man responsible. A consistent composer of big hits, he’d been working in the film industry since the late 30’s. He and lyricist, Hachiro Sato’s “Ringo no uta” (Song of the Apple) was a huge hit immediately after the end of the war. He went on to write the song “Tokyo Kiddo.’ In “Shichihenge tanuki goten,” the music ranges from what you might call postmodern mashups of popular genres to traditional re-imaginings. Between the then popular mambo and other Latin styles, jazz, traditional Japanese melodies and singing styles, mood music and what have you, Manjome was fearless and had an uncanny knack for writing catchy tunes. His feel for a huge palette of different voices and textures assured nothing but pure tastiness in his music.

“Shichihenge tanuki goten, ”as far as I know, remains unsubtitled but it’s broad enough and loaded with so much fun stuff that it’s well worth tracking down, even if you don’t speak the lingo.

* “Shichihenge” literally means “seven changes,” a reference to a kabuki dance in which an actor changes clothes quickly seven times and to the lantana flower – which goes through many changes as it blossoms.

Read more by Nicholas Vroman at his blog

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