It is hard to imagine a jazz critic appearing on American television to discuss rival drummers in a national jazz poll, but it certainly is fun to imagine. On the other hand, Jazz has had considerably more mainstream commercial acceptance in Japan during the immediate post-war years. It is still a bit of a stretch, but we can suspend our disbelief as bad boy drummer Shoichi Kokubu becomes a media sensation in Umetsugu Inoue’s The Stormy Man, which screens as part of Japan's Music Man, the Japan Society’s weekend retrospective of Inoue’s musicals.
“Charlie,” the current #1 drummer, just broke up with his manager, Miyako Fukushima, both professionally and romantically. That leaves a vacant chair her band, the Six Jokers that needs to be filled pronto. Taking a chance, Fukushima bails out disorderly Kokubu, taking him directly from the overnight lock-up to the bandstand.
Of course, Kokubu rises to the occasion, really surprising everyone with his teen heartthrob vocals. He also makes quite the impression on Mary Oka, a nightclub dancer, who happens to be Charlie’s girlfriend. Inevitably, they become bitter rivals. Kokubu has all the initial advantages, including greater energy and talent. He also strikes a Faustian bargain with slimy jazz critic Toru Sakyo, who will champion his career in exchange for help wooing Fukushima. However, Sakyo will turn on the drummer when he starts his own relationship with Fukushima, threatening to sabotage the premiere of his virtuous little brother Eiji’s symphonic jazz tone poem (clearly based on Rhapsody in Blue). Yet, if you think Sakyo is mean-spirited, wait till you meet Kokubu’s ultra-judgmental mother, who thinks very little of his career choices.
Stormy is a delightfully lurid melodrama filled with music, gangsters, and angry young man angst. In many ways, it is an ode to the sights and sounds of Tokyo’s Ginza district, which looks like a total blast, but also more than a little dangerous, in an old school kind of way. This is definitely a jazz film, even though Shoichi’s vocals venture into the realm of jump-blues and Eiji’s composition approaching the sounds and textures of Stan Kenton’s progressive third-stream explorations.
This is also the film that launched Yûjirô Ishihara as a James Dean-esque teen idol, who relentlessly rages and seethes as the resentful drummer with mother issues. Ironically, he looks much younger than Kyoji Aoyama, portraying the unshakably sensible Eiji. Mie Kitahara is terrific bringing the sly attitude and show-stopping glamor as Fukushima, like a femme fatale, without the fatalness. In contrast, Nobuo Kaneko makes quite a slimy, clammy, forked-tongue impression as the manipulative Sakyo. You can think of him as a combination of the absolute worst traits of Tony Curtis’s Sidney Falco and Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker in The Sweet Smell of Success.
There is a lot of violent gangster business going on in Stormy Man, but somehow Inoue still manages to keep it bopping along quite buoyantly. It looks colorful and splashy, whole sounding swinging and modern. The Ginza jazz life was probably never really like this, but it is fun to think that it was. Enthusiastically recommended for hip audiences, The Stormy Man screens this Saturday and Sunday (12/15 & 12/16), as part of the Japan Society’s Inoue musical series.