There's an oft-repeated anecdote from music producer Brian Eno about 60's art-rockers The Velvet Underground and how everyone who bought a copy of their seminal 1967 album "The Velvet Underground & Nico" went on to start a band. Whether this statement is 100% true or not is up for debate, but what can't be debated is The Velvet's Underground's influence on popular music from the late 60's right up until today. A similar situation occurred in Japan in the summer of 1966. The Japanese establishment was mortified, but young people were thrilled that the Budokan Hall, constructed in Tokyo two years before for the 1964 Olympic games, would be used for a rock concert by four young kids from England. Maybe you've heard of them... The Beatles? For three nights between June 30th and July 2nd that summer Japan's youth packed the 14,000 seat hall, which up to that point had been used exclusively for training and exhibitions of judo and other martial arts, to see the biggest rock 'n' roll band in the world. Those performances helped launch a pop music craze in Japan that was quickly dubbed "Group Sounds". Between 1967 to 1971 dozens of bands mimicked The Beatles' catchy pop sound as well as came up with a plethora of "The" band names: The Tempters, The Mops, The Fingers, The Golden Cups, The Spiders, etc. These groups also one-upped The Beatles' collarless suits and mop-top haircuts by dressing in some truly bizarre fashions. Now, over 35 years later that groovy period of Japanese pop music has been resurrected on the big screen in Ryuichi Honda's "GS Wonderland".
It's 1968 in Japan and the influence of The Beatles is immediately apparent. Young Masao (Takuya Ishida), sits at a nightclub table listening to his friend tell him how Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are in the mountains of Akita giving secret bass and drum lessons. Off course this is a stellar line of crap, but for Masao, who wants nothing more than to play in a Group Sounds band, the story is as magical as it is dubious. Meanwhile a young woman named Michio (Chiaki Kuriyama) tries out at a record company equally determined to become a part of a GS band, but she's turned away because no one is looking for a girl at the moment. On top of Masao and Michio the execs at a large record company are trying to beat the clock and capitalize on the the Group Sounds phenomena before it peters out. They give record producer Kajii (Shinji Takeda) a deadline of three months to track down a hit-making GS band or be fired. It's a pretty good set up and soon Masao hooks up with bass player Kenta (Yosuke Asari) and drummer Shun (Hiro Mizushima) and the three form The Diamonds. They quickly write their first song "Night in Venice", which basically plagiarizes the tune from The Beatles "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", but plagiarism or no when Kajii hears them he hears the solution to his dilemma and immediately signs The Diamonds to a record contract. Shortly thereafter, though, Kajii quickly adds a fourth member, keyboardist Michio... who turns out to be Miku dressed as a boy. The hijinks ensue especially after Kajii does a makeover on The Diamonds and transforms them into The Tightsmen, for young lads (well at least four on the surface) who dress as fairy tale princes and promote themselves with the slogan "Put on your tights for a new moody ballad." Cue a "VH1: Behind the Music" style rise and fall for our heroes and one lone heroine and you have the formula of "GS Wonderland" in a nutshell.
If there's anyone who could have done justice to this era of pop music it's director Ryuichi Honda. He's repeatedly paid tribute to 60's Japanese pop culture in his filmography right from the very start of his career with his graduating film project at Osaka University of the Arts which highlighted the Group Sounds movement right through to his 2004 spoof on the films of Russ Meyers "Operation Pussycat". The only problem is that despite the external trappings of pageboy haircuts, psychedelic colours and some fairly catchy 2-minute pop songs there's very little that distinguishes "GS Wonderland" from the batch of other "let's start a band" films that have come out of Japan in the past few years like Nobuhiro Yamashita's "Linda, Linda, Linda", Shinobu Yaguchi's "Swing Girls" and Tomorowo Taguchi's "Iden & Tity". Yes, Honda makes an inspired casting choice by having actor Ittoku Kishibe, an original member of the most famed GS band The Tigers, play the president of the Tightsmen's record company, and Shinji Takeda steals absolutely every scene that he's in with a fantastic comic performance, but for such a fascinating period in Japanese popular culture "GS Wonderland" really misses its mark. On the one hand I couldn't see it's rather hoaky humour entertaining most people who lived through the Group Sounds period in Japan, and it doesn't really enlighten foreign audiences to this very cool genre of music, and the real crime is that it should.
If "GS Wonderland" makes it's way to North America on DVD, and with the casting of Chiaki Kuriyama and its serious kitsch factor I can't see why it wouldn't, then check it out, but only if you're looking for an hour and a half of cheesy, retro entertainment. If you expect to come out of it with a clearer idea of Japan in the late 60's and the music that its population fell in love with the you will be soarly disappointed.