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SXSW Review: MADE IN JAPAN

Review by Todd Sokolove
Executive Produced by Elijah Wood, Morgan Spurlock
Produced by Josh Diamond, Jason Diamond, Julie Lombardi
Written and Directed by Josh Bishop
Starring Tomi Fujiyama, Charlie Louvin, 
Oscar Sullivan, John Walker, Chris Scruggs

This year’s SXSW Film Festival continues their commitment to the intersection of music and movies in the form of their “24 Beats Per Second” section. In addition to their love of midnight shows, it’s one of my favorite unique things about the fest.

Premiering today (with additional shows Wednesday and Friday), Made in Japan is Josh Bishop’s debut feature documentary telling the story of Tomi Fujiyama, the first female Japanese country music star.

Though I’m familiar with pop cultural East meets West occurrences (Tokyo Disneyland smoked Turkey Leg, anyone?), I have to admit Tomi is completely new to me.

I’d imagine the filmmakers would agree that’s the best way to go into Made in Japan. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Tomi from the get-go.

Forty years after the artist performed at The Grand Old Opry (following Johnny Cash, and receiving the only standing ovation of the night), Tomi wants one more gig at the world-famous Country Music venue. I won’t give away the ending, but let’s just say The Grand Ole Opry ultimately gets the Sea-World Blackfish treatment. There are harsh words said about the state of the Country Music scene in general, much to the ignorant bliss of Tomi.

Her journey’s captured through Japan and across the United States, for the course of the documentary. Elijah Wood, serving also as executive-producer, provides solid, friendly familiar-voiced narration. Along the way you get to hear from the people in her life, and see her reunited with most of them.

The film works best when Tomi’s showing off her talent, either captured on stage or private session.

Some highlights include deep soulful renditions of Tennessee Waltz and Your Cheating Heart. I would have sat through a concert film of just her performing, it’s that captivating.

But, the road-trip backbone of the documentary has some hysterical fish-out-of-water moments. Tomi, accompanied by her husband, take Manhattan, Nashville, and return to Las Vegas, only to discover her favorite Pioneer Neon Cowboy Sign doesn’t say “howdy parter” any more.

If anything, the filmmakers should be commended for not making a novelty out of Tomi, and letting the subject charm audiences while the cameras roll.

As one concertgoer remarks at a Nashville performance, “from the moment she walked on the stage, everyone knew that something really cool was about to happen.”

Same goes for this film. It’s a crowd pleaser.

For more details visit www.madeinjapandoc.com

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