Saturday, July 25, 2009

Amalfi Megami no Hoshu

After a great day in Shinjuku, mostly spent watching an Okinawan festival that was taking place, I thought what better way to wrap up the day than seeing a film. I ended up seeing Amalfi Megami no hoshu (Amalfi: The Goddess' Toll). This film (hereafter Amalfi) is supposed to be FujiTV's 50th anniversary work. The network opened in 1959 and is one of the major networks in Japan. Furthermore, they've diversified their production into films as well, based mostly on the success of their drama division.

If we're thinking about what 50 years of FujiTV is supposed to really mean, what FujiTV is really celebrating with Amalfi (and probably will celebrate again in a few more years or so) is the success of their drama division, which probably really only encompasses about 30 or so years of the network's dominance. Although certainly FujiTV was very successful with variety shows and such, I think that their big successes came in the 80s and the ramp-up in production of television dramas (dorama). FujiTV really made their name during this time, especially when they gained dominance over the Monday, 9 p.m. hour, now referred to merely as the "gekku" block (gek comes from getsu for Monday, ku from the number nine) with a series of hit trendy dramas in the early 90s such as Tokyo Love Story (1991), 101-kai me no propose (The 101st Proposal, 1991), Long Vacation (1996) and so on.

My insistence on this celebration of FujiTV really being one of their drama prowess is more apparent if you look at the cast and staff in the film. The original proposal for the film was to start with star Oda Yuji and build a cast and story around him. It's actually quite relevant to center a film around Oda: he made his drama debut on FujiTV in the late 80s, he was the star of one of Fuji's earliest successes, Tokyo Love Story, and he is also the person responsible for much of the network's later successes and dominance. To older folks, Oda's probably well known for his star turn in Tokyo Love Story, but to the next generation, he's probably most famous for his appearance in the Odoru Daisosassen (Bayside Shakedown) series. Based on the incredible popularity of this series, which became quite a large franchise, with cinematic, direct-to-video and (in recent years) online installments, it is clear that it is this version of Oda Yuji that they're playing on, rather than the love-struck 20 year old he played in Tokyo Love Story. This is further supported by the appearance of much of the staff from the series and even some of the cast, as is to be expected by their success with the Odoru Daisosassen franchise.

It's also relevant that the film does also share some similarities with that franchise, both having elements of suspense and mystery (particularly the Odoru Daisosassen films). What Amalfi does not share with its predecessor (despite being strongly advertised as being in line with the series and films) is the everyman humor and joviality that is more played up there. Amalfi is definitely intended to be a serious, intense film from start to finish. In this way, it succeeds more or less, in conveying a sense of intensity and foreboding.

I have been speaking of FujiTV in regards to its larger history, but more immediately, FujiTV is also coming off a great year in 2008. They produced one of the top films of that year, Yogisha X no Kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X, 2008), another adaptation from a drama franchise, this time the Galileo franchise starring Fukuyama Masaharu and Shibasaki Kou. Furthermore, FujiTV's production partner, Toho Studios, dominated 2008 in terms of films produced and box office gross. It is actually the director of Yogisha X no Kenshin, Nishitani Hiroshi, who is in charge of Amalfi (Coincidentally, Yogisha X no Kenshin also underwent a loss of humor in its transition from drama to film). The cast, as explained before, starts with Oda Yuji and is quite star-studded, filled with names who are famous through their appearances in dramas and who have all done a good deal of work with FujiTV. In particular, Oda shares the stage with Amami Yuki (Hashi no Ame (The Rain on the Bridge, 1996), Top Caster (2006); I am only noting FujiTV dramas here), Toda Erika (Houkago (After School, 2004), Engine (2006)) and Sato Koichi (Shinai naru mono he (To the One I Love the Most, 1992), Pride (2004)), with an odd and sadly underused cameo by Fukuyama Masaharu, who played one of the protagonists in Yogisha X no Kenshin. The film follows Oda Yuji, a bureaucrat newly posted to the Japanese consulate in Italy, when he becomes embroiled in a kidnapping incident and must negotiate for the release of a young girl while at the same time developing feelings for the girl's mother (Amami Yuki). Amalfi can also boast (if it really wants to) that it is FujiTV's largest budget film yet, featuring all on-location shooting in Italy (except, apparently, for one scene that had to be reshot on Toho stages), and even features an appearance by Sarah Brightman.

