Big Dreams, Little Tokyo

A first-time director's take on bridging the cultural divide

Big Dreams, Little Tokyo The message board of this and other Japan-related websites see a constant flow of people who are crazy in love with Japan and definitely "gonna visit someday". And indeed, every year, thousands of young people arrive in Japan from around the world on various programs, many with preconceived ideas of what they'll find, and many convinced that Japan holds some special secret just for them.

We never learn how Boyd, the awkward hero of David Boyle's debut film "Big Dreams, Little Tokyo" and played by Boyle himself, mastered his impressive Japanese language skills. But it's clear from the start that this young entrepreneur has a big fixation on the country and its culture. A serial company founder, who for some reason uses the name "Tiger" for all his businesses, he seeks the Japanese angle in everything. In one scene, while trying to recruit students to his fledgling Tiger Language School, he brushes off a couple of likely looking prospects when they turn out to be Chinese. For me, this small glimpse into his motivation rang more true than perhaps any other aspect of the movie. His obsession has less to do with business and making money than being recognized and accepted, even adopted, by Japanese. I've seen this kind of obsession first-hand and Boyd's character is no exaggeration.

Boyle's movie is said to be mainly about his characters trying to fit in, and of Boyd's "big dreams of acceptance in another culture and his own skin". But the most clear-cut example of someone struggling with his identity is not Boyd but his roommate Jerome (Jayson Watabe), a Japanese-American and an aspiring sumo wrestler. Too Japanese-looking to fit in as a kid, he is now too Americanized - though lacking the country's increasingly common obesity - to make it as a sumo wrestler. Despite the rejection he never stops trying to bulk up and this provides a few of the movie's funnier moments. He finds the perfect metaphor for his own existence in the California roll, inauthentic as sushi but oh, so tasty. He also wears a series of those "wacky" t-shirts (supplied, one gathers from the end credits, by J-Box) that are so popular with Japan fans but which draw only confused glances from Japanese ("Miso Hungry"?!).

With more and more people being born into bi-cultural and bilingual families, Jerome represents the dilemma faced daily by a constantly growing number of young people worldwide. Nowhere is this dilemma experienced more sharply than in Japan, where cultural identity and race are more important identifiers than a passport or birth certificate.

Big Dreams, Little Tokyo Meanwhile, the only thing that can possibly distract Boyd from his obsession is...another obsession. This he finds in the all-too-sweet character of Mai (Rachel Morihiro), a Japanese nurse at the local hospital. She seems the epitome of the ideal Japanese girlfriend, always going out of her way to be supportive and playing along with Boyd's attempts to be her "sensei" when, judging from his semi-stalking, his motives clearly lie elsewhere. Morihiro plays the part well and no doubt many viewers will be arriving in Japan hoping to meet her real-world equivalent.

Boyle came up with the idea for the movie while working as a Mormon missionary in the Japantown area of Sydney, Australia. Many of the characters in the film were based on people he met and interacted with while there. It was shot in the summer of 2005 in San Jose and San Francisco, California and Salt Lake City, Utah. The film premiered in November, 2006 at the AFI Festival in Hollywood, with three amateur sumo wrestlers on hand to add a touch of authenticity.

In an interview, Boyle said, "The biggest thing that I learned in making this movie is just that all the pieces of the puzzle that make a movie should all lead to telling a good story and also defining character. I want to tell interesting stories and show interesting characters."

Having lived half my life in Japan, I can't say how interesting this movie is for anyone who doesn't know, or isn't obsessed with, the language and culture. Plot developments are a bit contrived and the script lacks punch, but the movie is easy on the eye and is sure to appeal to anyone with an interest in Japan and things Japanese. It's certainly great material for a Japanese or English language classroom. I'm no expert on flim-making but to me this seems like a noble first effort from a director still in his early 20s. And failing that, he could always become a first-rate Japanese teacher.

Related articles on: