Filmmaker tells Japanese cowboy's story

by Ed Moy

For filmmaker Oscar Bucher, mixing cultures and merging images have become part of his life on and off the screen. In his new documentary film "Waiting for a Train," Bucher tells the true story of a native Japanese and now San Francisco resident Toshio Hirano, whose life is transformed by the music of country musician Jimmie Rodgers.

Interestingly enough, Bucher works out of an office in his Richmond District home office, which blends Eastern and Western motifs.

"We bought the house from a Japanese woman," Bucher explained when asked about the Japanese artwork on display in the entryway leading into his home. "The cherry blossom tree in the backyard was brought over from Japan by her late husband."

Bucher's film had its premiere at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in March. The film is a "hybrid-documentary," which Bucher says evolved not only from his own love for country music, but as a project for his masters program at San Francisco State University.

"I got a grant for $3,000 and Kodak generously donated about half the film," Bucher said. "We also got some free Clif Bars. I work at Harris' Steak House and they donated some food for the crew. No one got paid. Everyone worked for free. I put all the money into the film."

But was it worth it? "The answer has to be 'yes,'" Bucher declared. "It has to be. It's just a 20 minute experience, yet it's more than that."

Although Bucher said he took breaks from film editing to be with his wife Rebecca, and sons Maxwell and Coleman, "Waiting for a Train" went through about 60 different edited versions over the course of a year before its premiere.

"Many nights, I just worked the whole night, drank coffee and then went to school or went to work and caught up on sleep the next day," Bucher recalled. "But I loved it, even when I was tired and exhausted. I mean I love the magic of story telling and seeing something come out of it that wasn't there before - to bring it into creation and feel like it's respectful of the subject and people enjoy it."

Born in Santa Barbara, Bucher said he chose to live in the Bay Area rather than Hollywood because "film doesn't take over the whole town like it does down south." Following his life-long passion for music, Bucher also plays country music with Load the Wagon, a six-piece band featuring him on harmonica and vocals. The group performs covers of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and their own rockabilly songs at local venues, such as the Mojito Bar in North Beach.

Additionally, Bucher recently completed a screenplay, "Rosa Blanca," with co-writer Barry Gifford (author of David Lynch's "Wild at Heart"). To give the film an authentic Western look and feel, Bucher's crew filmed on location aboard moving vintage passenger cars, along empty train tracks and country farms near Sunol and Niles Canyon.

"You can do it for less," Bucher said. "But then it becomes a different animal. I wanted this to look polished but still have a little bit of a home-made feel and not be too much like the Ken Burns documentaries that are sometimes to me so slick that they feel like the canonized truth. It's delivered like a history text book. They're great, but Toshio's story is unique and he's local so I wanted it to be told from his perspective."

Bucher also utilized a collaborative team that included other local filmmakers, such as Director of Photography Aaron Meister.

"I had about a 10 person crew," Bucher recalled. "(For the scenes by the railroad tracks) we had about five guys. Aaron built a dolly that fit on the train tracks using plywood and skateboard wheels. It cost 100 bucks. They were a sweet crew. It was a big production. It wasn't just me with a camera."

According to Bucher, the film challenges the traditional stereotype of a white country musician by displaying the imagery of a Japanese man in an Old West setting.

"Not that that's that provocative," said Bucher. "But that is kind of Toshio's allure."

Bucher also pointed out that the film becomes like a music video in that the images invoked in the lyrics come to life on the screen. "It's just him telling his story, but it's really me telling the story he told me because I'm editing his words," Bucher said. "So it's really a back and forth between both of us reshaping and remixing his story."

For more about "Waiting for a Train," visit the Web site at