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Far Western is a music-fueled, character-driven documentary film about Japan’s history and obsession with American country music.  

Seventy years after the U.S. occupation of Japan, a devoted group of Japanese musicians pursue their passion for American country and bluegrass music in honky-tonks from Tokyo to Nashville.

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About the Film

Far Western is a feature documentary film that tells the phenomenal story of the transplant of American country music to post-World War II Japan.  Nearly 70 years later, for a devoted group the music has become a lifelong obsession.  Part music history and part character portrait, Far Western is told through the lives of musicians, fans, and live-music venue owners. Set both in modern Japan and the American South, the film explores the uncanny ability of a simple form of music to cross geographic and language barriers, forming a strange cultural bridge between the two countries. Now, these Japanese musicians have made their own pilgrimages back to America, to the birthplace of the music, playing in honky-tonks and festivals in America.

Our Connection

In 2007 I was working in Japan producing a  ten-city tour, live-concert film for an American bluegrass band.  The tour was planned through the U.S. Embassy Office of Cultural Affairs which had arranged for us to meet a Japanese musician named Masuo Sasabe, an excellent guitar player and singer.  He introduced me to Juta Sagai, who introduced us to the legendary Ozaki Brothers and it continued to spread out from there.  They took us to the Rockytop, a tiny honky-tonk in the famous Ginza District of Tokyo.  The walls were layered with decades of photos, concert posters and Western kitsch. The musicians were excellent and their knowledge of western music history was amazing.  We found the Nashville Club, then the Lonestar Club, and then Petticoat Lane—where an older Japanese man told me through a translator that he’d instructed his wife to bury him in his cowboy boots.   Then I knew we needed to get back to Japan and make this film!  Our first trip we filmed a week in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, and on the second trip we visited Charlie Nagatani at his International Country Gold Festival in Kumamoto.  Through these trips we’ve met a great community that has kindly helped us tell this story.

History

It was in the early years immediately following the World War II, during the occupation of Japan by the U.S. forces, that Western influences began to dramatically change Japanese popular culture.

The Far East Network (FEN), established just after WWII played a big part. This radio station which was established to broadcast American content to soldiers stationed in Japan became increasingly popular with a far larger "ghost audience" of young Japanese.   The simple, curious sounds of the West drew in a Japanese audience, disillusioned with their parents’ culture and the restrictions of the old Japanese society.  While there were similarities to Japanese styles of folk music in some way Western music sounded wholly new and foreign.  

For Japanese musicians the music provided a means of income and adventure, traveling and playing the military bases in Japan and the Freedom Ports of Thailand, the Philippines, and South Korea.  While country music shows like The Grand Old Opry and Louisiana Hayride dominated the U.S. airwaves, FEN broadcast the same programs in Japan.  Western music in Japan would play in parallel to their North American counter part as folk, hillbilly, western swing, bluegrass, country & western, rockabilly, and rock-n-roll came of age.  

The Characters

Charlie Nagatani - Owner of a country and western honky-tonk in Kumomoto, Japan.  He’s 80 years old and he and his house band, ‘The Canonballs’ play over 300 shows a year!  He’s the creator of the International Country Gold Festival which has run for 25 years hosting American entertainers such as Bill Monroe, Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam, Porter Wagner and The Dixie Chicks.  Charlie is Japan’s ambassador of country music. He’s been a guest at the White House and played the Grand Old Opry nearly 20 times.  

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 The Ozaki Bros. - Hisashi and Yasushi Ozaki are credited for forming the first bluegrass band in Japan.  The were the first Japanese to be inducted to the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame.  Their story links us to World War II, where they first learned traditional American songs illegally, despite the Japanese ban on American cultural media.

 Masuo Sasabe and Blueside of Lonesome - Sasabe’s father was a master of a traditional Japanese style of folk music.  At 15 years of age he heard traditional American music.  He was struck by a similarity and figured folk music from around the world must be the same.  Since 1974, he’s journeyed back to the source in America yearly to play bluegrass festivals and honky-tonks.  His band Blueside of Lonesome, with an all-star lineup, is now one of the most popular traditional Americana acts in Japan. 

