Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Hey, hey, they're The Spiders

The Spiders were the most successful of the Japanese beat groups that cropped up in the wake of the Beatles’ triumphant sweep through the Land of the Rising Sun in 1966 -- part of a musical movement that came to be dubbed “Group Sounds”, in part due to the unique challenges that the English term “Rock and Roll” presented to the average Japanese tongue. Albeit on a much more localized level, the band followed in the footsteps of their Scouser counterparts by scoring a string of hit records in their native country and inspiring hysterical scenes throughout the nation’s airports and concert halls. They also, like the Beatles, made the move from the juke box to the big screen, starring in four feature films produced by Japan’s venerable Nikkatsu Studios between 1967 and 1968.

Given the circumstances of The Spiders’ rise to fame, it’s difficult to resist making comparisons between them and The Beatles, just as it’s hard not to draw comparisons between theirs and The Beatles’ cinematic output -- even if, in reality, that’s a little unfair. The Beatles’ movies, after all, were events in themselves. Such was the spell cast by the Fab Four at the time that audiences likely would have flocked to see a film of them reading from the Liverpool phonebook if that was all that had been available. As such, director Richard Lester had a great deal more leeway to indulge in experimentation and creative play in making those films than he would have had on films whose success wasn’t guaranteed by stars with such singularly phenomenal appeal.

Scenes from Go Forward!

On the other hand, The Spiders’ films are all modest formula pictures, competently, but nonetheless hurriedly, made in order to quickly cash in on their young stars’ current popularity. While making occasional stylistic nods to both the Beatles’ films and the Monkees TV series -- some fast motion capering around, a dreamily surrealistic musical sequence here and there -- the two that I watched were soundly lacking in the sense of anarchy and visual inventiveness that Lester brought to A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Of course, given that The Spiders themselves were far from being musical trailblazers, that is perhaps fitting.

Which is not to say that the group’s take on 1960s guitar pop isn’t an appealing one, although it can be said to be a bit unfocused. In their second feature, 1968’s Go Forward!, the band’s songs run the gamut from Merseybeat to soft psychedelia to teen idol balladry to freakbeat, and even include a pass at country & western, giving the impression of an act that is, to some extent, trying to be all things to all people. In their fourth and final film, the same year’s The Road to Bali, The Spiders’ sound seems to have coalesced a bit, with their staid approach to melodic pop loosening up to accommodate an emerging tendency toward fuzz-tinged rave-ups. Even still, there remains something steadfastly agreeable about the music, which contributes to the overall impression that, translation or no, there probably isn’t much going on in these films that could really be called countercultural.

Scenes from Go Forward!

Both Go Forward! and The Road to Bali take their cue from Lester’s Help! by depicting The Spiders as haplessly finding themselves at the center of a perilous international intrigue. Thus both films play out as a series of episodic encounters with an assortment of gun-wielding shady characters, all taking place as the normally carefree young musicians go about their daily routine of playing concerts, making TV appearances and running away from girls -- with the intermittent dead body unexpectedly flopping out of a closet or some-such as a cursory nod towards maintaining the thriller atmosphere. This is a wise approach, not the least because it requires little emoting from the band members that goes beyond the level of “Yikes!” But, even more so, because the inclusion of these thriller elements seems like a shrewd way of capitalizing on the strengths of the studio in charge, seeing as Nikkatsu was still at the time dedicating much of its resources to churning out its distinct brand of formula crime films.

Go Forward! was directed by Ko Nakahira, who had directed the seminal “Sun Tribe” film Crazed Fruit for Nikkatsu in 1956 -- and who would, not too long after completing Go Forward!, go on to helm a handful of movies for Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio, among them the oddly sedate spy caper Interpol 009. Certain of the film’s elements -- its crisply attired, sunglasses-sporting assassins, for instance, or the final showdown at a derelict waterfront lot -- seem as if they could have been plucked of-a-piece from one of the studio’s “Nikkatsu Action” films from the period. Furthering the similarity are some familiar faces from those films, most notably that of the striking Mari Annu, who had starred in Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill a year previous. If you think that Suzuki used Annu to unnerving effect in that film, it might be instructive to note that her glacial, trancelike demeanor here remains completely unchanged, and is no less unsettling in this markedly breezier context -- not to mention well suited to her role as a cooly calculating foreign agent on the trail of a precious diamond hidden within the tambourine of one of the blissfully unaware Spiders.