Actually, Sarah Brightman is a good way to start getting into Amalfi and trying to explain it. When one thinks of Italy, one definitely does not think of Sarah Brightman. I actually tried to spend a little bit of time trying to fathom a direct connection. In fact, the connection has to be made through mediation of Japan, as Sarah Brightman's song "Time to Say Goodbye ~ Con te partiro" has actually been quite popular in Japan in 2008 and she enjoys a good amount of celebrity in Japan as well. It's difficult to think of an Italian female vocalist of similar fame in Japan. That is to say, this film may purport to focus on Italy, but ultimately Italy serves merely as a locale for a film in which both investigators and perpetrators are all Japanese, and the film is, as a consequence, depicted very much using the codes of Japanese narrative storytelling, despite attempting very much to use a so-called "Western" "blockbuster" cinematic style that has been developed in popular Hollywood cinema over the last few years..

This disjoint between storytelling and cinematic style is part of the problem of this film: Amalfi never quite figures out what it wants to be, and definitely is unable to escape the dominance of a specifically American type of cinematic presence. Overall, Amalfi is a good version of the director of Yogisha X no Kenshin (we're going to temporarily put aside the fact that the only other real film Nishitani directed, besides his tons of television dramas, was the supermarket drama Kencho no Hoshi, which, coincidentally, also starred Oda Yuji), directing the star of Odoru Daisosassen in doing his best impression of the Da Vinci Code series (or, worse and perhaps more appropriate, The Interpreter). The climactic scene is a mishmash of Japanese, Italian and English, but once the major revelations of the film have to be made, it's interesting to note that, despite being set in Italy and making it clear that Oda, Sato and Sato's three accomplices all understand Italian during this scene, the pivotal conversations take place in English. Of course, to a Japanese person, it shouldn't matter whether it's Italian or English, as there still appear subtitles at the bottom of the screen.

Or does it? Amalfi is a film that, ironically for FujiTV's 50th anniversary production, is very much invested in being as "foreign" as possible. While the nature of this "foreignness" appears to be overtly Italian, however, in terms of the methods of production and planning going into the film, it's distinctly American, or at least bound strongly in the notion of English and English-speaking culture. It is this rhetoric within which Amalfi is trying to react. Sometimes, the film's actions manifest as a type of resistance, such as the film's use of Italian and Italy as locale. At others, it is a form of complicit subjugation, caused by using English in pivotal scenes and bringing in Sarah Brightman, singing in Italian, in a kind of nudge-nudge-wink-wink to Japanese audiences. While Amalfi may be an exaltation of the romantic Italy, in reality it's definitely an Italy that is filtered through not only Japanese eyes but also the American/Hollywood codes and cultural presence which dominate cinema today.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Juryoku Piero

I've been spending the summer in Japan. As a result, I've gotten the chance to catch up with films that I've wanted to see, both in theaters and on DVD. I hope to discuss some of these films that I have been seeing and offer my vague, disembodied thoughts on them.

In my previous entry, I discussed MW and the ways that it attempts to use the spectacle to distract the audience from the morally flawed self-righteousness of one of its protagonist. In that entry, I discussed the film Juryoku Piero (Gravity's Clowns) as a similar film that dealt with that same type of morality. In fact, while Juryoku Piero does operate within the context of a similarly flawed ethical system, at the same time it operates on a much more personal level than MW. Whether this makes the questions regarding the actions of the film's characters any more or less relevant is for the audience to decide.

Juryoku Piero stars Okada Masaki (Tennen kokekko (A Gentle Breeze in the Village, 2008), Harufuuei (Halfway, 2008)) and Kase Ryo (Soredemo boku wa yattenai (But I Just Didn't Do It, 2007), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)) as two brothers whose mother was raped, raised the child borne out of that rape and tragically died in a car accident. The child of their mother's rape is Okada Masaki's character, Haru, who is the younger brother to Kase Ryo's character, Izumi. Izumi grows up and becomes a college student studying biology; Haru becomes a graffiti remover. A series of arson cases break out in their hometown, all connected to graffiti art that appears to signal the arson. As the two investigate this series of arson cases, a disturbing pattern emerges that connects the two to the man who raped their mother.

