Live From Tokyo (2010) – By Josh Samford

As a fan of Asian cinema, I have had a fairly healthy obsession with Japanese culture for the past decade or better. Most who get into Japanese cinema are soon wrapped up in a obsession with anything vaguely "otaku." When I first discovered this new culture, I remember downloading random television programs from off of the internet in order to feed my insatiable need to learn more about this amazing world. There’s definitely something very special about Japan that can not be found anywhere else. Part of the allure has to come from the niche cultures that seem to co-habitate within the famous city of Tokyo. Live From Tokyo is a documentary that looks to expound upon these cultural habitations and takes a look at the music scene of Tokyo in order to focus on these issues. While this is only a small part of what makes the Japanese nation so culturally rich, it is a fundamental and engaging part of the puzzle that is Japan.

Director Lewis Rapkin delivers a multitude of questions dealing with the creation and impact of Tokyo’s music scene. From the financial crunch to the musical inspirations that make this gated community such a diverse and intriguing magnet for creativity, no topic seems out of bounds. Rapkin’s narrative is told through talking-heads who fill out the majority of the expositional information required, but he also shows artistic aspirations of his own by involving some very unique editing choices that give life to many of the musical sequences throughout the movie. Most of the bands presented within the film are shown playing live, and many of these performances actually feature their full length songs. Rapkin shows both the positive and negative aspects of this musical lifestyle and paints a vivid picture of what it must be like to be a struggling artist in a city that seems to be filled with mutual starving artists. The "scene" seems to both cultivate and suppress these artists at the same time. The local culture often inspires originality, but at the same time the profitability of being in a band within Tokyo is even more difficult than ever before. Unlike in the United States, many "live houses" (places where bands can perform within Tokyo) actually charge the band if the bar does not sell enough tickets. This in turn causes the ticket prices to skyrocket and leaves most bands having to pay upwards to three and four hundred dollars to the bar, just so that they may play a gig.

For the most part the film is full of interesting information and converging viewpoints on both the music business and modern Tokyo trends. It does fall into a few repetitive moments though, I must confess. The filmmakers often try to give attention to the musicians, and certain sequences become little more than glorified music videos. As you can probably guess, this causes the project to become slightly sidebarred. For a documentary that is just a little over one hour in length, you do not need several long sequences that show intercut shots of the cityscape while music plays over it. While I understand that the music needs to take a certain amount of focus in a documentary of this sort, at times it begins to feel like "fluff" rather than actual content. Surely there is more to Tokyo than what the filmmakers were able to discuss within this finished project. In a city as gargantuan in niche cultures as Tokyo is, there should be an endless number of topics to discuss. While it is important to show the actual music that the film looks to inspire dialogue about, I think it is also important to be careful with how much time is dedicated toward these musical segments. If I have any problems with the film, this would be the main driving issue. However, for the most part the movie remains incredibly focused and delivers some very interesting ideas in a very stylish manner.

The film shows the conflict of culture within Japan’s music industry, something that has been talked about a great deal before but is a very diverse and difficult subject to tackle. There are those in Japan who seem to take a very nationalistic approach to their music and try to defy all Westernized influences, but then there are those who seem to rebel against anything homegrown and only seem inspired by all things foreign. This is an issue that can be felt throughout all of Asia. It is a very difficult situation because it can lead to a more universal culture dominating over centuries worth of tradition. However, the mainstream approach to modern Japanese culture is one that resides somewhere in the center. While not looking to adapt with a copycat-culture, nor rejecting all cultural input from the rest of the globe, modern Japanese artists have found new and innovative ways to take outside cultural influences and turn them it into something uniquely their own. Rock music may have originated from the Blues, and it may be an American concept originally, but it has stretched out and become very different things to an assortment of people. This, in my opinion, is progression and to deny outside or internal culture would only be regression. Live From Tokyo manages to capture various aspects of this debate and portrays these issues in a very understandable manner.

Although it is a film that certainly has its issues, I think Live From Tokyo stands out and should be essential viewing for any music fan who has an interest in Japan. Actually,I would highly recommend it to any music fan, generally speaking. I simply hope that more people have the opportunity to give it a watch. If you’d like to read more about the picture, you can do so at the official website: http://www.livefromtokyo.net