Film Review: Big in Japan (Australia, 2017) is far more than one man’s vainglorious pursuit

Where most foreigners settling in Japan pass their time in Japanese pubs, English schools or seeking out every piece of longstanding architecture, David Elliot-Jones spent his trying to become famous. And you’ve probably never heard of the guy, but that doesn’t mean he failed.

Big in Japan opens with a preface about the seemingly endless ways of reaching massive audiences through sites like YouTube and through social media. But the documentary isn’t mired by that well-beaten drum, it’s not another film about how these new mediums connect people; it’s a film about three guys putting these mediums to the test.

With foreign talent in demand, three filmmakers (David Elliot-Jones, Lachlan McLeod & Louis Dai) move to Japan to test whether these mediums can gift anyone fame. The star to be, Dave, is an average Victorian in his mid-twenties, known to his friends by his peculiar looks and personality. He’s also willing to do pretty much anything to become famous.

Tracking Dave’s exploits in Japan, we watch as he takes guidance from the strangely successful group of foreigners that have gracefully entered Japanese pop culture. He meets with Ladybeard, a masculine Australian cross dresser who built his persona from childhood hardships, as well as Kelsey, a young Canadian trying to break into the Japanese idol scene.

The senex to the narrative is former linebacker turned MMA fighter turned Japanese celebrity Bob Sapp, who takes Dave under his wing, introducing him to both sides of fame in Japan. The other side being the ‘self imposed isolation’ or the requisite ‘virginal purity’ for J-Pop stars, which shades the celebrity culture in Japan and causes Dave to briefly question his motives.

Dave’s fame at its zenith is the triumph of the documentary. And even where he fails, Dave’s awkward charm and his unfaltering commitment to the project, whether he’s parading through the world’s busiest intersecting in a loincloth or drinking anything that goes through a blender dressed as a Japanese vegetable, keeps the film funny and entertaining.

Big in Japan proceeds along a timeline of the crew’s ventures and ploys to put Dave to bigger audiences. And for the most part, the ploys are creative and well-thought out, pushing Dave’s uniqueness as his central selling point and garnering new fans through different mediums and personas.

It brings with it not just a colourful cast of strange characters, but the fans of those characters too and the picture of the celebrity market in Japan grows clearer with the broader input. Dave’s voice-overs also add valuable context to the transitions between scenes (as well as sounding a lot like John Saffron with his similar inflections).

The success of Dave’s expedition seems to come from how much fun the crew have along the way, and whether that’s true or not, it’s certainly what makes Big in Japan so fun to watch. To answer Dave’s departing question, ‘what have we done with the last two years of our lives?’ You’ve given hope to anyone seeking fame and created one authentic and atypical narrative along the way.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Big in Japan has a limited release from January 3rd.