Part social experiment, part exploration of insta-fame, and part cry for help: review of indie documentary Big in Japan

Film review: Big in Japan

Dir: Lachlan McLeod

Prod: David Elliot-Jones

There's a behind the scenes video on the DVD release of The Office (UK) where one of the creators is taped up to look like a pig in some sort of office shenanigans. His hands are wrapped in tape to resemble trotters and his nose is pulled up towards his forehead to make a little piggy nose. The whole time his colleagues are holding him down and covering him in tape he is insisting that he's in on the joke, even as his 'friends' walk away and leave him on the floor, unable to move. It's some of the most uncomfortable TV I've ever seen. Ricky Gervais is good at uncomfortable. I'll just park that image there for the moment and get on to Big in Japan.

Big in Japan documents the crazy plan of three friends trying to find fame. It's part social experiment, part exploration of insta-fame, and part cry for help. David Elliot-Jones is the writer, presenter, and subject of the documentary. He's also a co-director. The director, Lachlan McLeod, is right when he says that Dave has an incredible presence. He is wonderfully likable - vulnerable yet self-assured and driven. The third person making this documentary is Louis Dai as editor and co-director.

David Elliot-Smith in the indie film documentary Big in Japan

Very early in the story, Dai and McLeod present Dave with the idea of going to Japan to become famous. He's keen and so the three of them uproot from Melbourne, Australia to chase fame in Tokyo, Japan.

These filmmakers obviously know what they're doing. The documentary is well paced. The soundtrack is perfect. Tokyo has never looked so appealing. McLeod has created a strong sense of place and time without resorting to clichéd images of Mt Fuji. I feel like I know Japan better than I did before and know a little bit more about the Japanese people. There are fascinating character studies of gaijin tarento (foreign talents); Bob Sapp, an American fighter and Japanese TV superstar; Kelsey Parnigoni, a Canadian in Japan to become a Jpop idol; and, Rick 'Ladybeard' Magarey, who as an Australian crossdresser in Japan has nailed the cute/quirky factor to amass 100k Twitter followers.

That's all good and well but the most interesting part of the documentary is that it's so meta. When you're immersed in the film and getting lost in the story of these three friends meeting celebrities and supposedly learning where to draw the line between entertainment versus voyeurism, intimacy versus over-sharing, and belonging versus being detached from reality, it's a simple hero's journey. But if you take a step back and think about a documentary about a man searching for fame, learning about fame, and critiquing fame and the fact that the documentary itself is an attempt by the filmmakers to make people stand up and pay attention to them and their film, there are layers of meaning to peel back. To paraphrase Ladybeard, to some extent anyone getting into the entertainment industry as a performer enjoys being objectified.

This is where we get to the nub of the story and it brings us back to that image I introduced at the start. How much is Dave complicit in the ridiculous lengths they go to in the search for fame? There are a couple of scenes that are super uncomfortable to watch. These aren't the scenes that you might expect. It's not when Dave is stripped down almost naked to attract followers at the busiest pedestrian crossing in Japan. It's not when a room full of middle-aged men are singing along to saccharine tunes at an idol gig with three young women in pseudo school uniforms dancing on the stage. The most uncomfortable scenes are when Dave pushes back against his promise that he'll do whatever it takes to find fame. When he says he doesn't want to do something and his fellow filmmakers essentially say, 'too bad, you're doing it'. They go as far as saying that his willingness to strip down and face real peril in the mountains of Japan wasn't good enough, that it was a 'pretty poor effort'.

David Elliot-Jones in indie film documentary Big in Japan

Obviously, because Dave is credited as the writer and producer of Big in Japan, I assume he has put this story together and decided how he wants to tell it. Those uncomfortable moments still have the feeling of authenticity and they are part of what makes this documentary such essential viewing. If you're trying to understand what fame is all about in the era of likes and follows, you need to examine the psychology of self that leads someone to put themselves in dangerous and uncomfortable situations. It is consummate story-telling. Those questions of complicity and manipulation were introduced right at the start of the documentary and they come to a flashpoint at the right moment in the story. In the traditional structure of a film story, it comes at the nadir, the lowest ebb.  

Like any good story, the themes are clear but there are no easy answers offered. Do the lads find fame in Japan? It depends how you define fame. Do they discover what this fame thing is all about? They definitely learn some things but to what advantage, who knows? I've come away from Big in Japan pondering the questions that the filmmakers want me to ponder: what is fame; how do you achieve it; does it change you; is it worth it; is fame today different to fame in yesteryear? I'm also thinking about some questions that they may not want me to be thinking about: does Dave really want to be objectified; are McLeod and Dai bullies; and, is Mr Jonesu making an appearance at film screenings?

I do like a story that leaves me with questions.

Big in Japan is screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Follow the film and find out more on the film's website or on the socials: Twitter Facebook Instagram Vimeo.