Tokyo Pop (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stuart Galbraith IV
  • Review Date: Jan 05, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Tokyo Pop (Blu-ray Review)


Fran Rubel Kuzui

Release Date(s)

1988 (December 5, 2023)


Kuzui Enterprises/Lorimar Productions (Kino Lorber)
  • Film/Program Grade: A-
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: C

Tokyo Pop (Blu-ray)

Buy it Here!


Long before Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), there was Fran Rubel Kuzui’s quite similar but better Tokyo Pop (1988). Though it has a more conventional narrative structure, Tokyo Pop is the much superior work. It’s more observant and honest in its cultural clashes, and among the very few Hollywood-made movies about Japan to very accurately capture Japan and the Japanese accurately, avoiding clichés and stereotypes. Its central relationship is also more universal and authentic.

Aspiring New York-based rock singer Wendy Reed (Carrie Hamilton), tired of her rocker boyfriend’s (Michael Cerveris) philandering and reluctance to let her sing anything more substantial than backup vocals in his band, on a whim decides to visit a girlfriend living in Tokyo.

Upon arriving there, however, Wendy discovers that the girlfriend has up and moved to Bangkok, leaving Wendy, who speaks not a word of Japanese, stranded with limited funds. As a tall, reasonably attractive blonde, she gets a job as a hostess at a snack bar, the exotic gaijin (“foreigner”) to draw in customers. She soon meets Hiro Yamaguchi (Yutaka Tadokoro, aka Diamond Yukai), leader of a struggling rock band. With his very limited English, there’s a misunderstanding and he takes her to a love hotel (gaudy, short-term hotels where couples, often cheating spouses, go for sex). She’s insulted, but later they meet again in Harajuku, a popular hangout for young people, particularly rock bands and their followers, where they eventually form a romantic relationship and Hiro asks Wendy to join his band though, again, mostly for the novelty of having a gaijin member rather than because of Wendy’s obvious talent.

After more struggles, the band catches the eye of star-maker manager Mr. Dota (Tetsuro Tamba), who turns Wendy and Hiro into famous national celebrities. (In one scene anticipating Lost in Translation, Wendy does a television commercial for Toto, a manufacturer of high-tech toilets.) But Japanese idols are as disposable as Kleenex and, anyway, Hiro is frustrated he can’t sing his own songs, while Wendy grows weary of her fleeting celebrity and wants to be taken seriously as a singer.

I hadn’t seen Tokyo Pop since its release on VHS nearly 35 years ago. It didn’t make much of an impression then but now, having lived in Japan for more than 20 years and looking at Kino’s excellent Blu-ray—a new 4K restoration of the original camera negative with DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 stereo)—it’s like watching an entirely new film. The restoration was made possible by Carol Burnett (Hamilton’s mother) and Dolly Parton to The Jane Fonda Fund for Women Directors. Besides Kuzui, women in prominent roles include co-writer (with Kuzui) Lynn Grossman, associate producer Nancy Wood-Tuber, editor Camilla Toniolo, production designer Terumi Hosoishi, costume designer Asako Kobayashi, and others.

For one thing, the Blu-ray really shows off Tokyo in all its neon-lit glory, deftly using iconic locations (the statue of Hachiko, Harajuku, etc.), showing them as Tokyoites see them, rather as a kind of travelogue for western audiences. There’s also a natsukashii (“nostalgic”) factor seeing Tokyo as it was 35 years ago—so much has changed (the homeless forced out of Shinjuku Station), so much hasn’t at all.

Carrie Hamilton and Diamond Yukai are perfectly cast, she being an actress who can really sing, and Yukai a genuine rock performer who can act. They’re ordinary looking enough to be completely believable: she’s sort of cute but hardly gorgeous, while he’s not at all handsome but sweetly shy. (Instead of a worldly Tokyoite, the script wisely makes him a transplanted country boy from far-flung Yamagata Prefecture.) Her early adventures struggling in Tokyo are slightly exaggerated but realistic. When she goes to work at a snack bar, where white-collar workers go to get drunk, sing karaoke, and flirt with hostesses—the atmosphere is accurately, hilariously rendered. The “Mama-san” manager (Toki Shiozawa, a longtime Toho actress) sports an alarming hairdo and sparkly glasses, the middle-management clientele drunkenly try to impress one another with their broken English, and Wendy is cajoled into showing off her singing talent—with a karaoke version of “Home on the Range,” humiliating her. Similarly, the love hotel scenes are appropriately gaudy and Tetsuro Tamba is funny spoofing the colorful (and sometimes criminal) head of Japan’s big talent management companies.

Also realistically, Hiro is at first sexually and later emotionally attracted to Wendy, but he’s also using her to help his band, the other members cynically believing any foreigner would be just as good. She’s frustrated by his very Japanese lack of demonstrativeness and reluctance to talk about his feelings, but eventually gets him to open up a bit and through her gains confidence about his songwriting, an outlet for personal expression.

The movie also captures the younger postwar generation’s fascination with America: Japanese who eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken and who want to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix and sing like Frank Sinatra, yet also with a kind of irrevocable Japanese-ness. Hiro stubbornly (and often illogically) argues Wendy can’t possibly understand one thing or another because “she’s not Japanese.” It’s a delicate but innate combo of America-envy/national pride one sees everywhere, every day in Japan but rarely depicted in Hollywood movies about Japan. In another telling moment, Hiro decides to take Wendy to the “best (traditional Shinto) shrine in all of Tokyo,” a place he’s never been.

Even the rock music rings true. Besides Hamilton and Yukai, the film is peppered throughout with real ‘80s rock bands: Papaya Paranoia, Mute Beat, etc. Diamond Yukai was himself a member of the Red Warriors, appearing here more or less as themselves, before going solo shortly after Tokyo Pop’s release, and still active on the stage, on television, and performing the Japanese language versions to songs in movies such as Toy Story. Hamilton had a rock background of sorts, having dated Fergie Fredericksen of Toto and Le Roux for several years. (Carrie’s Gone was inspired by their breakup). Sadly, she didn’t live long enough to fulfill her full potential, she dying of complications of lung and brain cancer in 2002, when she was just 38 years old. The restoration of Tokyo Pop is dedicated to her memory.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray really sparkles and sounds great. The Japanese language dialogue is subtitled (except, oddly, Hiro’s climactic song, which really needs it), which are excellent. Unfortunately, the only extra feature is a trailer, a shame since Tokyo Pop enjoyed retrospective screenings at the American Cinematheque and perhaps elsewhere; it would have been great had Kino included panel/Q&A discussions, and an audio commentary by the director.

Still, Tokyo Pop is a film ripe for rediscovery. Highly Recommended.

- Stuart Galbraith IV