Tennis Pro — the down-on-their-luck Seattle rock group whose trip to Tokyo forms the basis of Big in Japan’s discursive and threadbare storyline — plays a brand of straightforward power pop that is brisk, punchy, and pretty much instantly forgettable. The same could be said of Big in Japan, which semi-fictitiously profiles the band’s trip to Tokyo, a last-ditch effort to find an audience and hit it big (or at least make something approaching a living out of their music). The movie is quick-moving and generally likable without ever being particularly fresh or funny.
In rock music lore, Japan exists as a career Shangri-La, where a struggling band might suddenly discover it has made it big without even trying. There are real-life reference points for this, of course: Cheap Trick, Scorpions, Avril Lavigne, and The Ventures. (The last of these is Tennis Pro’s specific model owing to surf rockers The Ventures’ legendary status in Japan — they are said to have outsold The Beatles two-to-one — and the fact that they originated in nearby Tacoma, Washington.) Tennis Pro is not so lucky as to find they’ve already attained a following in the land of the rising sun; instead, at the urging of Green River drummer Alex Vincent, operating as an ersatz manager, the band scrapes together enough money to fly to Tokyo to play some shows and hopefully gin up some interest in their music.
What they find are the usual post-Spinal Tap travails: lost luggage, bad gigs, worse hotels, and shoddy management. In the end, they are offered the requisite strings-attached record deal leading to a simultaneously predictable and nonsensical quandary about whether to force out their bass player. Big in Japan runs through these concert tour cliches with the same half-ironic slacker posturing that Tennis Pro effects onstage.
The movie never really tries hard enough for a laugh to say that it fails as a comedy. Instead, Big in Japan is the cinematic equivalent of wearing tennis whites or tuxedos onstage (as Tennis Pro sometimes does). It indicates an ironic distance from itself, a self-awareness about its own attempts to entertain, but never risks doing anything that might actually make you laugh out loud. The ironic pose makes a late-inning turn toward the heartwarming, in which the band becomes local semi-heroes for playing shows in the wake of an earthquake, particularly strange.
Still, Big in Japan, does have some value as a whimsical tour of Tokyo’s underground — basement rock clubs, capsule hotels, shochu shots, and ice cream hot dogs. The best scenes place the bandmembers in the streets and clubs of Tokyo and simply allow them to bounce off the atmosphere. In these scenes, the movie works like an episode of an Anthony Bourdain show, imbibing the character of a locale most of us will never visit (but without the plodding narration and affected cool).