Chopin was the favorite composer among Japanese highbrow music fans in 1935. A forgotten German film created this fad.

This is a part of “Sound of War” series.


Music is floating in the air. There’s the gate, the symmetrically designed courtyard, and beyond these serene space, there stands the library building. Its design, geometric calmness of vertical lines and horizontal rectangles, is reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright, you wonder. Indeed, it was designed by Antonin Raymond, once the assistant to Wright. You are getting closer to the music. Then, you are invited to the music classroom. A young girl is playing Chopin’s Waltz Op.64-1, “Minute Waltz”. All the other student in the classroom bury their heads in their own music score books “Chopin Album”, chasing every note. It’s the opening of THE BEAUTIFUL HAWK (美しき鷹,1937), directed by Kajiro Yamamoto.

Then, the teacher yells at her, “No, no, no, you are playing it all wrong! Ritardando! Ritardanto!”. The girl stops playing and hawks back; “But I want to play it this way!”

She is Yumiko, a strong-willed, free-wheeling, spoiled kid, living off the privilege of her inheritance. Played by Noboru Kiritachi, Yumiko is a sort of femme fatale, destroying all the other people’s reputation and relationships while she herself smiles at other people’s anger and shrugs off other people’s unhappiness.

Throughout the film, pianos are heavily featured as a symbol of sophistication, passion, nobility and privilege. Yumiko has her own grand piano in her spacious room. Her piano may be larger than Ryosuke’s house in Ozu’s THE ONLY SON (一人息子, 1936). During one of outbursts of her emotion, Yumiko plays Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu on this luxurious piano (it’s a prop though).

One thing that caught my attention was the name of the piano manufacturer, “HORUGEL”. I’ve never heard the brand. I researched a bit, and it was a bit confusing at first. There was a Korean manufacturer which has acquired the brand name in 1960’s and produced pianos and guitars for a few decades. Of course, the film being made in 1937, this was not the company. In turned out, “HORUGEL” was the name of the piano manufacturer in Germany which went bankrupt in 1950’s (which the Korean manufacturer took over later). The piano in THE BEAUTIFUL HAWK was manufactured by The Ono Piano Manufacturing under the license from German Horugel company. The Ono Piano Manufacturing was founded by Yoshimi Ono in 1933, and in 1937, Hataiwa Ohashi, who had been the chief engineer at Yamaha, joined the Ono. Though being a small manufacturing shop compared to Yamaha, the Ono Piano Manufacturing nevertheless went on to produce high quality grand pianos and marketed them to schools and universities.


The Movie That Made Chopin Popular

From 1935 to 1937, Japan saw unprecedented surge in domestic piano sales. The number of pianos sold had been steadily increasing since 1930, but it hit the record high in 1937. There must have been several reasons for this popularity, but I believe one European film played an crucial role in this surge of popularity. It was LA CHANSON DE L’ADIEU (1934), the French version of ABSCHIEDSWALZER (1934), directed by Géza von Bolváry. It is a fictionalized version of Frederic Chopin’s biography, embedding many of Chopin’s piano pieces in the dramatic and romantic story. The film was so popular in Japan that Kinema Junpo annual poll ranked it at sixth in the foreign language film category in 1935. Apparently, highbrow intellectuals loved it. Torahiko Terada, the distinguished physicist, saw the film and wrote a short review at the time:

This film magically transports you to Warsaw a century ago, – you feel like you are actually in the ‘Postkutsche’, in the scenes of Chopin’s departure to a long journey.Torahiko Terada

The romantic echo of the film certainly created the ‘Chopin fad’ among the self-conscious intelligentsia, and this mood helped even the small startup like the Ono Piano pursue aggressive promotion and brand marketing.