 Juta Sagai - Sagai is a devotee of Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie and a key figure in Japan’s bluegrass history.  His band The Briars, are a popular act in the festival and live venue circuit in Japan.  The Briars features a phenomenal 23-year-old female banjo player!

 Kazuhiro Inaba - Like Sagai and Sasabe, Inaba is a second generation Baby Boomer.  His father loved Hank Sr. and true to his roots he plays a combination of hillbilly, western swing and bluegrass.  He plays a packed scheduled both in Japan and the States and runs a music school that teaches traditional American instruments.  In the 70’s Inaba began making trips to America to experience the music in it’s birthplace.

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 Toru Mitsui - Mitsui is the foremost musicologist on American country music in Japan. As a young man his music world was forever changed by the release of Harry Smith’s classic: Anthology of American Folk Music. He became fascinated with the early British and Irish folk ballads. In 1967 he wrote what some have called the first study of bluegrass, Burugurasu Ongaku (Bluegrass Music), and his 1971 Kantori Ongaku no Rekishi (A History of Country Music) became the key reference to the early history. In the late 80’s he went on a quest to America to find the origin and author of what George Jones called the most perfect song every written, “You Are My Sunshine." Mitsui has released a double album of songs recorded in his youth during the early-to-mid 60’s that includes tracks from traditional Scottish ballads to Woody Guthrie to Leadbelly.

FILMMAKERS

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James Payne (Director/Producer/Editor)  James Payne is a freelance director and producer in documentary, television and commercial media.  It began with the cult classic Okie Noodling, a story about fishing for mythical, monster catfish with your bare hands (PBS, Discovery Europe).  Payne co-directed The Creek Runs Red, a sweetly dytopian story of a toxic American town (PBS- Independent Lens).  Payne then produced Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo set within the walls of Oklahoma’s oldest maximum-security prison (HBO Documentary Films).  Other documentaries which he's produced include The Flaming Lips, U.F.O.s at the Zoo (Warner Bros.) and Winnebago Man (Kino International).  He's produced branded commercial documentary content for clients such as YETI, Sports Illustrated, ESPN and Costa del Mar. His T.V. producing credits include Mudcats (Nat Geo) and Ultimate Survival Alaska (Nat Geo).   His films have been accepted to major festivals including SXSW, Toronto, Los Angeles, Hot Docs, Rotterdam, Berlin, and Sheffeld.  

David McMurry (Cinematographer) is based in Marin County, California.  His documentary subjects range from rock 'n roll heroes to hummingbirds, and he thinks some of the most interesting stories are found in the hinterlands of the country, where he spent his childhood being raised on an elixir of god, guns and football.  David has been a long-time collaborator with Payne on a number of documentary films, including The Flaming Lips, U.F.O.'s at the Zoo (Warner Bros.), Okie Noodling II (American Public Television), and Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo (HBO Documentary Films).  His television work has been seen on MTV and PBS, and his commercial clients include VISA, Hewlett-Packard, Peet's Coffee, and Nike.  His first film, Atomic City, is currently in post-production.

Matt Leach (Editor/Producer) is a producer/director/editor who has spent the past decade sharing the strange and wonderful stories of Oklahoma.  His early claim to fame was directing the music video Midnight Vignette, voted one of the top-ten indie videos of 2008 by MTV.  He transitioned into commercial editing, working on high profile political campaigns and national commercials and XBOX titles.  His work in documentary began co-directing and co-producing This Land a thought provoking and delicately crafted television series on life in Middle America with pieces featured on PBS.  He produced and edited his first feature film This May Be The Last Time (AMC / Sundance International) that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2014 and screened at MoMA. 

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Far Western Press

 

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PRESS INQUIRIES

 

James Payne | fieldguidemedia@me.com 405.473.8890

Matt Leach | matt@thislandpress.com 918.527.0718

Fascinating as all get out...this is one documentary that deserves to be seen.
— Christopher Stipp, SlashFilm
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