Home Video Hovel: Big in Japan, by Aaron Pinkston
After playing a gig at a near-empty bar, struggling trio Tennis Pro have a chance encounter with a strange former rock star that gives them an opportunity to travel to Japan where he can get them gigs and an audience that loves quirky American bands. It’s an offer that Phil, Dave and Sean can’t pass up, given their limited prospects and unfulfilled lives. There are many rock ‘n’ roll road films, both comedies and docs, and John Jeffcoat’s Big in Japan uses many of the genre’s tropes – lost luggage, crappy hotel rooms, leaving loved ones at home, record label meddling, and inter-band turmoil. It also takes a lot from American-abroad-in-Japan cliches – karaoke, comically small rooms and sex motels, Shōchū hangovers, and pachinko parlors. All together, Big in Japan takes some easy jokes and has big third act problems. But it is undeniably a smooth and entertaining film, with a lot of music and an off-beat point of view.
Phil is the de facto lead of the film, bass player and main songwriter of Tennis Pro. Though he is the least responsible, he has the most stable home life with an ultra normal wife and adolescent son. He’s a bit of a wildcard otherwise, seeming to take cues from Dewey Finn. Lead singer and guitar player Dave is more enigmatic. He’s a professional card shark who either gets a disproportionate amount of bad breaks or is really, really bad at his job. Drummer Sean, a part-time barber and level-headed dude, is by far the least caricatured member of the group.
Big in Japan is much more interested in their individual antics than character development. There are a few character decisions and surprises along the way, but we don’t really know much about them overall. Most of the film coasts on the wacky characters and lives in the fish-out-of-water plot. That works well enough until the third act when an act of God comes out of nowhere, which leads to whole new plot developments. It seems that Big in Japan is looking for some emotional stakes in these turns, but they really don’t work. Unfortunately, though, the film wasn’t leading much anywhere, so it may have been choosing the lesser evil to some extent.
To the film’s credit, very little of the comedy comes from the music. Being a band IRL, the music of Tennis Pro feels cohesive, with a consistent sound. They aren’t the best band in the world, but they have a bouncy pop-punk style with catchy melodies and lyrics. Basically, they are realistically like hundreds or thousands of bands playing in empty bars all across the U.S. – with a dream and enough talent, but lost in the crowd. Big in Japan is loaded with music, from live performances to music video-esque montages.
Using a real band definitely brings authenticity to the film’s music and a strange meta level to the plot, but it is fairly clear that none of the band members are actors – indeed, this was the first and only acting credit for each. They aren’t unfunny, but lack true comic timing or refinement. Still, a lot would have been lost with the same script and better actors that were cast and paid to play these characters. I imagine these characters draw a lot from the real life personalities, perhaps amped up for comedy sake, and that’s really where Big in Japan can hang.
Big in Japan doesn’t really garner or deserve a strong recommendation, but it’s a fairly easy film to recommend. There’s a lot of Napoleon Dynamite-style character goofiness supplanted in the This Is Spinal Tap rockumentary formula. It probably doesn’t reach the heights it should. There are a few tasty ingredients, though.