That Hibari Misora and Chiemi Eri were two extremely popular singers in the fifties, sixties, and the seventies is not only evident by the amount of records they sold, but also by the fact both singers appeared regularly on tv-shows and performed in many movies. Their popularity even spawned a duology called the Travels of Hibari and Chiemi directed by Tadashi Sawashima. Today, we explore the first part of this duology, The Tumultuous Journey (1962).
Okimi (Hibari Misora) and Otoshi (Chiemi Eri), two ‘footwear’ maidens at the local kabuki theatre, dream of a rosier life, maybe on the Kabuki stage by masterly manipulating the emotions of the audience and receiving standing ovations. Yet, before they even get a chance by the owner to proof their talent, they are fired after being wrongfully arrested after a conflict between a yakuza-like drugs-gang, a mendicant priest,and the police within the theatre. They embark, disguised as men, on a journey along the Tokaido highway.
Travels of Hibari and Chiemi: The Tumultuous Journey is a narrative about desire. Yet, while the narrative seemingly implies that Okimi and Otoshi’s desire to perform on the stage has the same weight as the desire to find marital happiness, the spectator quickly realizes that the true desire of our ladies is to attain some form of romantic and marital happiness and their wish to perform on stage merely functions as a ‘tool of pleasure’ to make themselves more desirable for the male other.
Sadly, their wrongful imprisonment renders their true desire or their ‘womanly happiness’ difficult to attain. Yet, that does not extinguish their passionate desire for romance. The other kinds of happiness that our duo taste on their travel (e.g. the happiness of eating food, of feeling rich, … etc.) cannot replace the imagined happiness of forming a romantic and marital bond and the supposed satisfaction of fulfilling the parental and societal ideal for the female subject (Narra-note 1).
It is, in fact, the emphasis of their romantic lack within the narrative that compels the spectator to root for both of them. Can Chiemi and Hibari, given their precarious situation, attain some kind of romance? Can their wild trip throughout Edo-Japan in which they attempt to aid the law with defeating a gang of drug-dealers also renew their hope of attaining the impossible womanly happiness? And can our friends, so obsessed with becoming the beloved of a male subject, avoid deceiving themselves with the signifiers vocalized by the male other and resolve any kind of conflict that their desire for romance might create between them?
The dynamic composition of The Tumultuous Journey serves the main purpose of the narrative: delivering wild but light-hearted action and heart-warming comedy in an effective way. More specifically, Sawashima’s use of static moments gives the stage to Hibari Misora and Chiemi Eri to not only charm the spectator with their endearing presence and their heart-warming chemistry but also deliver moments of comedy in a way that truly pleases the audience. In some rare cases, Sawashima makes use of cinematographical decorations (e.g. fast-forward) or musical accompaniment to heighten the light-heartedness of certain moments.
Sawashima seamlessly integrates the musical moments into the visual rhythm of his composition and the narrative fabric of the narrative – there are no jarring transitions in The Tumultuous Journey . The lyrics of the songs beautifully echo the subjective position of our duo and the visual decorations (e.g. a sudden influx of back-up dancers, a sudden colourful background, …etc.) are instrumental in giving their desires a certain flair and visual support.
As is often the case in Japanese comedy films, light-heartedness in The Tumultuous Journey is function of over-acting (e.g. expressive facial expressions, awkward comportment, kabuki-like speech, …etc.). While such over-acting can often derail a film, Hibari Misora and Chiemi Eri succeed, due to their charming presence, that their comical moments of over-acting captivate and entertain the spectator.
Travels of Hibari and Chiemi: The Tumultuous Journey remains, after all these years, a highly enjoyable narrative that succeeds to please the spectator with heart-warming light-heartedness, comical action, and beautiful musical moments. While these kind of movies rarely offer any thematic depth, these narrative do, when they are well crafted, offer everything one needs to brighten one’s day.
Narra-note 1: Contemporary spectators mightfeel somewhat uncomfortable with the fact that the film equates ‘womanly happiness’ with marriage (and motherhood) so explicitly, but should remember that this film is a product of its time. Moreover, some women still try to find their happiness in the marital bond.