Folk musician Hisao Shinegawa is certainly an eccentric and has definitely lived (and still lives) a peculiar life. Perfect fodder for a docu-portrait and that is what you will find in Peter I Chang's 2006 film I Want To Destroy America.
Hisao currently lives in Los Angeles where he eeks out a living as a street performer, playing at farmers markets, and, no, he doesn't take requests. He lives in a modest (read: hovel) apartment surrounded by records. No tv. No car. Doesn't want any other job. Doesn't, as he states, "want to be in the system." He also has one guitar that was given to him by Townes Van Zandt, was a country comedy/novelty act in the 70's under the name Jimmy Yen, and had a brief cult hit career as a new wave performer in the early 80's. Yep, it is that kind of life.
Hisao was born in 1946. The son of a rural laborer (jobs mentioned include lumberjack and quarry employee), his father also enjoyed music and performing. At fifteen Hisao spent a year living in Tokyo working in a factory in order to pay for high school. During high school he was exposed to the folk music boom and the likes of Dylan, Guthrie, and Jerry Jeff Walker. He picked up a guitar and knew that music was what he wanted to pursue, and pursue it he did.
The major shift in Hisao's life came when he took off for America in 1974. He traveled the country, New York, Wyoming, Nashville, etc., playing where he could. He didn't speak English but that was part fo the point, as he told a friend he embraced the language barrier and having to overcome it because he was, "Sick of speaking the same language without meaning- meaningless talk."
The odyssey that follows takes him from the Nashville scene and the likes of Johnny Cash to the LA New Wave scene where he befriended the likes of David Byrne and Peter Ivers. Naturally being a Japanese man playing folk and country tunes was a bit hard for the music industry to digest, so he became a bit of a novelty act, then reinvented himself as a DJ and New Wave performer with a few minor (again novelty) hits in videos/singles "Happy Wierdo" and "More Money, More War." When New Wave dried up, Hisao found himself working in a flower shop, then abandoning his 9 to 5 job and going back to performing on the street.
Filmed from 2004-2006, I Want To Destroy America is formatted with Hisao speaking for himself. Interview audio and footage is placed over still and stock footage and the modern footage, some of it fly-on-the-wall, some of it atmospherically staged. In addition, there are clips from Masahiro Sugano's lovely 1997 short film HISAO.
This isn't the kind of doc that tries to dig into its subject. For instance, when Hisao remarks on Ivers tragic murder, we get a simple, "It was sad." Likewise, Hisao's political P.O.V. is pretty vague, just those quips about not wanting to be in "the system." As for his current songs, well, their message is also a tad unclear (more on that in the DVD portion). I wasn't left feeling shortchanged. You don't get a deep sense of the man but a sense nonetheless, and, after all, the man is an outsider so it seems justified that he be somewhat misunderstood, guarded, and outside the box.
The DVD: Pathfinder.
Fullscreen. Looks pretty good. Of course, the quality of the stock material is hit and miss. The bulk of the film was shot with fairly decent high end video which does present a problem with some interlacing issues like aliasing.
2.0 Stereo. Again, considering the nature of the source material, the audio is fine. Basic, sure, with a few spots where the audio want recorded very well, but in line with an off the cuff documentary feature.
A real annoying fact is the lack of subs. A few pop up for muffled audio bits but oddly I had a harder time discerning during other segments of the film than the ones they chose to sub. While Hisao speaks English quite well, his accent is still quite thick, so a complete sub track would have been fantastic. Likewise, he sings many songs in Japanese and the lack of subs for these segments makes those impassioned songs a total mystery.
Trailer. -- Still Gallery. -- Director and Producer Bios. -- Outtakes: Alternate Ending (6:04), Jackson Browne (1:41), Hisao Speaks (8:01), That Is What It Is (2:17), and Hisao Sings (4:07). -- Soundtrack.
The extras are quite nice. The soundtrack consists of 21 songs spanning from 70's country tunes, to a few 80's New Wave tracks, to his current stuff. The extra footage is great, particularly the Hisao speaks segment where he offers thoughts on everything from homeless people giving him hand outs, fat kids, to his "message." Its a shame they couldn't include Hisao's 80's videos and I would have loved a directors commentary track. It would be nice to hear Chang talk about his impressions of Hisao, learn how he came about the project, etc.
Interesting portrait of an outsider artist who has lead an amazing life. Hisao Shinegawa is strange, passionate, and one of those people who lives his life on his own offbeat terms. The DVD presentation is solid, making it worth picking up for doc fans.