It almost seems like it should be a crime to adapt Isaka Kotaro novels for the screen. It's never that the adaptations are bad, but more that Isaka's writing style is extremely cinematic. He often attempts to describe scenes in painstaking detail, and the events of his novels flow very well, to the point that it is sometimes as if a film is playing out in one's head. That being said, it means that his novels appear to lend themselves very easily to film adaptation, as is particularly apparent based on the increasing number of film adaptations that have been occurring as of late. Even right now, two films, this and Rasshu raifu (Lush Life), another based on an Isaka novel, are both in theaters at the same time. The only thing that the film doesn't adapt from the novel that is noticeable is Isaka's trademark tongue-in-cheek humor, which seems appropriate given the dark tone of the subject matter.

That being said, Juryoku Piero flows quite well, and the pace of the film develops at a very good pace. It might not be a longshot to state that the film, actually, is quite conventional in its method of storytelling. One noticeable thing that stands out, as some reviewers pointed out, is the age difference between Kase Ryo (who is 34) and Okada Masaki (who is 19). Since the brothers are theoretically only two years apart, the real difference in their age seems rather noticeable here. Other than that, the two actors work quite well together, and they are supported by Kohinata Fumiyo as their father (subtly permuting his usual happy-go-lucky character role), as well as Suzuki Kyoka as their mother. Suzuki in particular does a good job with the few scenes that she is given. Despite being somewhat standard in camera technique, the film does its job and does it well, mostly thanks to director Mori Junichi, who also directed Laundry, which I rather enjoyed.

While I doubt this was intended to be the ultimate message of the film, I was disturbed by the message of the film. To spoil the film and make its long story short, Haru ends up killing the man who raped his father. At the same time, this crime, while recognized as wrong within the diegesis of the film, is forgiven because it is "justified," as the rapist was a serial rapist and is overall depicted as scum in the film. Ultimately, the film purports to be about notions of nature or nurture and the influence that genetics has on the way that people develop and mature. This is expressed in the ambiguity that leads to Haru's incidents of violence and his decision to murder the rapist, brought in line with Izumi's own parallel plans to do the same (it is particularly interesting that Haru's plans to kill the rapist involve fire, while Izumi's plans involve water). While the film uses these elements and others to delineate the issues surrounding the debate and effectively juxtapose Haru and Izumi against one another in the process, the film falls flat in the end. Haru is not held responsible for his actions, and instead it appears that his actions are justified in the fact that the rapist committed many crimes and made many people's lives miserable.

To mask this, once again, spectacle is used. Instead of the hollywood-style spectacle that characterizes a film like MW, instead this film relies on a sentimentality of imagery that recalls a certain sensational response bound up in nature. This kind of trope is most apparent in the first and last scenes: the first shot amidst falling cherry blossoms, and the second at the boys' wooden home in a forest-like setting, utilizing slow motion and a piano soundtrack to enhance the sentimentality. This is the charm of the Mori Junichi film, which is his ability to give poignance and meaning to trivial scenes that are often meaningless in real life. However, unlike Laundry, which appears to convey messages of redemption and forgiveness, Juryoku Piero instead sends a dangerous message that, not only should certain crimes never be forgiven and certain criminals never be redeemed, but also that the escape from criminal consequences is a vicious cycle. The rapist may not wish redemption, but the only way for him to be held accountable for his crime and escape its specter is for the rapist to be killed by Haru. In turn, Haru is able to escape accountability for his actions, both in the diegesis and in the exegesis, which escapes the explanation of culpability to the audience by ending the film in slow-motion sentimentality. Thus, the film ends with the onus resting solely on the audience, who end up holding the criminal guilt that has flowed through the film, and who must decide what to take away from the film by receiving that guilt.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Tonight, I got a late night call from a friend who wanted to go see MW. MW, for those who don't know, is a film based on the manga series of the same name (published in 1976-1978) by the famed creator Tezuka Osamu. The film tells the story of two characters: Garai Yutaro, a priest who is played by Yamada Takayuki (Densha Otoko (Train Man, 2005), the Crows ZERO series), and Yuki Michio, a terrorist played by Tamaki Hiroshi, (Nodame Cantabile (2006 TV Drama)). The film traces the relationship between Garai and Yuki, survivors of a military massacre which acted as an attempted cover-up of an incident involving the release of a nerve gas called MW on their home island, Okinomabunejima. The two escape to the main island of Japan, where Garai becomes a priest and Yuki a banker. Yuki uses his status and connections to seek out the instigators of the MW incident and kill them, forcing and eventually blackmailing Garai to help as an unwilling accomplice. The film is directed by Iwamoto Hitoshi, marking his second major film since Ashita ga aru sa THE MOVIE (There's Always Tomorrow The Movie, 2002) and first foray into dramatic film.