Scenes from The Road To Bali

Neither Go Forward! nor The Road to Bali sees all of the Spiders’ individual members emerge as distinct characters, which I suppose could count as another unfavorable contrast to those films starring the band’s more famous British counterparts. Of course, this is understandable, given that there were seven Spiders in all -- a bursting of the ranks that insured the films’ scope photography would be used primarily for the purpose of fitting them all on screen. Rather than laboring to give each his own identifiable screen persona, the filmmakers instead chose to focus mainly on the group’s two lead singers, the conventionally handsome Jun Inoue and the more clownish and theatrical Masaaki Sakai. Together these two serve as a sort of Martin and Lewis duo within the films, with Inoue playing the straight man to Sakai’s constant mugging and carrying on. Of course, for Sakai, who was the son of famed Japanese comedian Shunji Sakai, The Spiders’ movies were just the beginning, as he would later gain wide international fame for his titular role as the Monkey King in Monkey, the Japanese television adaptation of the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West.

Apart from some pretty juvenile slapstick -- yes, you will see people slipping on banana peels -- the majority of the Spiders films’ humor is dialogue based, which makes watching them without subtitles fairly unrewarding for the non-Japanese speaking viewer. Still, of the two I saw, I liked The Road to Bali best. It has a great, stylized title sequence in which the band plays in silhouette behind some mini-skirted go-go girls -- somewhat reminiscent of the opening to Nikkatsu’s earlier Black Tight Killers -- and overall has more the kind of candy colored visual pop that you’d hope to find in a putatively swinging 1960s romp of this type. The film’s range of international locations, from Hong Kong to Jakarta and Bali, also provides a great deal of visual interest.

Scenes from The Road To Bali

I also found The Road to Bali’s spy movie plot to be better integrated into the whole than that of Go Forward!, this time with a gang of international crooks hunting the band down in order to access some pilfered plutonium that has somehow been concealed inside one of their amplifiers. There’s even a bit more straightforward Nikkatsu-style action this time around, including one of those gigantic shoot outs so typical of the studio’s 1960s crime films. (The band themselves, of course, being fun-loving hipsters, do not participate, though they do get involved in the occasional bout of fisticuffs in both films.) Not surprisingly, the film was helmed by another Nikkatsu stalwart, in this case Katsumi Nishikawa, who had earlier directed a number of youth films starring diamond liner Yujiro Ishihara.

Preference aside, I got a kick out of both Spiders films, as much for the way they reflect the worldwide pop mania of their time as for the agreeable tunes and good-natured antics specific to them. Within a year or so of their original release, Spider-mania would subside in Japan, and the band’s members would all go on to fulfill their separate destinies. Of course, for many of the people who were touched by that mania, the band and their music remain an enduring memory. For the rest of us, there are these movies, which do the service of allowing The Spiders to momentarily step out from behind the shadow of their more widely heralded musical peers, giving brief, colorful life to what would otherwise be a dry footnote in the Euro-centric annals of pop history.


Tars Tarkas said...

Do they run into Bing Crosby and Bob Hope on the Road to Bali?

Prof. Grewbeard said...

i have all four of the films and enjoy them all, but i would have to say you lucked out seeing the two you did. the first, Wild Scheme A Go Go, has a surreal plot involving The Spiders bizarre attempt to walk in a straight line, regardless of any obstacle, to the upstairs apartment of a girl who lives across country, for reasons obscure. The second, Big Commotion, features a very standard melodramatic plot but does feature Masaaki on some sort of acid trip featuring topless girls. i have also seen The Jaguars feature Hey You, Go! which is partly an anti-war film. of interest also is Yuzo Kayama's Electric Guitar Young Guy, which was on a double feature with Monster Zero upon it's original release in Japan. i cannot entirely recommend The Tigers' film, Hi! London however, wherein the lead singer of that group(Kenji Sawada)makes a deal with the Devil(?)so he can take his group to London to meet his musical hero- Barry Gibb?!? Barry makes a brief cameo appearance...

Todd said...

Tars: Why, yes, they do. And then they drop acid with a topless Dorothy Lamour.

Prof: I chose these two because I was attracted to the spy movie aspects of their plots. Wild Scheme A Go Go does sound like it really lives up to its title, though.

I saw the trailer for Hi! London, complete with the Barry Gibb footage, and it didn't do much for me... primarily because The Tigers' music in it sounded pretty wimpy.

BTW, is this the "acid trip" scene from Big Commotion that you mentioned?:

Prof. Grewbeard said...

that would be it!

talking about all this stuff made me want to watch The Jaguars movie again, so i did and realized i had forgotten it was partially a Goldfinger spoof and also features a gang of five color-coded female assassins and a Japanese Timothy Leary-type acid guru...

Todd said...

Gee, thanks for weighing in, Engrape Finance. I love to feel the good hotels everywhere I go. I'm not going to click on your link, though, because I'm afraid it will give my computer bedbugs.