Half Japanese

Half Japanese (1992)
Vanguard Films
Cast: Jad Fair, David Fair, Penn Jillette
Extras: Audio Commentary, “Live in Hell” Video, TV Show Excerpt

Living somewhere between a documentary and a mockumentary, ’Half Japanese: The Band Who Would Be King’ is a real documentary, but it’s hard to believe that any of it is true. The film follows the alternative-rock band Half Japanese through an 18-year period, as they work their way into obscurity. (Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of them. I doubt that many people have.) The film focuses on Jad and David Fair, the brothers who started the band in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1975, and shows how the band evolved over the years. The documentary features many interviews with the various members of the band (the lineup has changed over the years) and some archival footage. There are also interviews with record executives and corporate insiders, who give their perspectives on the group. The best interviews are with Penn Jillete, who was originally a fan of the band and then became involved personally when he started a record label to distribute their music. His anecdotes about obtaining the rights to the music are very entertaining.

’Half Japanese: The Band Who Would Be King’ is a hard film for me to review for one simple reason: I really didn’t like the music. The ’charm’ of Half Japanese is that when the band was formed, the Fair Brothers didn’t know how to play any instruments. Over the years, they have learned to play, and have hired band members with musical experience. So, their album catalogue represents their course of musical education. But, I found to music to be very grating and banal. So, what we have is a film made up exclusively of interviews with various people and performances by the band. Some of the interviews (once again, Penn was hilarious) are interesting, but the band performances had me reaching for the remote.

The DVD of ’Half Japanese: The Band Who Would Be King’ represents the most ambitious undertaking thus far by Vanguard Films. The film is presented full-frame and looks good for the most part. Being a documentary, the film is made up of many video sources, but most (except for the home movies) appear clear with some slight graininess at times. The audio on the DVD is a Dolby 2-channel Surround mix which offers every shrill note with digital clarity. The DVD features an audio commentary by director Jeff Feuerzeig, who does a good job of making scene specific comments and explaining how he became involved with the band. The DVD has two more special features. First, we have the ’Live in Hell’ video, which features the band performing seven songs in front of a fiery blue-screen. There’s also an episode of the cable-access show (I presume) ’The Scott & Gary Show’. This features Half Japanese performing six songs and there is an interview with the band. If you’re a fan of Half Japanese, then this DVD is for you. If you’re unfamiliar with the band, watch at your own risk.