Tuesday, August 24, 2010
More often than not, writing about the type of films I do is its own reward (as well as, on occasion, its own punishment, but we’ll save that for another post). Sometimes, however, the karma cookies come from without, as when a post inspires one of my esteemed peers to share the fruits of her or his own compulsive film habit. Such was the case a couple months back, when I wrote about the series of 1960s rock and roll movies starring Japanese Group Sounds sensation The Spiders. Professor Grewbeard of the fabulous Magic Carpet Burn stepped forward with the opinion that Hey You, Go!, the sole cinematic venture starring The Jaguars, one of The Spiders leading contemporaries in the Group Sounds scene, was also well worth checking out. In fact, he made it sound so good that I just couldn’t resist tracking it down.
Of course, as is most often the case with films I review for this blog, the DVD of Hey You, Go! that I tracked down lacked English subtitles. Because of this, I can only tell you what Hey You, Go! looks like, but not necessarily what it means. That said, Hey You, Go! looks like a very fun little film indeed.
At the time of their initial rise to fame, the Jaguars’ repertoire included Japanese interpretations of bluesy Western garage rock tracks like The Blues Magoos’ “Tobacco Road”. As such, their sound is a bit more strident and rough edged than that of The Spiders, who, with their more varied pop sound, seemed more reluctant to alienate the moms and dads of their teenaged fans. Correspondingly, Hey You, Go! is a much looser and more irreverent affair than either of the Spiders films I’ve seen, delivering more of the type of good natured anarchy that Westerners steeped in the big screen exploits of the Beatles and Monkees might expect. While director/writer Yoichi Maeda puts an emphasis on fun, frolic, and effervescent pop art style, he also doesn’t shy away from darker territory, or turn a blind eye to the events of the day -- something that, to be fair, was probably much less of a viable option in 1968 than it was in the comparatively less turbulent previous year, when the majority of The Spiders’ movies were produced. Basically, you could say that Hey You, Go! leans more toward The Monkees’ Head than it does The Monkees.
In my review of the Spiders’ Go Forward and The Road to Bali, I pointed out how Nikkatsu, the studio behind those films, played to its own strengths by incorporating into each elements of its popular action films, basically turning both into spy spoofs with frequent musical interludes. Of course, the other reason for this was simply that, it being the mid 60s and all, spy-mania was in the air. After all, even The Beatles had lampooned the Bond movies’ tropes in Help! And so it is that the Shochiku produced Hey You, Go! also seeks to place its mop-topped stars at the center of a web of intrigue, complete with larger-than-life villains and preposterous high tech gadgetry.
In this case the threat comes from a Goldfinger-like mastermind who, ensconced within the chrome-lined recesses of his secret island hideout, commands an army of minions hilariously clad in matching eye patches and black berets. (Nods also seem to be being made here toward Toho’s Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, released two years earlier.) For some reason, said mastermind is bent on eliminating The Jaguars’ singer Sin Okamoto, and dispatches for that purpose everything from a duo of bumbling assassins, to a trio of phony monks, to a quintet of murderous fembots in color coded bikinis. Why this is might have something to do with the star-crossed romance that Okamoto has embarked upon with the evil mastermind’s pretty young daughter –- and, if so, is an example of parental overkill that brings to mind Obama’s crack about targeting the Jonas Brothers with predator drones.
Out of the six members of The Jaguars, the film’s focus is so exclusively upon singer Okamoto that the remaining musicians -- including drummer and band leader Yukio Miya -- barely register. Instead, Okamoto is provided with a couple of fictional associates to interact with, including a hapless tour manager type and a band muse and girl Friday played by pop singer Akiko Nakamura. The presence of Nakamura –- who, with her tall, bony frame, waifish beauty and penchant for modeling eye popping Carnaby Street fashions, reminds me of a Japanese version of Francoise Hardy -- insures that Hey You, Go! is not only a good time for Japanese Group Sounds fans, but also for fans of the more female-centric Japanese pop of the era. In addition to Nakamura’s one showcase number (with The Jaguars playing back-up), we also get a cameo from her fellow pop siren Aki Azumi, who shows up to belt out her then-hit “Yuuyake No Aitsu”. (You can hear another track by Azumi on Big Beat’s wonderful recent Nippon Girls compilation.)
Between its musical interludes and vaguely plot-driven escapades, Hey You, Go! goes off on a number of pop culture themed satirical digressions, including an extended dream sequence spoofing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and a Romeo and Juliet bit that was likely inspired by Zeferelli’s recent hit film version of same. At one point a -- perhaps Timothy Leary inspired -- fellow in a suit and tie shows up to read passages from The Little Prince and talk about LSD. There is also a recreation of the ski sequence from Help! that is somewhat distracting, though whether it was intended as another satirical jab or was just a desperate attempt at emulation I can’t say for sure. In any case, director Maeda never lets anything stay on screen long enough to really rankle, seeming instead ever anxious to get on to the next silly bit of business, spicing the assemblage with a generous application of psychedelic optical effects and mod-ish, brightly colored set design.
Things take a somewhat serious turn during the final third of Hey You, Go!, when the villain’s foot soldiers, in the course of their attempts to rub out Okamoto, accidentally kill the singer’s beloved instead. This dramatic development puts a bit of a tax on the thespian skills of Okamoto, who, despite being attractive and likeable, has already been called upon to spread those skills pretty thin by virtue of being the only member of his band to appear in almost every one of the movie’s scenes. Thankfully, things quickly go back to being giddily irreverent once the group sails off to the villain’s island to stage a counterassault. There they come upon a World War II era Japanese soldier who has been hiding out in a cave since before the war’s end. In one of the movie’s most darkly hilarious bits, the boys then bring the old fellow up to speed with a sped-up, chipmunk-voiced tune that plays over footage of everything from the bombing of Hiroshima to Vietnam War atrocities. Then the soldier leads them in an armed attack on the villain’s compound that, in its violence, might convince you that the Jaguars’ mantra, in defiance of the countercultural sentiments of the age, was indeed “make war, not love”. And then, for a final parting shot, Akiko Nakamura and the band pose in mimickry of the Iwo Jima Monument.
One of the many wonderful things about 1960s pop culture is that we are still today asking ourselves what a lot of it was supposed to mean -- and that’s only considering the portion of it that was in a language we could understand. Without the benefit of linguistic comprehension –- and in consideration of a product of a country as intrinsically baffling as Japan –- I am especially loathe to speculate. All I will say about Hey You, Go! is that it has an engaged, switched-on sensibility that suggests to me that at least some of the people involved in its creation were no strangers to chemical inspiration. Thus what we get, in opposition to what one might expect, is a case of folks who are less attempting to walk in the Beatles’ footsteps than they are along their own whimsically addled path -- even if those footsteps end up overlapping quite a bit anyway. In any case, I really enjoyed the film, and would even go so far as saying that, cultural differences aside, there is a deeper level on which I really think that I get what it's trying to say. Now pass the bong.