Waiting for a Train: The Toshio Hirano Story
The story of the rambling honky tonk man is a well-known one, but director Oscar Bucher puts a delightful spin on it in this short documentary about Japanese bluegrass musician Toshio Hirano.
Hirano was a normal Tokyo kid in the 1950s until he heard an Elvis Presley record, and was hooked. This led to other American pop music, the Kingston Trio and so forth. Then he heard some bluegrass music, specifically Jimmy Rodgers and his plaintive wail on songs like “Waiting for a Train” and “Peach Picking Time.”
“Since that day I’ve been hypnotized by that song,” Toshio says.
In the early 1970s Toshio came to the United States to wander the backgrounds of Tennessee, Kentucky and Texas — and he never went back to Japan. He eventually settled in San Francisco, got married and had a pair of kids. But he still goes around the country, playing bluegrass.
Despite half a lifetime in the States, Toshio still speaks and sings with a thick Japanese accent, yet this somehow lends his renditions of hillbilly tunes an exotic yet comforting lilt.
Bucher is a skilled and imaginative visualist, mixing up talking-head footage of his subject performing with fanciful depictions and time-shifting images of Toshio decades ago mixed with today’s.
Toshio is aware of his status as a novelty act, but he embraces it. “If I were not Japanese, if I’m an American guy, how many people would come to listen to me? Maybe zero.”
Even if no one did show up, one suspects Toshio would keep on playing — anything that gives him a chance to keep rambling the countryside, playing the music he fell in love with from half a world away.