Note the subtitle: Tezuka Osamu's Forbidden Problematic Work
I have not read the original work by Tezuka Osamu, but I can at least attempt to generally discuss a few points where the film appears to deviate from the manga. For example, MW dispenses with the homosexual relationship that is shared between Yuki and Garai, instead reducing it to suggestive scenes in which innuendo does not exist in the narrative, but is rather suggested by camera work. Apparently, in the manga, this homosexual relationship forms the backbone of the Garai's guilt which Yuki exploits to gain his assitance. Thus, it would appear that the elimination of this element destabilizes the foundation of the film. Speculatively, it is perhaps for this element that MW is so well-known, as such unabashed display of homosexual relationships in manga at this time was unheard of. Furthermore, it is ironic that despite denying such elements in the script of the film, MW still exploits them for marketing purposes. In particular, the promotional campaign for the films utilizes large posters which display Yamada and Tamaki lying close to one another and looking suggestively at the camera.

MW is also well known because it marks a major shift in Tezuka Osamu's oeuvre. Up until MW, Tezuka's work is characterized by its cartoon-like drawing style; during the 70s, the gekiga movement, which emphasized a drawing style that exalted in gritty, dramatic realism, began to displace this cartoonish style as the dominant manga form. In the manga version of MW, Tezuka can be seen as adapting elements of the gekiga style, while at the same time attempting to create his own unique style through the synthesis of elements from both styles of manga. Since Tezuka is perhaps more well-remembered for his earlier works such as Tetsuwan Atomu (Atom Boy, 1952-1981) and Metoroporisu (Metropolis, 1949), with even contemporaneous works like Black Jack (1973-1983) manifesting this earlier style, MW can be perhaps considered a transitional work for Tezuka. Between this status and the aforementioned heavily-censored homosexual relationship, it's rather surprising that it was this work that was chosen, not only to be made into a film, but also, as the opening credits note, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Tezuka's birth (although to be fair, every year is an anniversary of something when you're marketing your product nowadays).

Putting the short excursion into Tezuka Osamu aside, although the film has probably been moving money well enough due to the popularity of the stars behind it and the Tezuka link, it is honestly a mess on many levels. To begin with, the script of the film, co-written by Oishi Tetsuya and Kimura Haruo, is pretty unbalanced. This is actually quite a surprise coming from particularly Oishi, who was also a writer on the two Death Note films (2006), which I felt were both well adapted from the manga and also well balanced. In the case of MW, for obvious reasons the adaptation is not faithful to the original, but beyond that, the film just rushes by in a blur, preventing the audience from getting into the world of the film and the premises that motivate it. The film neglects character development and glosses over answers to simple questions such as why Garai and Yuki feel the way they do about both each other and the incident that brought them together, as well as why the secondary characters that enter the film are drawn to take the actions that they do. Instead, MW instead attempts to fly by with intense action sequences, which are played up to keep the audience's focus in a film driven by a shallow and overall weak script. Approximately the first quarter of the film is spent on a terrorist incident carried out by Yuki in Bangkok, one that intends to establish the character, his relation to Garai and his relation to a cop who is chasing him. This event serves a purpose, but could have been cut into half and still conveyed the relevant information needed to understand what is going on. Because of the weight of this initial event, the rest of the film has to rush to recover its sense of direction. Ultimately, however, rather than serve to feed the rest of the film with its momentum, this first sequence of the film acts instead to deflate the remainder of the film.

