Much like most of the songs performed by the band whose misadventures drive its wispy plot, “Big in Japan” comes off as pleasantly diverting, vaguely familiar and instantly disposable. Real-life Seattle rockers Phillip A. Peterson, David Drury and Sean Lowry, known collectively as Tennis Pro, play reasonable facsimiles of themselves in writer-director John Jeffcoat’s semi-fictionalized comedy, a freeform fiction loosely based on the group’s true-life attempts to boost their careers by making a splash in Tokyo. The movie conceivably could help their CD sales, even if it fails to chart very high as theatrical and VOD fare.
The three leads are introduced just as they’re edging near the point of casting aside their dreams and settling into day jobs. Frustrated by their inability to find an audience in the Seattle music scene, they have begun to wonder — and, worse, have been encouraged by significant others to believe — that if it hasn’t happened for them yet, it likely never will.
But after a chance encounter with Alex Vincent — another real-life rocker, a former drummer for the grunge group Green River — Phil, David and Sean are encouraged to try one last roll of the dice. With Vincent as their official booking agent, they head for Tokyo in the hope of gaining recognition and establishing a fanbase for Tennis Pro.
Once they arrive, however, the bandmates find themselves playing as bill fillers in second- and third-rate clubs, straining to make sense of subway routes to various gigs, and making do with less-than-deluxe accommodations in a disreputable hotel where they must share a room, whether they want to or not, with a hard-working working girl.
In another movie with a different agenda, such a setup easily could have led to something downbeat or bittersweet. Here, however, the language barrier often is impenetrable, but not insurmountable. And, more important, it doesn’t prevent the strangers in a strange land from gradually bridging the cultural divide — and establishing camaraderie with some local musicians — with their poppy music and their bemused curiosity.
It’s tempting to describe “Big in Japan” as “Lost in Translation” meets “A Hard Day’s Night,” but that might make it sound zanier, or more substantial, than it is. (Tennis Pro’s pop-rock tunes actually seem more suitable for a Monkees album than a Beatles LP — not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you.) The movie saunters from scene to scene at an unhurried pace, with only a token storyline to unite musical interludes, mildly comical episodes, whimsical dabs of local color and, briefly, a semi-psychedelic, anime-flavored fantasy. But the freewheeling discursiveness is more engaging than annoying.
Indeed, Jeffcoat gets into trouble only when, late in the game, he attempts to impose a more rigid narrative structure by dropping into the mix a gladhanding record company exec (played by Jeffcoat himself). The soulless suit offers to sign the band, but only if – are you ready for this? — one of the band members is dropped from the lineup. This contrived crisis is such a stale cliche that most viewers may feel unreasonably relieved when it’s tossed aside just as arbitrarily as it’s introduced in the first place.
Not surprisingly, Drury, Peterson and Lowry are effortlessly convincing as friends and collaborators whose sometimes jokey, sometimes bickering interactions are informed by a shared past. Each plays a variation of his offscreen self, complete with distinctive quirks and/or colorful baggage. (Drury, for example, really is an accomplished blackjack player – evidently more successful in real life than he is here — and was featured in the 2011 documentary “Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians.”) And if their “characters” sometimes seem like stereotypes, that doesn’t make them any less believable as they strive to catch a break and keep hope alive.
Fluid digital lensing by Jeffcoat and Ryan McMackin (drummer for yet another real band, the Maldives) gives “Big in Japan” a feel of spontaneity and documentary-style intimacy. And sound mixer Adam Powers deserves a shout-out for his double-duty contribution: He plays, quite amusingly, the enigmatic Mans, a serene eccentric who’s maybe a tad too eager to guide fellow Westerners through Tokyo.