In 1964, a Japanese country singer named Tomi Fujiyama performed on the Grand Ole Opry, right after Johnny Cash. She had no idea that someday there would be a movie about her life and her quest to get back on the Opry stage — or how long it would take to get there.
This weekend, Fujiyama is back in Nashville to celebrate the official release of that film.
Fujiyama returned to Japan after her performance at the Opry, and she continued to play country standards. But even as the years and then decades passed, the memory of that night stayed with her.
“I never forget,” she recalls. “It's happy. So this is why I [was] waiting for one more chance. I was very happy [at] that time. I wish I could. End of my life — before — I would like to do this.”
One night in 2004, a young filmmaker named Joshua Bishop saw Fujiyama perform at a club in Yokohama. He was amazed by her talent and story.
“I want to make a movie about this woman,” Bishop remembers thinking, already forming an image in his head. “I saw the whole thing,” he says. “And I'm gonna get her back on the Grand Ole Opry — that’s how we’re going to end this thing.”
Bishop did get the movie made, eventually, but it didn't have the ending he planned: Instead, it ended with Fujiyama strumming her guitar onstage at the Ryman Auditorium. Then the camera panned to reveal an empty room. She never made it to the Opry.
At least, that’s how the movie used to end, when Made in Japan premiered at South by Southwest in 2015 — where it got some serious buzz.
“All of a sudden she got on Jimmy Kimmel, who was there in Austin at the time, and then at Jimmy Kimmel we met Brad Paisley,” Bishop recalls. “And then Brad Paisley said, ‘You should try and get her back on the Grand Ole Opry.’ And I was like, 'That’s a great idea, Brad!' " Bishop laughs.
Paisley was serious, though, and told them he would make it happen. He kept his word. And 51 years after her debut, Fujiyama was back on the Opry on a Tuesday night in 2015.
Paisley filled in the audience a little about her history and how Bill Anderson had introduced her that night in 1964.
“I am so honored to get to do this,” he said. “She is going to be so excited to see you. She’s come however many thousand miles it is from Japan to be here tonight. Please welcome the amazing Tomi Fujiyama.”
As Fujiyama took the stage to the house band playing the opening strains of “Tennessee Waltz” and a wave of applause from the crowd, the story had a happy ending at last.
Bishop caught it all on film — but it also meant he would now have to go back and re-edit, which would take money and time. And all that buzz coming out South by Southwest was mostly be gone by the time he was finished — he had lost out on perhaps his best chance to find a distribution deal.
Once again, patience paid off. Finally, 14 years after Fujiyama and Bishop first met, Made in Japan is getting a proper release — happy ending and all.
Made in Japan screens Saturday, June 9 at City Winery, with a Q&A to follow. Fujiyama will also perform three times on Friday, June 8: 12:30 p.m. at the Nashville Palace, 6:30 p.m. at Dee’s Country Lounge and 8:30 p.m. at Fond Object.