Greetings again from the darkness. My favorite documentary at this year’s Oak Cliff Film Festival introduced me to the world’s first female Japanese Country and Western music star: Tomi Fujiyama. She made a historic appearance at the 39th anniversary of the Grand Ole Opry in 1964 and director Josh Bishop follows her efforts at realizing a dream of a return performance.
The first thing we notice about Tomi is her effervescent personality and zest for life. Her smile lights up any room she enters, and her observations are often laugh-out-loud funny. The next thing we notice is that she is incredibly talented as a guitar player and singer. She is no circus act, but instead a world class musical talent … not just in 1964 when she followed Johnny Cash onto the Opry stage, but even today as she belts out The Tennessee Waltz.
Filmmaker Bishop does nice work in allowing us to learn Tomi’s history, beginning with the destruction of her family home in Japan during WWII, and her later trip to the United States with her father. Her early career was spent performing for the U.S. military – this during a time when female performers in Japan were rare, and those that toured the world were nearly non-existent.
The filmmaking process began in 2005 and the early scenes blend seamlessly with more recent footage. It’s pretty interesting to watch as Tomi and her husband re-trace her early time in Las Vegas, New York City and Nashville. It’s especially touching and entertaining as she meets up with 91 year old Oscar, who was part of the “Lonzo & Oscar” duo who pushed to get Tomi some of her early gigs. Watching them play together is watching two people who truly love what they do – two people born to make music. And that’s the overriding feeling of the entire movie. Tomi dreams of standing on the Opry stage again, but she never misses a chance to perform … anywhere, anytime.
The historical aspects of this story are impressive – multicultural and multigenerational facets play a role, and the enthusiasm shown by Tomi make her so much fun to pull for. Mr. Bishop noted in the post-screening Q&A that the final cut of the film will be different from this version, thanks to recent developments involving SXSW, Jimmy Kimmel, and yes, the Grand Ole Opry. It’s a story of history, music, perseverance and attitude; and it’s a story more of us should know.