The allure of celebrity in the 21st Century will be one of the most enduring historical notes about the digital age. In the past, celebrity was attained thanks to a unique talent, an athletic skill, or a great achievement, but nowadays, thanks to the immediacy of the internet and the extensive social networks, celebrity is gained by some of the most ludicrous means. Everything from insane stunts that inevitably lead to injury, to make up tutorials, to dressing up in outlandish costumes and acting out larger than life characters, will possibly take the person acting all of this out down the road to success. In Japan, the promise of celebrity is all too enticing for those looking to have their moment of fame, and it’s here that we find the story that is told within Big in Japan.
To boil it down into a small, quick soundbite – Big in Japan is about three Australian filmmakers who decide to see if they can turn their ordinary, average friend Dave into a celebrity. See, Japan is a hotbed for foreign talents, with the unlikeliest people becoming major celebrities. A bearded man with a ponytail, dressed in a bright pink dress who sings heavy metal? Why, that’s Ladybeard (Richard Magarey), with 60,000 twitter followers and 238,000 likes on Facebook. Or maybe an ex-American footballer turned super heavyweight champion who has strange sexual proclivities? Of course, that’s Bob ‘The Beast’ Sapp who hosts sold out New Years parties. Or, maybe it’s the many, many youthful J-Pop, pony tail wearing singers hoping to make it big in the music scene? That’d be Kelsey, coming all the way from Canada to make it big. Or, maybe, just maybe, it’s a guy in underwear with rice on his head?
There is an art to manufacturing fame. Sure, the six second Vine video made ‘becoming famous’ look easy, but for every Logan Paul, there’s a thousand generic guys doing the same sort of thing just to be, well, it. Big in Japan attempts to explore the question, how exactly do you make the ordinary, extraordinary? As is stressed quite a bit throughout the film, Dave is someone bereft of talent. He is – for want of a less negative sounding word – a nobody. This is a guy whose biggest achievement is having built a computer, and that was a long time ago.
In a bid to transform average Dave into famous Dave, Lachy and Louis (directors) gently guide Dave into the different areas that might help transform this regular caterpillar into a beautiful, successful, Japanese ad appearing social butterfly. First of all, to help provide a basic income, Dave enrols to teach English at a school. Then, it’s on to the casting services where Dave’s photographs are taken and added to an ever growing pile of wannabe celebrities. But, given this is the 21st Century, you can’t just add your picture to a pile and hope that the right person sees it and makes you famous. In fact, you’ve gotta really knuckle down and work for that slice of the celebrity pie.
Why Japan then? Wouldn’t the uniqueness of being Australian be enough to help crack into the US market or maybe China? Sure, that could be the case, but Japan is the home of the mythical ‘hotspot’ for instant celebrity. The place where it seems that just by being foreign, one becomes desirable. Cultural appropriation has become something of a hot button issue in America and other parts of the world, but in Japan, it seems to not only be accepted, but almost encouraged. Kelsey, the young Canadian girl who travels to Japan to become an ‘idol’ (a schoolgirl looking pop singer), is decidedly not Japanese, but cuts her hair as if she were no different than her Japanese bandmates. She even goes to the point of imitating their voices, their hand movements, and the trademark ‘idol’ poses. Deftly applied mascara further aids the transformation to appearing Japanese. In between singing, Kelsey also works part time at a rabbit café, as well as modelling in risqué costumes for a handful of dedicated fans.
But none of that really fits the mould of who Dave is. It’s not as if he can slap on a dress and imitate what Ladybeard does – after all, while cultural appropriation appears to be aok, stepping on another ‘celebrities’ creation is frowned upon. Thus, the bizarre creation of Onigiri Man is born. Onigiri Man is the character conjured up to help Dave make it big online, and, well, in Japan. The costume is simple – a rice ball head piece, and red underwear. It’s a striking, unique image, for sure, especially when Dave puts on his glasses. But after pursuing this path – which on paper sounds like it would tick all the right boxes for success – and failing to get the social media traction the documentary was aiming to explore, friction between Dave and his friends starts to arise. Alongside this friction, Dave comes close to losing his job as a teacher, and the path to being famous drags on and on with success not yet in sight. He becomes conflicted – he feels a duty to the kids he’s teaching, but the point of the documentary is explore the path of becoming famous, not to explore what it means to be a teacher in Japan.
Even if Dave’s path to success and stardom doesn’t manage to cross off every box that the team behind Big in Japan hoped it would, they still manage to explore the complexities and absurdities of celebrity and fame. Bob Sapp’s success as ‘The Beast’ has meant that to maintain that level of success, he has to essentially live his life as ‘The Beast’. Being that character 24/7 gradually takes its toll on Sapp, almost to the point that he has no idea how to be himself. Women and men alike flock to both Sapp and Richard Magarey’s Ladybeard characters, adoring the hyper masculinity, while also (in Sapp’s case) wringing every drop of sex from him.
