Tokyo Pop

Tired of singing backup for jerks, aspiring rock star Wendy Reed (Carrie Hamilton, TV's 'Fame') impulsively flies to Tokyo after getting a ‘wish you were here’ postcard from a girlfriend.  But by the time she gets there, that friend has moved on to Thailand and Wendy ends up in low rent hostel, paying her way as a hostess in a karaoke club.  Then she meets Japanese wannabe rocker Hiro Yamaguchi (Yutaka Tadokoro, "Lost in Translation") and their combustible connection takes them to the top of “Tokyo Pop.”

Laura's Review: B+

Cowriter (with Lynn Grossman)/director Fran Rubel Kuzui ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") wrote the screenplay for her 1988 film after having founded a film distribution company with her husband to bring movies like “Wild Style” to Tokyo.   After having been embedded in the NYC indie scene, Kuzui embraced Tokyo’s exploding pop culture and decided to immortalize it in a film seen from the perspective of a hopeful New Yorker.  Kino Lorber is reissuing a 4K restoration created in association with the Academy Film Archive with funding from Dolly Parton, Carol Burnett (the late star Carrie Hamilton’s mother), the HFPA Trust, and donors to IndieCollect’s Jane Fonda Fund for Women Directors for its 35th anniversary.  According to Kuzui, recreating the film took an awful lot of detective work, and we owe those persistent sleuths thanks.

I don’t know how I managed to miss “Tokyo Pop” back in 1988, but it was a great pleasure to catch up with this adorable, funny and romantic ‘stranger in a strange land’ pop confection.  The film manages to be both frank about sex and charmingly innocent, its bleached blond protagonist reminiscent of a “Times Square” punk transported to a 1950’s America obsessed Tokyo, Hiro introduced singing ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’  There is even a hint of old Hollywood here, Wendy’s plight not unlike Judy Garland’s in “A Star Is Born,” an out of town hopeful remade into an image not of her own making.

Wendy is referred to the Mickey House, a paid crash pad with coed bunk beds and a coin-operated shower, the Japanese apparently thinking gaijin will feel at home surrounded by Disney’s signature mouse.  She takes a job at a karaoke hostess club, her customers enthusing to her American looks and English language rendition of “Home on the Range’ (later, she will recast the lyrics fronting a Japanese punk band, one of the film’s funnier moments).  Never quite knowing where she is or how to get where she’s going, Wendy catches the attention of Hiro and his bandmates (keyboardist Yoji (Daisuke Oyama), drummer Kaz (Hiroshi Kobayashi), bass player Taro (Hiroshi Sugita, "Zatoichi") and guitarist Shun (Satoshi Kanai)) eating at a cheap noodle stand and, after some serious miscommunication about needing money, finds herself in a sex hotel with Hiro and, telling him off, sleeps in the bathtub.  They’ll reconnect at a rock ‘n roll flea market celebrating all things American and Hiro, goaded by his friends, ‘proves’ their relationship by charming her into meeting him for a drink.  The date ends in another hotel with far happier results. 

Hiro’s bandmates beg him to ask Wendy to join their band, suggesting amongst themselves that he’s afraid she’ll steal his lead singer status, but Wendy doesn’t seem keen on the idea either.  But when top music impresario Mr. Dota (Tetsurô Tanba) cancel’s Hiro’s band’s audition, Wendy’s gaijin looks and audacity gets them back on track and they become a huge hit covering ‘Do You Believe in Magic?’ – with Wendy.

“Tokyo Pop” is many things.  Wendy’s yearning for a Japanese experience plunges her into Japanese youth’s obsession with her own culture.  Hiro’s Mother (Masumi Harukawa) and Grandfather (Taiji Tonoyama) thrill when he visits a Japanese shrine, Hiro partaking of his own country’s rituals because of Wendy’s enthusiasm for them, reconnecting with his grandfather in the bargain.  Their romance is sweet, but their love isn’t blind, Wendy recognizing that neither is really performing rock ‘n roll and that her gaijin appeal is a fleeting gimmick.  Kuzui finds the perfect ending, her stars each writing and performing the signature song that will allow each to grow (‘Hiro’s Song’ and ‘Never Forget’).

The restoration pops, from Keith Haring’s vivid, singular titles to the dazzling neon streets of Tokyo.  Hamilton was perfectly cast as the innocent abroad with the chutzpah of not knowing any better, her outstanding vocals held back by karaoke and punk until she duets with Tadokoro surprising us all with the power of her pipes.  (The film is dedicated to the actress, who died in her early 40’s from complications of lung cancer.)  “Tokyo Pop” is a sweet time machine.

Robin's Review: B

Kino Lorber released the 4K restoration of the 1988 "Tokyo Pop" in select theaters on 8/4/23.  Click here for play dates.