To many Americans, certain cultural markers are ours and ours alone: stars 'n' stripes, pickup trucks, Budweiser, hot dogs, front porch pickin' and grinnin'. But Far Western, a documentary about country and bluegrass enthusiasts in Japan that makes its North American premiere at Full Frame, dissolves any ideas of cultural ownership. Instead, it offers a terrific look at how the stuff we might think of as "ours" reaches much, much further than we might imagine.
Far Western only lightly touches on the hellish existence for the Japanese after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on their country, but it does make clear just how bluegrass and country music got such a firm foothold there. American troops brought their cultural trappings to the postwar occupation, which included Wild West movies. Those films—and their respective twangy soundtracks—represented the thrilling, wide-open new possibilities of democracy. Thus, country and bluegrass music became synonymous with idealistic notions of freedom.
The documentary's narrative revolves around Charlie Nagatani, an eighty-year-old musician who runs a honky-tonk, Good Time Charlie's, in Kumamoto, Japan. He first encountered country music at the surprise party his friends threw for his twentieth birthday, and was hooked immediately. As one of the most potent forces for keeping bluegrass and country music alive in Japan, Nagatani makes for a delightful centerpiece to Far Western's narrative. In 1989, he founded the Country Gold music festival, a yearly hootenanny in Kumamoto that's hosted some of the biggest names in country and bluegrass: Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, and even Brad Paisley and the Dixie Chicks. And while the genres may be a comparatively niche market in Japan, Far Western demonstrates that its fans are passionate devotees.
Interviews with Nagatani and his fellow die-hards are deeply charming. The subjects' intense, earnest love for country and bluegrass radiates through the screen; they treat the music with an adoring reverence that borders on genuine awe. Sometimes, this reaches almost comical or surreal heights, as when we hear native Japanese speakers sing in impeccable, high lonesome English, or see clusters of Japanese line dancers getting down at Nagatani's Country Gold, decked out in cowboy boots, ten-gallon hats, and fringed jackets.
Far Western also follows Nagatani and a small group of cohorts as they travel to Nashville for Nagatani to perform with the Grand Ole Opry, as well as to Austin, Texas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. For Nagatani, the Opry was the stuff of legend and the home of his heroes, and his first performance there in 1985 was a lifelong dream come true. Though Nagatani now returns to the Opry annually, his excitement for the pilgrimage hasn't dulled over the decades, and his friends share his enthusiasm. It's hard to imagine getting giddy at an empty dance hall in Tulsa, but Nagatani and company appear to be as thrilled with their surroundings as a child at Disney World.
Some truly remarkable side-stories are embedded within the larger narrative, but you'll have to tune in for those worthwhile little yarns. Ultimately, though, Far Western is refreshing in its examination of wholehearted cultural appreciation—there's not a hint of irony or cool indifference anywhere in its eighty-three minutes. It's heartwarming without any schmaltz, and it makes for a rewarding romp.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fuji Mountain Breakdown."