In contrast, the ‘idol’ movement shows the dark side of celebrity in Japan. These youthful beauties feel like they’re ripped straight from the pages of Sailor Moon, and are idolised because of how ‘perfect’ they look. Smooth skin, big eyes, saccharine voices that sound like cotton candy – these ‘idols’ are the complete opposite of the brutish, muscly, mammoth that is Bob Sapp and his ilk. It’s because of this beauty and youthfulness that ‘idol’s throughout Japan are so adored and loved by their middle aged fans, that they are destroyed and abused online just for trying to have a life. The image of what they portray can’t be shattered in the eyes of their fans, and by having a life outside of that image (say, having a boyfriend), they are then ruining their fans notion that they may (impossibly so) one day be able to make this ‘idol’ their own.
One can look at the rabbit café that Kelsey works in part time (a job which she upholds just to be able to afford the ‘idol’ life) and see that maybe Kelsey is no different to the rabbits kept in cages. People come to visit these rabbits, taking a moment out of their life to spend time with a pet they’ll never have. Free from all the responsibilities and needs that the pet has, they can sit with the rabbit, and then go on with their life after their hour is up. Kelsey’s role as an ‘idol’ exists to fill that hole in the middle aged Japanese mans life – the absence of a woman who is there just for him. Sure, this sounds a lot like prostitution, but the sexual intercourse element is taken out of the picture. The fans come along, listen to the music and enjoy the dancing, then go on their way. The ‘idol’ returns home, working hard to maintain their ‘idol’ image.
Toxic masculinity has rapidly increased as the digital age wears on, and paired with the ‘always available’ need that is driven by social media, well, it can cause devastating outcomes. As Kelsey’s pop group fails to reach the heights that they were hoping for, she decides to branch out on her own. A powerful moment has her standing alone on a stage with a mere handful of middle aged men gazing on, which is a huge contrast to the swaths of people writhing in a mixed-gender mosh pit at a Ladybeard heavy metal concert. If this is the quality of success that Dave is aiming for, then the next question is, does Dave have the gumption for it?
After all, celebrity does not mean that you’re free of real world consequence. In a bid to explore celebrity in Japan, the filmmakers and Dave also brought their partners across. As the years wear on, their partners have returned home and the bids to reach success become more outlandish. A proposal from a fan-heavy twitter user comes at a time where Dave and co are just about to throw in the towel. The request? Have Onigiri Man stand under a frozen waterfall for five minutes. This kind of absurd, dangerous, and over the top stunt appears to be the digital currency for YouTube celebrities nowadays – planking, the cinnamon challenge, eating washing detergent pods, filming in a forest known for suicides. How far can you take a stunt just to get those followers, those likes, those views, that digital validation? In the post-Logan Paul world, is the immediacy and apparent ‘ease’ of celebrity on the way out?
One thing is apparent at the end of Big in Japan, this kind of celebrity is a full time job. It requires management, manipulation, tending, care and hard work to maintain at a high level. The illusion of the ease of fame is one that has enchanted many – and who wouldn’t be lured into the honeypot of internet fame? In todays society where you need experience to get a job, and a job to get experience, it’s understandable that young people see the internet as a source of quick money and fame. If it costs too much to go to university or to get a proper education, and in turn, it takes too long to be able to afford a house, or a car, or a peer pressured lifestyle, then dressing up in a bizarre costume and eating strange nonsense for strangers to watch on the toilet surely seems like a good option. It’s terrifying that there are many who feel a need to be famous, or never feeling worthwhile if that fame is never achieved.
The feedback loop of ‘success’ is concerning. That is, staying awake late at night, refreshing viewer counts and other nonsensical stats that add to some mysterious algorithm that spits out a response that says whether you’re of worth or not. It’s no longer enough to be loved by friends and family, we need the approval of strangers to qualify how we feel. After all, it does feel good to be liked by strangers, even when your friends and family are giving you a worthwhile feedback loop of worthiness.
Big in Japan feels like it started as a lark that would lead to success – as if the filmmakers were aiming for Super Size Me by way of Winnebago Man or Mattress Men. What it turns into is an interesting exploration of celebrity in the modern world and the toll that celebrity takes of those who are famous. In the moment, it doesn’t always work, but the stories that Bob Sapp, Kelsey and Richard Mageray have to say about their celebrity help elevate Big in Japan to a higher level. If anything, this film is proof that a good story doesn’t need a huge budget behind it to be told.
Directors: Louis Dai, David Elliot-Jones, Lachlan Mcleod
Starring: David Elliot-Jones, Ladybeard, Bob Sapp