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A loving introduction to an artist whose novelty briefly won over an audience in country music’s premier showcase, John Bishop‘s Made in Japan tells (and retells) the story of singer Tomi Fujiyama‘s 1964 appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. Though its Japanese star is an irrepressible cutie with a fervent love of American roots music and there’s more to her career than just this one event, the film strains to make the most of an anecdote better suited to a seven-minute short. Post-fest prospects are dim in the States.
Raised in Nagoya, Fujiyama got her first record contract at the age of 12, moving to Tokyo with her father only to realize the men who signed her were con artists. She persisted, though, and encountered country music while performing for GIs on American military bases; after getting comfortable with the idiom, she was able to grind out an exhausting living for a while in Las Vegas.
The novelty of a pretty Japanese girl in full-on Western regalia eventually got her a spot on the Opry, and while her rendition of “Tennessee Waltz” started badly (she was so nervous she began to cry on stage), by the time she was done the audience rewarded her with a standing ovation.
That ovation is referenced innumerable times here, as is the timing of the performance. (It was the Opry’s 39th anniversary, not exactly a landmark occasion.) First-timer Bishop goes to great lengths to establish the importance of the decades-old radio show, and even to sketch out the history of country music, an emphasis that’s completely unnecessary for American viewers but might make sense overseas. We spend some enjoyable time with Eddie Stubbs, the DJ and Opry announcer whose mastery of Nashville lore is charming, and hear Fujiyama’s star-struck memories of the after-show concert she gave at Ernest Tubb‘s record shop. But for the most part, the singer’s offstage volubility and friendly enthusiasm is the only argument for not letting this yarn be a footnote in the Opry’s history.
Production company: The Hidden Fortress
Director-Screenwriter: Josh Bishop
Producers: Josh Diamond, Jason Diamond, Julie Lombardi
Executive producers: Elijah Wood, Morgan Spurlock
Director of photography: Gregg De Domenico
Editor: Julie Lombardi, Victoria Lesiw
Music: Kaki King
No rating, 88 minutes
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