Unless you’re also into the many, varied, and sometimes odd-to-outsiders forms of all singing, all dancing, live on stage entertainment that have in recent years been spinning off from anime and manga franchises, you might find yourself surprised to realise that Japan doesn’t mind the odd Western style musical or two.
Musical theatre is not terribly rare in Japan of course — kabuki has been around since at least the early 1600’s, and the famous all-female Takarazuka Theatre troupe has been performing lavish stage musicals from both Japan and the West since it was established in 1914. That being said however, the Hollywood Golden Era style cinematic musicals seem less common. Lady Maiko however is here to change that.
Possessed of a simple narrative like any decent musical, Lady Maiko is a delightful and lovely production in the vein of My Fair Lady. Haruko (Mone Kamishiraishi) comes to Kyoto with a dream — to be accepted into a geisha house as a maiko. The problem is, maikos are meant to be the embodiment of ancient Kyoto’s enviable grace and style, and Haruko is the furthermost thing from that as anyone can get. Her accent is thick and deeply rural, and her manners are fairly appalling. Lucky for her that while she’s begging to be accepted, young linguistics professor Kyono (Hiroki Hasegawa, Why Don’t You Play in Hell) is visiting the teahouse and makes a deal with its patron — if he can basically turn Haruko into a lady, they’ll accept her as maiko and he’ll get an free pass to visit the teahouse.
Cue the training montages and accompanying song and dance numbers, which are, it needs to be said, way more fun to watch than that statement actually implies. Call me a grandma, but there’s something really wonderful about an old style musical, and writer director Masayuki Suo, responsible for the superlative Shall We Dance (1996) has nailed pretty much every single note. The film is neither mired in uber-drama nor without a certain level of pathos. The supporting cast are fantastic, particularly the cool, poised Tamiyo Kusakari who plays the resident geisha Rishun; and Kamishiraishi although obviously young is every bit as capable of swinging between shy country bumpkin and confident cultured maiko as Audrey Hepburn ever was between cockney street waif and educated London Lady.
Lady Maiko perhaps doesn’t focus as heavily on the socio-economic divide between Haruko’s past and her aspirations as My Fair Lady did between Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins, nor is there nearly as much romance, but it does have the same focus on language – which most English speaking audiences will at least be able to recognise if they listen carefully. No doubt for Japanese audiences this aspect to the film will provide some genuine hilarity of which the rest of us can be, I think, a little jealous. Production values and set design evoke that sense of old style musical as well – the streets around the tea house look like they’ve come straight out of the last century, and then a taxi drives around the corner and school kids stop to take photos of a maiko walking by. It seems entirely appropriate in that context that everyone should break out into song and dance.
And of course, everything works out in the end. That’s no real spoiler, if you’ve seen even one musical. The film ends on the expected set piece, perhaps not quite as spectacular as some but still imbued with a whole lot of heart, and Kamishiraishi carries the number with effortless aplomb. There is basically nothing to dislike about Lady Maiko, unless musicals aren’t anywhere close to your thing, and if that’s the case then I think you might want to double check that you do in fact have a soul. And Step Up films don’t count.
Lady Maiko is screening as part of the 2014 Japanese Film Festival currently on around the country. Check the website for details.