SXSW Film Review – Made in Japan
Made in Japan
Made in Japan is a musical documentary where the passion for the subject is clear but the craft behind it is less compelling. Tomi Fujiyama is a name probably not known to many of us, but she is one of the defining personalities when it comes to country music in Japan. One of her biggest accomplishments in her eyes was performing at the Grand Ole Opry with some of country music’s greats in 1964 and getting the only standing ovation that night. Now her dream is to come back to perform one more time.
The film jumps right into Tomi as she is talking about her dream and some of her history inter cut with conversations about the place of country music. Much of this conversation is about how important the Grand Ole Opry and the radio station WSM 650 AM were in launching many country singers’ careers–like Johnny Cash, and how Tomi is still a part of this generation with the same passion that she had back in the sixties. Now a straight up confession, I am not a country music fan and know little to nothing about the music’s history including the Grand Old Opry beyond what I saw in Robert Altman‘s Nashville. So with a film that is praising the country music of the sixties and seventies and stating this style of music is being lost and how important it is, I found it hard to be invested in their struggle.
We are told that the country music of this era was the building block for so many musical styles and these people sung from the soul. While these are great sentiments and of course it is hard to argue that any art form should die they did little to make their case for why this is important beyond saying this is important. Don’t a lot of singers from different genres sing with their souls? Do modern day country singers not? That seemed to be the underlying idea but they had no argument for why. In fact the film goes out of its way to not actually say it while still making clear this is what these people think. This argument would be fine saying that commercial fare lacks something while Tomi has more soul to her, but if you cannot explain why for someone who knows so little about this music it makes it hard to relate.
What should be our connection to this world is Tomi but as a character she isn’t that interesting to watch. She has a delightful presence and seems like a fun person, and her fans appear to be impressed with her music, but I didn’t get a whole lot about who she is. We have flashbacks told in an interesting animation format and a narration by Elijah Wood but it felt like someone reading a Wikipedia entry giving the basic details of her life. There are some interesting tidbits that got me intrigued especially about how her father helped her out but it was never given the depth to make it hit as hard as they wanted. For actually having Tomi on screen a lot she still was a stranger to me by the end. She felt more like a concept that we are following than a real woman chasing her dream. Instead of really looking into her history or even showing what she is doing to get on the Opry stage again beyond having one interview, we watch her and her husband going out to the cities where she went when she was young and the film becomes more like a couples holiday video than a documentation of an important figure of music.
That said, the dedication that Director Josh Bishop and his crew feels for Tomi Fujiyama’s dream is palpable and several of the people who want to help Tomi perform at the Grand Old Opry feel that this is something worth doing, promoting her music through several small concert scenes showing very receptive crowds who seem to love what she is singing, her energy, and the history she represents as someone who knew some of their favorite musicians in their heyday. We hear from people who want to get her type of music out there (though I’m still not clear what that means exactly) and want to get more new and old talent heard and feel that the Opry is still a great institution that they honor even though it has become too commercial.
I think back on Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary that, while I think is a tad overrated, did a better job of setting up that this is about a man who inspired such loyalty because of what his music meant to them. I never felt connected to what it was about Tomi’s music that was so special and how it made people feel so dedicated to follow her and try to help her dream come true beyond that it is nice to see people’s dreams come true. This lacked a spark to truly make it compelling. For those who love country music and already have an interest this might mean more, but for me it is just one more musical documentary that I just can’t quite commit to.