A Japaense man and blonde woman sit at a restaurant and look at each other with Japanese signs in the background.

Fran Rubel Kuzui’s ‘Tokyo Pop’ is a time capsule in filmmaking

Writer Andy Crump talks to the filmmaker on her newly restored film, and how it also captures beautifully the late Carrie Hamilton

From left, Diamond Yukai and Carrie Hamilton as Hiro and Wendy In "Tokyo Pop."

Still frame from "Tokyo Pop"

Words by Andy Crump

Tallying every movie, feature length or short, that’s fallen through the film industry’s cracks, never again to be seen, is a task that’d make Hercules balk. No matter how hard dogged restorers and intrepid cinema archaeologists try, they’ll never succeed in finding all of the films lost to time—a tragedy in the medium’s history and a loss for culture writ large.

So when a lost film is found, it’s cause for celebration, no matter its size, scope, style, or import. Even a work described routinely (and rightly) as “breezy” carries substance, like Tokyo Pop, director, writer, producer, and Tokyo-based film distributor Fran Rubel Kuzui’s 1988 musical romantic comedy, the recipient of a beautiful 4K restoration in 2022 and a theatrical re-release in August of this year.

In the film, bleach-blonde punk singer Wendy (the late Carrie Hamilton), struggling to make it in New York City, takes a hike out of the country to Tokyo, where rumor has it foreign bands have an easier time finding success. The rumor turns out to be bunk. Fortunately, Wendy has a meet-cute with Hiro (Diamond Yukai), also an aspiring musician, and after he makes a few swiftly rebuffed unwanted advances toward her, the pair find camaraderie in common ground, join up on stage, make a name for themselves in Tokyo’s music scene, and fall in love along the way.

Kuzui’s sweet little charmer premiered at Cannes 1988, in the Critics Week section; after doing the rounds across Europe and Asia, with brief stop-offs in a scant handful of American cities, plans for a home video release went belly up with its distributor, Spectrafilm, went bankrupt. In the tumult, Tokyo Pop’s 35mm prints vanished, and Kuzui and her husband, Kaz Kuzui, scrambled to rescue what other materials they could—a la the internegative and sound elements. Without the print, the bits and pieces didn’t matter much, and the film became one more constellation in the sky next to countless other mislaid films.

Fast forward to 2019. Through a series of unlikely events, plus the joint contributions of New York’s Japan Society, the Academy Archives, the film preservation society IndieCollect, and the Jane Fonda Fund, Tokyo Pop has been restored and, following its repertory run through late summer, given new longevity on physical media.

The Kuzuis couldn’t imagine this turn of fortune years ago. It’s not every day a movie goes missing for as long as Tokyo Pop and is recovered. We recently caught up with Fran, who spoke to us with a combination of relief and awe about the film’s revival, and also touched on its meaning as a marker for a bygone era of filmmaking—as well as a bittersweet tribute to Hamilton, daughter of the legendary Carol Burnett, gone too soon since her passing in 2002.

Director Fran Rubel Kuzui with short blonde hair, glasses and a lavender striped turtleneck, against a background of pink flowers.

Fran Rubel Kuzui

Kaz Kuzui

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Andy Crump: So I'm watching this movie in 2023, and seeing it and knowing what it went through to get from 1988 to now is incredible. I think it was 2019 that [Kazu Watanabe, Grasshopper Films’ director of theatrical and home video distribution] found the print of the film in the Academy Archives?
Fran Rubel Kuzui: Yes. I had no idea it was there. I couldn't imagine why it would be there, which was the start of many things I couldn't imagine, of course. [Laughs]

AC: What went through your mind when you got the call that it had been found?
FRK: Well, festivals had asked me to show the film, and I said, “I have a VHS if you want to use that.” It never occurred to me that there would be a print anywhere. I mean, I had a print, but I'd kept it in the garage after a certain point, and I was pretty sure that it wasn't usable. So when Kazu told me he found the print, I thought, “How did that happen?” It never occurred to me why it would be at the Academy. If I hadn't put it there, and the distributor didn't care very much about it, how did it wind up there? We still have no idea.

But that was only the beginning of having to figure out how all the materials that we eventually used for the restoration wound up where they were. I’d been paying $40 a month to the Producers Film Center in L.A. to keep all the materials, and it turned out that they weren't there. There was an internegative, but no sound.

I was in Japan during most of the pandemic. A year later I came back to New York to work on the restoration, and I was going through some papers on the floor of a closet, and there was this folder containing a letter to a lab in Fort Lee, New Jersey, signed by the distributor and by Kaz [Kuzui], saying that we had deposited the sound there. I discovered the lab had been bought by a digital lab, and I called and asked if they had Tokyo Pop. I didn’t have a customer number, so they said, “If you don't have a customer number, we can't help you.”

