Many people think of “Lost In Translation‘ (2003) as being the pioneer of the modern day film set in Japan but for people of a certain age it is this one from 15 years earlier which perhaps better encapsulates “the real Tokyo”!
When Fran Rubel Kuzui made ‘Tokyo Pop’ it was very much the height of the bubble era for the economy in Japan. It is a delightfully fluffy kitsch piece of ’80s nostalgia with a certain simple charm. On the face of it, it may seem like what has become the typical fish-out-of-water plot but I think the storyline of this low budget film does go a lot deeper than some people probably realise.
Warning: Contains Spoilers!
There’s long been something of a stigma attached to the phrase “big in Japan” as it usually refers to acts that are no longer popular in their own country but can still manage to shift records in Japan. The late Carrie Hamilton plays a young American singer called Wendy Reed in this slightly odd romantic comedy, and she travels to Tokyo in the hope of replicating the success of other foreign groups who have achieved some kind of success in Japan.
These were different times so she doesn’t even tell her friend in Tokyo that she is coming. However, she is unable to locate her and instead ends up meeting a local, young musician called Hiro (Yutaka Tadokoro a.k.a. Diamond Yukai); a real-life frontman of 80s rock group Red Warriors. His band in this film is actually the same line up but they are much more unsuccessful in this film.
Wanting to get recognised and make their big break, Hiro sees the potential in having a tall blonde American woman in their band. Wendy and Hiro fall in love too and their relationship develops once they manage to finally catch the eye of a record company mogul using various cheesy tricks. Once they’ve hit the big time they enjoy some luxury and move in together but then things start to fall apart and realisation dawns that she is looked on as a novelty and that her fifteen minutes of fame probably won’t last too long given the rapid changing trends in pop culture.
This is when the message of the movie really kicks in regarding the increase in globalisation and the disappearance of traditional local cultures. American pop music is used as the tool to illustrate the point by way of Hiro’s band only being superficially recognised due to Wendy’s distinctive look.
Unlike in some films, she doesn’t discover she’s fluent in the language and the culture after such a short time in Japan. She does realise the potential in Hiro’s Japanese songs though and convinces him that he shouldn’t sacrifice the bands original written tunes in their native tongue in return for a superficial image based on Wendy’s gimmicky gaijin appeal.
A lot of the films 100 minute duration is taken up with musical montages, karaoke performances and almost travelogue-like segments not so connected to the story that just show a few more whacky aspects of Tokyo life and the diversity in western and eastern cultures. It’s not all crepe stores, plastic food shops and fishing centres though as the seedier side of city life is depicted via a series of love hotels, karaoke bars and late night ramen restaurants in Shibuya and Shinjuku.
I tried hard to get hold of ‘Tokyo Pop‘ in many ways around a decade ago but all to no avail as it was never reproduced on DVD and I just could not download or stream it. I went on YouTube recently and half-heartedly typed in a search for it and really expected to see nothing more than a trailer so I was surprised but delighted to see that it had been uploaded to YouTube by someone last year. Very grateful I was that this movie can now be seen by a new generation of people with an interest in Japan.
Tokyo Fox Rating 7/10