Piano Competition on Big Screen: Advertisement for the film of the Third International Chopin Competition Winners Performances (Kinema Junpo, March 13, 1938)

However, it didn’t last long. In three years, the sales plummeted down to less than 20%. As the war in China escalated, the government tightened the control of industrial materials and labor force. After 1941, almost all piano manufacturing ceased to exist. The factories which used to build luxurious instruments were ordered to contribute to war efforts. Yamaha factories produced airplane propellers and Kawai manufactured fuel tanks.

Piano Production in Japan between 1917 and 1944

Surprisingly, romanticism of the von Bolváry’s film survived the war and made a strong impression on a sensitive boy from Onomichi.

Nobuhiko Obayashi, the director of the moving ‘Onomichi Trilogy’ and the cult classic HOUSE (ハウス, 1977), was also deeply impressed and influenced by LA CHANSON DE L’ADIEU. In his autobiography, he described how movies, particularly biographical movies of composers, shaped his childhood.

There are adventure movies, and romantic movies. Of all the movies I had seen, the ‘piano’ in the movies had a tremendous effect on me. After the war, many American movies were imported, and the biographical movies of famous composers were on the screen one after another: Gershwin playing the piano, Schumann, and Beethoven… Among them, LA CHANSON DE L’ADIEU, the movie about Chopin, really changed my life.Nobuhiko Obayashi

Obayashi was born in 1937, two years after the initial release of the Chopin film in Japan. His encounter with the film must have been in one of the reruns after the war. Assuming he saw the movies in one of local theaters around Onomichi, Hiroshima, we can see how popular this particular film was. Even in a remote local city like Onomichi, theaters expected their patrons would like it (again). Obayashi, daydreaming about ‘love’ like young Chopin and his young sweetheart, wanted to play the piano like Chopin. With all the energy of a young boy in love with the subject, he watched and studied every move of the fingers on the screen during the performance of ‘Tristesse’, Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No.3, and tried to replicate it on his piano at home. It didn’t work. Then he realized there is a magic called ‘filmmaking’. The actor did not play the piano, but pretended as if he were playing; the soundtrack was added later. ‘Tritesse’ was heavily featured in one of his Onomichi Trilogy, LONELY HEART (さびしんぼう, 1985).

Strangely, only the French version of the film was released in Japan. LA CHANSON DE L’ADIEU was co-directed by Albert Valentin and Géza von Bolváry, and the dialogue was aided by Jacques Natanson. Jean Servais played Frederic Chopin in French version, while Wolfgang Liebeneiner played Chopin in ABSCHIEDSWALZER, the German version. When NHK aired the German version in 1980’s, many viewers, who had seen the French version a long time ago and anticipated to resurrect the emotional exhilaration of their youth, were puzzled and somewhat dismayed. It’s not the same movie I saw, they said.

It appears that popularity of this von Bolváry’s film was a unique, singular and maybe isolated phenomenon only observed in Japan. The film was barely mentioned in the studies of German films during the Third Reich. I have seen the German version, which, I thought, is a typical fantastic tale of the romantic historical figure, frequently produced in 1930’s and ’40s. It appears National Film Archive of Japan holds the print of the French version, I hope to see this version someday.


Classic and Modernism

Going back to THE BEAUTIFUL HAWK, in one scene, the music teacher and composer, Maniwa, talks about his intention to go abroad to study ‘new’ music, leaving his ex-fiance behind.

I think I should tackle modern French music from the square one, and forget about classical music. Until I complete my work, I will not come back.Eizo Maniwa in THE BEAUTIFUL HAWK (1937)

In his remark, “classical music” certainly means music of 18th and 19th centuries, that is, by Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin and “modern French music” probably means the works by contemporary composers like Honegger, Poulanc, and MIlhaud, in addition to Debussy and Ravel. This remark may sound too juvenile, naive, or self-absorbed, considering political climate of Asia and Europe at the time. But if we place this remark in the musicological transformation at the time, it has some significant aspects.

According to Kuniharu Akiyama, music critic and composer, the debate about ‘People’s Music’ had become ‘visible’ in 1936.