I told the engineer who was doing the sound that it was gone now, and he had his friend go into their database, and he actually found the sound at that lab. It turned out that the sound was now owned by MGM, who had nothing to do with Tokyo Pop! [Laughs]

Anyway, it's a very long story, but I'm only bringing it up because it's a real independent film story. I suspect that there are many, many independent films that people don't know where anything is.

A woman in a blue top and blue bandana around her blonde hair holds a microphone and looks at a Japanese man in a jean jacket.

From left, Carrie Hamilton and Diamond Yukai as Wendy and Hiro in "Tokyo Pop."

Still frame from "Tokyo Pop"

AC: That’s amazing.
FRK: What the people at MGM told me is that there were a lot of things like the Tokyo Pop sound elements that are at laboratories, and they don't want to destroy them because I could find out that it was at their laboratory and then sue them for destroying my materials. So what they do is when some company, like MGM, says, “We need to get X film out of storage,” they take my stuff and throw it in with that and send it to MGM! [Laughs]

It was a big saga. If it wasn't for Indie Collect and the intrepid people there, this film never ever would've seen the light of day. I wouldn't have known how to do any of this. They’re really angels that come and save films. But yeah—if the maker's not around to spend all their own time on it, films can't be restored, and they're getting lost.

AC: The idea of traveling across continents to retrieve pieces of the movie, to me, is exhausting. I'm thinking about all of that effort, plus all the time that's passed between when it came out, and I'm wondering: when was the last time prior to hearing about the print at the Archive that you watched the movie? How often have you revisited over the years?
FRK: I hadn't seen it in over 30 years. Watching it at the Japan Society, I was like: [jaw drops]. I hadn't remembered a lot of it, but the other element of it was the great loss of Carrie Hamilton.

A Japanese man in a black and white top sings into a microphone in the foreground while another person in denim plays guitar in the background.

Diamond Yukai (left) plays a musician named Hiro in "Tokyo Pop."

Still frame from "Tokyo Pop"

AC: That's one of the things I wanted to bring up.
FRK: Yeah. I had kept in touch with Carol Burnett all these years. Growing up, she was my idol. You can keep Taylor Swift. Carol Burnett was my Taylor Swift. She was who I wanted to be when I grew up.

AC: I’ll take her over Taylor Swift too, in a heartbeat.
FRK: She was the role model that I wanted to follow, creatively and everything else. The first play I ever saw was the first live theater she had ever done. It was Once Upon a Mattress. When I met her 35 years ago, I told her that, and the two of us just said, “Aw!” We kept in touch. I knew how devastated she was at the loss of Carrie, because they were very, very close.

When I saw the opportunity to restore the film, that was another part of it. I know Carol was thinking about her legacy, and I was thinking about what I leave on Earth, and this is very much what Carrie got to leave on Earth. It’s hers. She was very much a collaborator on the film. So I was very happy to be able to do that as well.

AC: I thought a lot about her and what this movie I think represents now. It's basically a time capsule at this point. Thinking about Carrie, there's a sense of lossboth loss of a human life, because that's always sad and tragic, but also the loss of potential. She’s so good in this movie and she was such a talented actress. I can't help wondering what could have been.
FRK: With streaming and binging and everything, movies are so disposable now. They're “content.” They come and go. They’re wash and wear, you know? I was a script supervisor for many, many years, and I remember, around the time that I made Tokyo Pop and before that, there were rules of filmmaking, like the 180-degree line and that people's eye lines crossed each other. But now they just set up the camera and shoot. I saw [Martin Scorsese’s] Killers of the Flower Moon, and it's stuck with me for weeks. It couldn't have been one minute shorter than it was. Every minute had a meaning and a purpose, and even dumb stuff that shouldn't have been there needed to be there.

Restoring [Tokyo Pop] and looking at it, it’s a time capsule of filmmaking. You can't make those kinds of films anymore, whether good or bad. There is no space to do that. I said to Kaz, my husband, “[Killers of the Flower Moon] is probably the last film that will ever be made like that.” I don't know who’ll allow filmmakers to do that. Who’s going to give money to filmmakers to do that again?

I’m inspired to say this by your saying it was a time capsule, but all these restorations, because there are a lot of them now, are time capsules in filmmaking. How lucky we are that this is getting done! There’s a restoration of Stop Making Sense, for example. That’s a time capsule right there. It was the first film that Kaz and I distributed in Japan. Someone offered us the theatrical rights and we said, “It's a party! Let's just do it!” [Laughs] We literally rented the theater. You can't do that anymore. In a time when everything is just here and gone, it was an interesting experience for me to see it as a time capsule.

