Documentary chronicles Japanese love for country, bluegrass music

Charlie Nagatani sings at his country music bar in the documentary “Far Western,” one of the new documentaries to be screened at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
Charlie Nagatani sings at his country music bar in the documentary “Far Western,” one of the new documentaries to be screened at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Submitted

In director James Payne’s film “Far Western,” Charlie Nagatani sings American country music at the bar he started in 1976 in Kumamoto, Japan. Nagatani sings with a Southern accent, along with his band The Western Cannonballs. Visitors to his bar, all aficionados of country music, sing along, dance, and yell the kinds of approval one might hear in a bar or dance hall in the Southern United States.

Nagatani is one of the musicians, scholars and fans Payne profiles in his documentary that will have its U.S. premiere at the 20th Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, to be held here April 6-9. The film had its world premiere in Amsterdam, and will have its Asian premiere this summer in South Korea, Payne said in a phone interview.

He has spent about 10 years doing the research for this documentary, which chronicles the influence of American music on Japan after World War II, and the way music migrates over political and geographical borders. “I’ve been drawn to music stories in the past,” Payne said. His films include a documentary about The Flaming Lips. The inspiration for “Far Western” came when he was producing a live concert film for an Americana band touring Japan. He realized that many of these Japanese fans played bluegrass, folk, country and other traditional American music.

They took him to clubs in Japan with names like The Rocky Top Bar, The Nashville Bar and other American-sounding names. “That kind of stuck with me, and I kept in touch with these guys,” Payne said. In 2015, he got the funding for the film, and spent six weeks interviewing some of the influential leaders in the Japanese incarnation of country music.

These fans and musicians are a wide ranging and diverse group. Nagatani tells how he discovered country music at age 20, and his life was changed by the music of Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and other country musicians. With the help of his wife Toshiko and his son, he keeps the bar going. As a labor of love, he started the annual Country Gold Festival, which gathers country musicians from all over. In Payne’s film, viewers see Nagatani fulfilling his dream to perform at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

Masuo Sasabe is an architect and designer who leads the bluegrass band The Blueside of Lonesome. Sasabe tells the story of his first visit to the United States, where the band was booked for a festival. The festival was canceled, but the band stayed, started playing in public, and eventually ended up on the festival circuit. Payne’s film chronicles Blueside of Lonesome’s visit and welcoming reception at an American bluegrass festival. Blueside of Lonesome continues to visit Payne’s hometown, Tulsa, Oklahoma (in the film, they play a concert at a Tulsa venue). “We always put them up in our home city” and book a show for them, Payne said.

Takaaki Sakamoto, one of the originators of Japanese country music, has passed down his passion to his daughter, Yoshie, who in Payne’s film also plays with The Blueside of Lonesome.

The audiences for country, bluegrass and folk music vary in Japan. “Even though we know that country music and bluegrass have the same traditional music roots in the United States, in Japan, they’re different groups,” Payne said. Country musicians and fans tend to be baby boomer age or older. Bluegrass music, however, “has continued to be passed down [to younger generations] through the university clubs,” he said. About 50 festivals also keep the tradition alive in Japan, he added.

In a time when some public officials champion walls, Payne’s film shows ample evidence that music goes where it wants. Brothers Yasushi Ozaki and Hisashi Ozaki formed the band The East Mountain Boys, and have received an award from the International Bluegrass Music Association. During Emperor Hirohito’s rule, an attempt was made to ban American music from the radio, but the Ozaki brothers tell stories about listening secretly to country music and jazz. Saburo Inouye, founder of the band Bluegrass 45, believes bluegrass is no longer just American music. “It’s world music,” Inouye says in the film. “It’s art. We are playing our music.”

Payne said he was surprised to see “that there was such a long, continuous history” of country music in Japan. “What I realized was in the 20th century, with the development of media ... and vinyl releases ... music is this human commodity, and media made it transcend these national boundaries, and it’s a music that is not necessarily an American product any more.”

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1

Go and Do

WHAT: “Far Western”

WHEN: 7:10 p.m., April 7

WHERE: Cinema 4, The Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St.

TICKETS: For tickets, visit www.fullframefest.org