Big in Japan just could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. This charming, goofball comedy/road movie about going-nowhere-slowly musicians could be the very thing that launches Seattle power-pop trio Tennis Pro to popularity in the Land of the Rising Sun—and maybe elsewhere. Or not. But after watching Big in Japan, you hope it pans out for them.
Directed and written by Seattleite John Jeffcoat, Big in Japan is a semi-fictional portrayal of these three endearing fuckups who perform to paltry crowds in their hometown. After one particularly dismal show, Tennis Pro meet Alex Vincent, a high-strung, fast-talking manager who convinces them that they can advance their career by playing in Japan. (“Big in Japan” is music-biz parlance—a kind of self-deprecating boast, implying little discernment among that country's fans.)
Of course, Tennis Pro's members—guitarist David Drury, bassist Phil Peterson, and drummer Sean Lowry—work low-wage jobs and have girlfriends/wives who are skeptical about the plan. And Alex doesn't exactly inspire confidence as a band manager, even if he does have Japanese connections. Regardless, Tennis Pro sell their van to raise funds to fly to Tokyo. Once there, nearly everything goes wrong, and many laughs ensue watching the guys try to navigate this massive city without knowing the language. The first place they crash in Japan is at a capsule hotel, its sleeping quarters slightly bigger than a coffin. The second is a “love hotel,” where couples go to have sex. Tennis Pro's first busking adventure, while wearing their trademark dorky tennis whites, is truncated by police after one song.
Eventually, Tennis Pro win over some crowds and gain some momentum, and Peterson meets a hippy-philosopher-world-traveler named Mans (Adam Powers) who turns him onto some wild experiences, one of which results in the movie's most enchanting scene: the psychedelic-anime sequence in which Peterson writes the dreamy “Baby You're a Rich Man”-like song “Kimberly.”
Right as Tennis Pro are preparing to leave Japan, an earthquake hits. Alex rushes to the airport, but the band stays. Their potential break comes in the form of a record deal and big festival appearance offered by Dax (portrayed with slick asshole-osity by Jeffcoat)—on the condition that they ax Peterson. You can imagine the inter-group strife this causes.
Big in Japan's Tokyo scenes remind me of my 2005 trip there with the local group U.S.E. Your first time there, everything takes on a surreal quality, common sense vanishes, you become fast friends with Japanese bands, and the crowds are wildly enthusiastic. Then you return home and face that familiar apathy, and feel like the whole experience was a dream. Big in Japan captures that chimera with absurd humor. It's no This Is Spinal Tap or Hard Day's Night, but Jeffcoat and company do a solid job of dramatizing rock-band shenanigans on a small budget and with clever, guerrilla-style filmmaking.