Rock n’ Roll in the Rising Sun: Tokyo Pop


Tokyo Pop is probably an unrecognized film title to all but a handful of people, most of whom are likely rabid 80s film fans. And without the transition to the more readily accessible DVD, it remains not a great film (pacing tends to be a problem), but still an overlooked, low-budget gem in the grand universe of obscure cult films.

Centering on young and naive aspiring American and Japanese musicians, Tokyo Pop contrasts the mid-80s new wave, punk and rock influences of urban Japan with the backdrop of idyllic tradition and historical roots; an obvious criticism of commercial globalization and the “Americanization” of a once-distinct Eastern identity. Rock, pop, punk and new wave (check out an early performance of “Rauken Rauken” by Japanese goof-girl rockers, Papaya Paranoia) – it’s all image and personality. Like the old photos of youth in 1980s post-Communist countries: a carefully manufactured young “cool”.

There are essentially two leading characters who, by fate (and the script!), cross paths. Carrie Hamilton, the late daughter of comedienne Carol Burnette (she may be more recognized as one of the instigating rivals in Shag), shares the lead as Wendy Reed, a struggling singer with no hope for security and mobility in the New York City dives scene. Inspired by a postcard of a friend who boasts of success in the business following a move to Tokyo, Wendy packs up her sparing belongs and decides to join her friend. Except things don’t go as plan. Stunned not so much by culture shock, but news of her friend having already moved someplace else, she sticks it out. And, on the advice of fellow nomadic gaijins (the romanticized gringo: Americans) she,  takes up residency in a group house plastered with Disney memorabilia and, in the closest thing to paying singer she could quickly find, entertains drunken entourages of Japanese businessmen in a karaoke bar with half-hearted renditions of corny American folk songs.

Stranded in the city one night, Wendy meets Hiro (Yutaka Tadokoro, the vocalist for the Red Warriors who is probably better recognized as the director of the whiskey commercial in Lost in Translation), another young, aspiring rock musician. Obsessed with American and British pop culture, especially the musical legends like Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles, this is basically the bulk of the limited English he can communicate to Wendy. His family is the same – in one scene, his grandfather, in traditional garb, scowls at his daughter who is attempting to follow the jazzercise routines she’s watching on television as they sit around the dinner table with Hiro and his sister. A big bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken crowds the table and Hiro’s mother is ironically bewildered that her son isn’t interested in more “Japanese” things. Even Hiro’s father, a divorcee (taboo no more!) specializes in the 80s novelty of synthetic food sculptures.

Hiro and Wendy’s first encounter is eventually miffed by a misunderstanding over the sharing of a hotel room, but eventually the two hit it off, much to the delight of Hiro’s band, a rock quartet, who want the newfound blond gaijin to be in their band, certain that this is just the gimmick they need to get recognized by the country’s most famous producer, since sneaking trying to sneak him demo tapes hasn’t worked. Reluctant at first, Wendy seems unable to find any other band to meaningfully support a singing career (X of Japan briefly appear in their massive coifs, and delegate Wendy, the new band mate for about a second, the back up singer’s tambourine).

Hiro’s band is basically a cover band, churning out live performances of corny American pop songs like Three Dog Night’s “Do You Believe in Magic?” Amazingly, they do achieve major public recognition, but only through some trivial event – a photographer happened to capture a backstage spat between Wendy and someone else. Suddenly, the cover band is topping the country’s charts. And yet, both Wendy and Hiro, at the helm of  a thriving gimmick band, aren’t entirely happy with the expected definition of “success” (money and fame). In private, Hiro has performed for Wendy the songs he has written, which he sings in Japanese. Completely absent of the Western manufacture, the songs are sincere. Wendy, willing to walk away in order to get Hiro and his bandmates to abandon the gimmick, encourages Hiro to perform these songs for his audiences. In other words: art for the sake of art.

Released in 1988 and yet to be re-released, the film was co-written and directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui, though her 1992 directorial effort is more widely known: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Tokyo Pop was a lot like the 1987 culture-clash dramedy, Living on Tokyo Time. Unfortuantely, there’s little net-recorded history on the movie, other than (surprisingly) a 2007 New York Times Review.

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