“Tokyo Pop,” starring Carrie Hamilton, a daughter of the comedian, was a critical hit that had fallen into obscurity and has now been restored.
By Ben Kenigsberg
When “Tokyo Pop” opened in April 1988, critics were upbeat, at least about its lead actress, Carrie Hamilton, a newcomer to movies who had appeared on TV’s “Fame.” The Los Angeles Times critic Sheila Benson wrote that Hamilton stalked through the film “straight into our hearts.” In The New York Times, Walter Goodman praised the movie, about an aspiring American pop star in Japan, for its “rhythm and zing.” The opening titles were designed by the artist Keith Haring at the height of his fame.
But by November 2019, when a print of “Tokyo Pop” played at the Japan Society in Manhattan, the film had fallen into obscurity. The theatrical distributor, Spectrafilm in Canada, was long defunct. Although VHS copies existed, the movie never made it to disc or streaming. Even its director, Fran Rubel Kuzui, hadn’t seen it — her debut feature — in three decades. And Hamilton, a daughter of Carol Burnett, had died of cancer at 38 in 2002.
But the Japan Society showing proved to be the start of the film’s second life. During the post-screening Q. and A., Sandra Schulberg, president of the preservation organization IndieCollect, volunteered from the audience that she would love to restore and rerelease the film. After a complicated search for original elements, and financial help from backers including Burnett and Dolly Parton, that restoration is here. “Tokyo Pop” opens Friday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and will continue at engagements throughout the country.
“You don’t think about that when you make something: How will I feel about this in 35 years? Especially your first film,” Kuzui, 78, said at an interview in New York in June, the day after the restoration had its premiere at the Museum of Modern Art.
Although she used to love seeing the video on Blockbuster shelves, and every year or so would get queries from festivals, she knew little about what had happened to the film, other than that she paid $40 a month to keep the internegative in storage. In the pre-internet days, without the distributor, there wasn’t much way to check in on the film’s afterlife, she explained. Thanks to digital and streaming, she added, “my generation is the first generation that I’ve seen that really is having an opportunity to look back on work in such a broad sense.”
The fish-out-of-water scenario of “Tokyo Pop” was personal to Kuzui, who was raised in Great Neck, N.Y., and is married to Kaz Kuzui, a Japanese film producer whom she met when she was a script supervisor and he was an assistant director. The movie centers on Wendy (Hamilton), a backup singer in New York who on impulse travels to Japan at a time when American culture was all the rage there. With the language barrier a struggle, she is helped by Hiro (Yutaka Tadokoro, now better known as Diamond Yukai), a frustrated rock musician who speaks a little English. They begin a relationship and, with some reluctance, she joins his band covering American hits. Hamilton herself wrote — and is shown performing — the closing-credits song.
Although Kuzui wrote the screenplay with her friend Lynn Grossman, “Tokyo Pop” was made with a mostly Japanese crew — unusual at the time for any American director, let alone a woman. Kuzui remembered that even her calls of “Action!” were perceived as unfeminine shouting.
Part of the subtext of the movie, she said, was that she didn’t want to become an example of a gaijin, or foreigner, who was dependent on Japan. When Wendy’s star starts to rise there, it’s because she’s viewed as a novelty. “Foreigners in Japan — they were not held to, and they still aren’t held to, exactly the same rules that Japanese people follow,” Kuzui said. If she was going to be successful as a director, she felt, it couldn’t be with that sort of advantage.
Although she and Kaz have divided their time between the United States and Japan for 40 years — they made much of their living handling the Japanese distribution of American independent films like the Coen brothers’ “Barton Fink” and David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” — Kuzui said that for a long period, she would go back and forth every six to eight weeks because she lacked a visa. She has always seen herself as living in the United States. “I really didn’t start living in Japan until the pandemic,” she said.
Kuzui went on to direct only one other feature, which many more people saw: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1992). Pointing to an admiring 2022 article in The Atlantic, Kuzui believes that even that film may receive the kind of re-evaluation that she anticipates for “Tokyo Pop.” It’s in the zeitgeist, she said, that audiences are giving a fresh look to work made in the 1980s and ’90s.
Kazu Watanabe, who programmed “Tokyo Pop” at the Japan Society and now runs distribution at Grasshopper Film, discovered the film while curating a series on outsiders making movies in Tokyo. He thought the movie held up, even in small ways, and, unlike some films of the era, seemed in tune with modern sensibilities. “There’s a scene where the two leads are in bed together, and then she changes her mind, doesn’t want to sleep with him,” he said. “And it’s done so matter-of-factly. There’s no big dramatic scene about it.”
Schulberg of IndieCollect said she wanted to restore the film in part because it was a remarkable directorial debut by a woman “who in my view never got the opportunities and attention she deserved.”
Burnett, speaking by phone in early July, before the actors’ strike, recalled when Hamilton was shooting the film. “I remember she had a terrible time, she said, with her hair, because the bleach or whatever it was over in Japan made her hair fall out,” Burnett said, with a laugh. “So she wore a lot of scarves and kind of had to make do with what she had.” In an anecdote Burnett also recounted in “Carrie and Me” (2013), her book about her relationship with her daughter, she said that Marlon Brando somehow saw “Tokyo Pop” and called Hamilton to discuss a project — which Hamilton turned down.
While Burnett occasionally searches for her daughter on YouTube and reads the comments, keeping tabs on her “small following,” she added, “I’m thrilled that, again, after all these years, people are going to discover her all over again.”
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