A blonde woman in black clothing and black beret sits on a structure in the foreground, with an arch in the background.

In "Tokyo Pop," Wendy (Carrie Hamilton), plays a punk singer struggling to make it in New York City.

Still frame from "Tokyo Pop"

AC: It's funny you mention all the restorations. I feel like I get a press release in my inbox every half hour about some new restoration. But I hadn't thought about this as a time capsule in terms of how films were made almost 40 years ago.
FRK: So, the film showed at the Edinburgh Film Festival, the week that Luis Rubiales, the [disgraced ex-president] head of the Spanish Soccer Federation, decided to kiss that player and grab himself in front of [Queen Letizia]. They showed Tokyo Pop and the head of the festival did a Q&A with me. She said she was very impressed with how I handled consent in the film, and I said, “That's a really odd question to me.” Thirty-five years ago, I didn’t say,” How can I handle consent in my film?” [Laughs]

I knew what consent was and I knew how life should be, so I put that in my film, but it wasn't an issue. When it plays out in my film, it was just how life should be. I didn't ever think about it when I made Tokyo Pop. It was obvious. There are so many things in Tokyo Pop that people have pointed out to me that no one was really thinking about when we made the film. Things just grew into relevance.

A lot of the audience came to see the film because Japan is the place to go right now. You walk out on the streets of Tokyo and it is more tourist than residents here. People came to see Tokyo Pop because they were interested in Tokyo and Japan, and the movie has all the things that they come here looking for: ramen, karaoke, all this stuff that’s popular right now. So it is a time capsule of not only that, but of thoughts and issues that people bring up.

AC: So I'm curious, then, how different it is now compared to Tokyo Pop. Again, it's like you've caught an insect in amber, the way that Tokyo was in 1988. I have no personal experience to base this on, but I imagine it is a vastly different place now.
FRK: [shaking head]

A blonde woman and Japanese man in dark clothing walk on a street in Tokyo.

Not much has changed in Tokyo since 1988, when "Tokyo Pop" was released.

Still frame from "Tokyo Pop"

AC: It’s still the same?
FRK: Yep. It showed at the Tokyo Film Festival and the reaction has been really surprising because people loved this movie. When I made it 35 years ago, people in Japan didn't get it at all, because they couldn't see it. It was weird. But now they look at it and there are places that look exactly the same. Of course there are more Ferraris and Rolls-Royces on this street, but it's so contemporary in so many ways. There aren't pay phones anymore, but there are people I know who still have flip phones and fax machines here.

I'll give you another example. People love “Home on the Range.” They think it's so inspired. The funny thing was, we had no money. It was really low budget filmmaking, which 35 years ago was the norm in Japan. Nobody spent money on films. There were no budgets. The crew really understood all that. We didn't have any money to license songs, so they said, “Well, can you choose some songs that are in the public domain?” I went, “Okay! Use ‘Home on the Range.’” And they went, “Oh, good one!”

We used that in karaoke. Then, when she had to sing in the punk club, they said, “We don't have any money to license something.” I went, “Use ‘Home on the Range’ again! When we edited the film, I thought, “Oh, that was a lucky choice.” I didn't have time to be thinking those things through.

When I wrote the original script, the character, Wendy, was a really bad singer. That was the whole point, that she came to Japan because no one would let her really sing in the United States and in Japan, she could sing, because she was a blonde gaijin. When I met Carrie, I never asked her if she could sing, because she was so perfect that I just didn't care if she could sing or not. Then she got to Tokyo and Alan Brewer, the music producer, sat down with her and said, “Sing something for me.” She sang [Aretha Franklin’s] “Natural Woman.” And he came over to where I was and said, “I think you need to come listen to something.” He asked her, “Could you sing that for Fran?” She sang, and I said,  “We’re going have to change the script.”

It's a completely different film by accident, and you just can't do that anymore. Someone would have to do a P&L on her singing and we probably would've had to get a record deal before we made the movie. So many different things and so many accidents made the film better, but you can't have accidents anymore. Everything has to be more measured now, because there's a lot more people involved and money involved.

A blonde woman lays in a light pink bed while a Japanese man sits next to her playing a guitar.

In "Tokyo Pop," Wendy (Carrie Hamilton) and Hiro (Diamond Yukai) start out as friends but eventually fall in love.

Still frame from "Tokyo Pop"

Published on December 19, 2023

Words by Andy Crump

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers movies, beer, music, fatherhood, and way too many other subjects for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours: Paste Magazine, Inverse, The New York Times, Hop Culture, Polygon, and Men's Health, plus more. You can follow him on Bluesky and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.