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Tokyo Pop (1988): Movie Review

Tokyo Pop is an endearing trip from New York to Tokyo through a reproduction of the underground music scenes in 1980s Japan and America. 

Tokyo Pop is an American, 1980s indie movie that has recently received a 4K restoration (with the financial aid of Dolly Parton and Carol Burnett) and a US theatrical re-release for its 35th birthday. The movie opens with a New York singer, Wendy (Carrie Hamilton), being side-lined in her boyfriend’s band, receiving a Mt. Fuji postcard from a friend, and deciding that Tokyo is the place to be. Once there, Wendy moves into a hotel, gets a job, and meets a chap named Hiro (Diamond Yukai). Wendy and Hiro soon get together (for reasons not particularly explored), and then, along with Hiro’s band – credited as being the Be-Bops, they become famous (also for reasons not particularly explored). 

This fish-out-of-water-and-into-romance narrative that makes moving to Japan and finding fame look dead easy is not, however, Tokyo Pop’s strongest feature. That distinction, as far as I can tell, ought to belong to the movie’s use of location, or to its music selection, for Tokyo Pop is almost-permanently nice to look at and, now and then, rather nice to listen to too. There are simply-composed long shots placing our two lead characters amongst shrines and bustling Tokyo streets. There are still medium shots placing our two lead characters at food stalls and in hotel rooms – all bringing to my mind the visual techniques of Éric Rohmer, or perhaps Wes Anderson. And there’s a fun variety of then-contemporary American and Japanese music, featuring several Shazam-worthy performances occuring in the background. 

To sum it all up with a silly image: Tokyo Pop is a bit like if an observational documentary and a series of music videos raised a movie-baby together that grew up determined to be a more traditional, narrative-driven movie, despite the possible consequences. And I don’t mean that in a rebelling against the parents “just because” sort of way, but more in a naive “aw, look at ‘em go” sort of way. Tokyo Pop is endearing. It’s cute, and light-hearted. It’s an easy way to pass 100 minutes; it’s a way of non-committedly seeing some sights and listening to some music – no doubt looking and sounding perfectly colourful due to this new restoration.

loud and clear reviews Tokyo Pop (1988) Re-Release (Kino Lorber)
Tokyo Pop (1988) Re-Release (Kino Lorber)

Here’s the thing though: are there better ways of vicariously visiting ‘80s Japan, better ways of immersing in ‘80s music, are there easy-watching movies out there with more sincere narratives and characters? Probably. There were hundreds of movies set and released in Japan during the 1980s that likely represent the country with more authenticity. Debt Begins at 20 is a genuine record of underground music in 1980s America, for example. And no matter how easy it is for me to watch, Lovesong remains emotionally devastating. Despite what’s “better” and what isn’t though (which isn’t up to me, and is different for everyone anyhow), Tokyo Pop can’t be denied its time capsule-esque nature. If you’re into indie movies, indie music, and/or ‘80s culture, a relaxed evening spent with Tokyo Pop is bound to pass quite pleasantly. 

The new 4K Restoration of Tokyo Pop (1988) will open in New York at BAM Rose Cinemas on August 4 and in Los Angeles at the American Cinematheque on August 11, followed by national expansion.

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