Review: Mr. Moonlight

If, like me, you come to this Japanese documentary about the Beatles’ historic 1966 concerts at Budokan in the hopes of seeing the rare footage of the shows taken by the police for security reasons but sanctioned for more than 50 years due to privacy concerns, you’ll probably be disappointed. Though it does talk about the footage and the years-long successful lawsuit to make it public, what ends up on screen is pretty minimal, which either means there is still some kind of prohibition in place (the producers didn’t get—or didn’t attempt to get—the rights to any Beatles songs, either) or there was never much to the footage in the first place. Instead, the documentary uses the excuse of the public release of the footage to talk about the Beatles’ relationship to Japan and how the concerts came about. And while all that is interesting, the movie treats it in such a parochial fashion that its appeal to non-Japanese people who weren’t actually alive at the time would seem to be strictly academic.

Which isn’t to say the folks being interviewed don’t have a great time talking about it. Even the non-Japanese interviewees, such as John Lennon’s sister and the Beatles’ British fan club president, all speak about Japan enthusiastically as this mysterious place that the boys were fascinated with and wanted to visit desperately, and such background does bring a certain tension to the narrative as deployed by the filmmakers and extrapolated by those involved, most centrally the staff of Toshiba-EMI, the Japan record company that distributed the Parlophone label. Everyone interviewed seems to want to take at least some credit for making the Beatles stars in Japan. More than the intrigues behind the huge effort to get the group to come here—most of which had to do with business matters—these insiders talk about the cultural mood at the time, and how when Japanese people thought of foreign pop music it was the U.S., since it was only ten years following the end of the occupation and America still had a tight hold on the Japanese imagination. The editor of Music Life magazine recalls how shocked people were when they first heard the Beatles and realized they were British. It didn’t make any sense. Most of the detailed intelligence about the phenomenon is explained by musician-producer Takashi Matsumoto, who talks about the methods used for promoting the Beatles in Japan and how, eventually, record executives used the popularity of the group to groom and promote local acts like Tulip, a band I never associated with Beatlemania but apparently that’s how they were sold. In addition, the filmmakers talk to fans who were so rabid they couldn’t wait for the Beatles to come to Asia, so they went to England—by hitchhiking from Moscow! Then there are the surviving people who worked on the Beatles concerts in Japan, including hotel housekeepers, who have anecdotes about Jane Asher and George Harrison’s cigarette butts and John Lennon’s “happi coat,” not to mention a dozen or so celebrities whose lives were changed by the experience of either seeing or meeting them, like emcee Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, vocalist-guitarist Yuzo Kayama, and local rockabilly artist Micky Curtis. Tamiyo Okuda, of course, drops in to mention how “serious” they were as musicians, a hardly startling observation, but Okuda is probably the closest thing J-pop now has to a Beatle manque, at least in terms of songwriting. 

The fact that the concerts themselves are not depicted in any meaningful fashion leaves the movie with a hole it can’t possibly fill. All that’s provided is the set lists. Even the Japanese opening acts get short shrift. At one point, Matsumoto emphasizes how important the concerts were to the cultural life of Japan at the time, and he provides lots of experiential evidence to back up his assertion except the one thing that would have made it cinematic: scenes of the shows that everyone says were earth-shattering. 

In Japanese and English. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Mr. Moonlight home page in Japanese

photo (c) Mr. Moonlight Seisaku Iinkai

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