Film / Reviews

'No Smoking': Poking the embers of Haruomi Hosono's career

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

You only get your golden anniversary once, and Haruomi Hosono has been making the most of his. Basking in some belated international acclaim, the 72-year-old musician has had a whirlwind year, releasing a reinterpretation of his debut LP, playing his first-ever solo U.S. shows and holding his own music festival and exhibition in Tokyo.

The anniversary package wouldn’t be complete without a documentary, and so we have “No Smoking,” directed with diligence but little flair by NHK producer Taketoshi Sado.

The film sketches out a straightforward chronology of the first few decades of Hosono’s career, starting with short-lived psych-rock outfit Apryl Fool and moving on to his influential work with Happy End and Yellow Magic Orchestra and as a solo artist. This is woven together with concert footage from recent tours, in which Hosono and his band play reworked versions of his back catalogue, although the impact of the performances is dulled by static camerawork and a drab, washed-out palette.

No Smoking (No Sumokingu)
Rating
Run Time 96 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens NOV. 1

While he helped usher in the synthesizers and samplers that would reshape pop, over the years Hosono has ceded his place at the technological vanguard and turned his attentions to older sounds. Audiences at his shows in New York and Los Angeles this year may have been surprised to hear faithful renditions of vintage boogie-woogie hits like “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens.”

What connects these disparate strands? The film offers a scattered account, and viewers who aren’t already familiar with Hosono’s oeuvre are given little help, as the discussion skips briskly from one project to the next, sometimes not even bothering to specify what’s being talked about.

It’s hard to discern an overarching narrative, and some of the editing choices are perplexing: musical selections cut out almost immediately; we see establishing shots of fans queuing for the Stateside gigs long after we’ve watched footage of the actual shows; a rambling interview with artist Tadanori Yokoo seems to have been included more out of courtesy than because it offers any helpful insights.

“No Smoking” is redeemed by a welter of archival photos, handwritten notes and video clips, from pictures of a young Hosono performing in a piano recital to footage of his famed 1976 gig in Yokohama’s Chinatown, alongside a latter-day re-creation.

The man himself is good company throughout, always ready with a self-deprecating joke or looking for a chance to sneak off for another cigarette. Even the way he moves is a treat. He still bears the traces of an early love for Fred Astaire, and there are delightful scenes of him slipping in a few dance steps as he walks.

It’s interesting to compare with “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda,” Stephen Nomura Schible’s 2017 documentary about Hosono’s illustrious YMO bandmate. “No Smoking” is less reverential, but also scrappier and less generous with insights into its subject’s art.

That’s partly a reflection of the two musicians’ differing personalities, of course. In interviews, Hosono has often appeared more eager to discuss the method and inspirations behind his music than what it all means. But it makes for a frustrating watch. Sado would rather use dopey quotes from audience members at Hosono’s U.S. shows (“He makes my brain happy”) than ask his friends or collaborators to shed some light. Much of Hosono’s work is downright essential, but this is purely for completists.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5