(In professional music circle,) the words like ‘Japanese’ and ‘Our People’ began to acquire some special meaning, floating like a ghost in the air, in the year 1936.Kuniharu Akiyama

Composers, musicians, music critics, and artists began debating what was true ‘Japaneseness’, instead of ‘Japanese flavor’ in music. Since late 19th century, Japanese music academia had been one of cultural tools to assimilate the Western industrialization and nationalism into the nation’s fabric. The very basic idea of Tokyo Music School was to produce the system of music of a ‘Nation’, i. e., the national anthem, military marching, and music education system that supported such activities. However, by the beginning of Showa era (1925 – ), these basic ingredients were in place. Meanwhile, (ethnic) nationalism was gaining momentum in Europe and Asia. In this sociopolitical tidal wave, the ‘serious’ musicians contemplated how to ‘create’ original Japanese music without being Western derivative.

Another side of this debate was emergence of ‘amateur’ composers. Most of the professional musicians at the time were graduates of Tokyo Music School, and considered themselves cultural elites who knew ‘Western Classical Music’. However, young music enthusiasts, who were not formally educated, burst into the new music scene. These young musicians not only passionately studied classical music, but also pursued and taught themselves the trend of new, modern and radical music coming from Europe and America. The professional musicians looked down on these young new wave ‘amateur’ musicians with contempt. However, in 1937, one of the ‘amateurs’, Akira Ifukube, won the first prize in the Tcherepnin Composition Competition in Paris. When Japanese committee for this Competition first reviewed his work, ‘Japanese Rhapsody’, they were horrified. This is a work of amateur, who has no knowledge of basic rule of music. Some of the committee members considered it ‘disgrace’, and insisted not to send it to Paris. Well, they sent it after all, and won the prize. Even though the Tcherepnin Composition Competition was held in Paris, it was for Asian composers (mostly Japanese composers). Alexander Tcherepnin, who conceived this Competition, was a composer who saw infinite possibilities in Asian culture, in contrast to the Western art which he considered in cul-de-suc. In Ifukube’s ‘Japansese Rhaspsody’, he discovered talent, inspiration and passion. He was right.


Then, we can place the Maniwa’s remark about studying ‘modern French music’ in this context. In one sense, it was about dead end of the culture of imitation. As a professional musician, he needs to discover his own ‘modernism’ instead of teaching Chopin to young aristocrat girls. In another sense, even for this new ‘discovery’, he had to go abroad; another round of imitations. He didn’t have a creative drive, so to speak. This dilemma was distinctive aspect of Japanese ‘high’ culture at the time. Japanese culture needs to be ‘Japanese’, but what is ‘Japanese’ anyway? Japanese imported and borrowed ‘high culture’ from the West, but when they asked themselves where their own identity stands, they found no answer.

Domestically, Akira Ifukube’s ‘Japanese Rhapsody’ has been neglected for more than five decades. He once said,

Japanese imported music from various places around the world out of admiration, but none of them survived. None of them had spread roots in our soil. After all these years, they started searching music that has its roots deep in the ground, and they found my work.Akira Ifukube


The Beautiful Hawk (美しき鷹, 1937)

Directed by Kajiro Yamamoto
Written by Shinbi Iida
Based on the novel by Kan Kikuchi
Cinematography by Akira Mimura
Music by Tadashi Oota
Starring Noboru Kiritachi, Chizuko Kanda, Hyo Kitazawa, Hideo Saeki

Abschiedswalzer (1934)

Directed by Géza von Bolváry
Produced by Siegfried Fritz Fromm
Written by Ernst Marischka
Based on the novel by Jacques Théry
Cinematography by Werner Brandes
Music by Alois Melichar
Starring Wolfgang Liebeneiner, Richard Romanowsky, Hanna Waag, Julia Serda, Sybille Schmitz, Hans Schlenck
Boston-Films-Co. GmbH

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