A Loving Riff on Punk Life in Tokyo

The first time Pamela Valente, 37, set foot in Tokyo, she was instantly swept away. The Brazilian-born filmmaker, who’d been living in France for more than a decade, loved Paris, but longed to return to live in a city where the pace was more frenetic. So in 2003, she up and moved to Tokyo. For two years, Valente lived with a local family, learned the language and became enamored of the Japanese rock scene. When her boyfriend, who’d remained in the City of Lights, demanded that she choose him or Tokyo, love won out. But before she left, Valente vowed to capture as much of Tokyo as she could on film.

The product of that Japanese fever is Rock ‘n Tokyo, an in-depth exploration of what Valente terms the “rock and roll aliens” of Japan. Featuring such bands as Guitar Wolf, Jet Boys, Nine, and The 5678s (who made an appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1), the rock doc delves into the daily lives of these extraterrestrial purveyors of punk, and finds that whether on stage or far from it, these musicians know what it takes to be rock gods.

The film, which was shot entirely in Japanese, has played nearly a dozen festivals this year, including the San Francisco Indie Film Fest, the Leeds International Film Festival in the United Kingdom, and the Kansai International Film Festival in Japan. Valente recently spoke with The Independent about staying up all night partying with The 5678s, living on the borderline of the present and the past, and how she left her heart and soul in Tokyo.

What was it about Tokyo that drew you?

Before going there, I was intrigued mainly by current Japanese filmmakers, such as Takashi Miike or Shinya Tsukamoto. I love their work and wondered about the environment that had influenced them to make such extreme films. And when I got there I understood—Japan is another planet and Japanese people are aliens!

On your MySpace page you say that there are “several Tokyos sharing the same geographical and temporal location.” Please explain further.

Tokyo is a big city, and all sorts of things happen there all the time. In my film, I showed some images of the famous “sararimen,” these salary-men from big companies who all have the same haircut and dress the same, in black or gray suits, white shirts, and ties. There are also people who still dress in kimonos. I found it so strange that these people were living in the same city at the same time as the punk and garage rockers that are in my film. It taught me that you can choose to live in the futuristic, more designer Tokyo, or to forever dwell in temples and traditions. Everything is possible there.

Of all the groups of people in Tokyo that you could have built a film around, why’d you choose to focus on people in the underground music scene?

I wanted to film Tokyo before going away. The idea of leaving without images of the place kind of scared and stressed me out at the same time. I had some friends who were big in the rock scene, and I used to go to lots of concerts. Therefore, I thought it’d be a great idea to make some kind of Tokyo portrait from a very unusual point of view. I think I had it right. People who see Rock ‘n Tokyo often tell me they never imagined Tokyo could be like that.

Do you speak Japanese?

I do. I learned Japanese just by virtue of living in Japan. So I speak a very inelegant street Japanese—a girl should never speak as I do. But I understand everyone and people understand me. To be on the safe side, though, while I was filming, I sometimes had a translator around.

How much footage did you have? Was it hard to whittle down?

I filmed from November 2004 to May 2005, so I had lot of footage, about 40 hours. I had to cut some nice moments—for instance a scene where Ronnie from The 5678s goes to the movies with a bunch of rocker friends. They are dressed as they usually are, rockabilly style, all in leather and shades. They walk into the theater holding their beers and even a guitar! At one point, some of Ronnie’s friends went to wait for him in the lobby. They were standing there drinking their beers and playing the guitar. The theater employees just stared at us—from a safe distance, I might add—and didn’t dare say a word. But there was no aggressiveness in the air. The employees were just afraid because the rockers looked so different from “normal” Japanese folks. It was a good scene, but it took too long to tell the story. Also, I cut some juicy bits about people getting too drunk, myself included.

Documentaries about bands or performers always seem to depict pretty insane lifestyles. What’s the craziest thing you witnessed while making this movie?

Wow, there were so many things! There was Guitar Wolf totally drunk, playing in a packed club while wearing Ultraman masks. Billy the bass player almost got into a fight with some asshole in the first row and Seiji the guitar player could barely stand up because he was so drunk. There was also Onoching, the frontman of Jet Boys, getting naked and masturbating a big white vegetable on his guitar.

Have you picked up a distributor for the film yet?

Some have shown interest, and I will maybe sign with an American distributor who wants to release Rock ‘n Tokyo on DVD. The film will also probably be shown on a French TV station and we are in negotiations for a release in a Parisian movie theater. But nothing’s set in stone yet.

What do you hope people watching the movie take away from it?

People who are interested in Japanese culture and/or people who love rock and roll will be attracted to Rock ‘n Tokyo. The film is not a narrative—there is no voice over, no explanation about the history of rock in Japan. Rock ‘n Tokyo wants to take every person in the audience and instantly transfer him or her to Tokyo. I want people to travel for 90 minutes into this other dimension that is the underground rock scene in Tokyo.

What’s up next for you? Are you working on a new movie?

Yep. I am preparing a doc about Japanese tattoos. It will be rock and roll, but calmer. And maybe cleaner.

Interviewer Leah Hochbaum Rosner lives in New York City.

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Watch the film’s trailer.

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