Furthermore, the film feels too artificial in its construction. While certainly the sets built were elaborate enough and the special effects were sufficient, a lot of the camera work was poorly done. MW employs a permutation of the shaky camera technique that detracted from films such as the Bourne series and the most recent James Bond film, Quantum of Solace (2008), but beyond that, it augments the camera by using computer graphics to filter and manipulate many shots. This is often used for dramatic effect or to emphasize relevant plot devices for the audience. While this is understandable, at the same time it's not, and actually in fact is precisely the problem with this film. MW takes what is already a poorly defined premise (due to the poor script work) and slams the audience over the head with that premise through overdone film work that obfuscates the story to the point that the entire film reeks of overcompensation. Much like the cover-up of the MW incident on Okinomabunejima, MW's film work attempts to cover up the problems of the film, but ultimately those survivors that make it to the end are forced to consider ways of warning off other potential viewers.

That being said, the film was able to deploy some situations quite well, and removed from the context of the larger narrative of the film, the action moments are very well done in terms of interior pacing and set-up.

On another note, the story that MW tells is also interesting to think about because of the way it deals with modern-day Tokyo. Contextualized in relation to Tezuka's original manga, which tells a distinctly postwar story, MW the film attempts to construct a narrative focused on, as the script states, a post-Aum world. However, on a larger scale, it is a film that attempts to deal with a post-postwar moment and a sort of narrative euphoria in disaster, one that might be compared to a pre-9/11 American film moment and one that is purposefully bound in the forgetting of the postwar and atomic disaster, the setting for Tezuka's original MW. That is to say, there is a certain joy in telling the story of Yuki and his misguided self-righteous campaign to expose MW, both literally and figuratively, to the world. This jouissance appears to be bound in the oft-utilized notion of morality as a justification for ironically morally-questionable actions. At the same time, unlike the manga version of MW, as well as other disaster films going back as far as Gojira (Godzilla), this certainty of moral fortitude is not bound in the specter of the postwar and Japan's victimized consciousness. As Garai says in the film, Yuki has just "become a monster," but the monster that he has become is not the result of the atomic consciousness that hit Japan at the end of World War II (although the film blames the American military for the original incident), but rather because of the lack of such a historical context: it is the result of MW itself. As the basis for MW becomes disembodied from the postwar context, it removes a layer of morality that might further justify Yuki's actions. This lack of historical context influences the ethics of the other characters of the film: the cop who chases Yuki is bound by his determination and personal vendetta. Even Garai, the character who in the film (unlike in the manga) is supposed to serve as a type of reluctant moral center, is not empowered enough to handle that position. On the one hand, this is because the character is extremely scaled down in the film; on the other, it is because the context of Christianity and religion in general is completely displaced from its context here (although thankfully, the film does not play it up for campy value, even though it might come close every now and then). Yuki becomes morally right not because of a larger cultural context, but because of images of shock and disaster based on an isolated incident that is not situated within any history and purposefully propagated to the audience by the filmmakers. Yuki becomes "right" through sensational imagery and shock value, and the audience, swayed by that sensationalism, is able to follow Yuki's actions and understand them (even though the film ultimately does not side with him) without questioning their larger ramifications (a similar internal logic works through another summer release in Japan, Juryoku Piero (Gravity's Clown, 2009)). Thus, it can be argued that while Yuki might be driven by trauma, the trauma is personal and not bound up in a national consciousness, as is clear when, in his endgame, he is ready to deploy MW and disperse it throughout Tokyo to harm innocent people, rather than to directly use MW to strike back at his oppressors.

What can also be seen in MW is a new sense of cosmopolitanism in a transnational context. The film, which contains a "subplot" (using the term extremely loosely) involving a dedicated cop chasing after Yuki, can perhaps help contextualize the film within the context of Asian cinema, particularly Hong Kong urban cinema. At the same time, this cosmopolitanism is deployed through the film's use of various settings in decidedly "non-Japanese" locales. In the beginning sequence of the film in Bangkok, the film shows a fully articulated city, which does not only contain the back alleys and dingy areas which characterize previous depictions of Bangkok as other, but also Bangkok as its own urban metropolis. Even the American base in this film is surprisingly high-tech, no longer simply shots of soldiers standing around on fields and airplane hangars that might characterize older films (although they do a bit of that here, too), but instead a military that is well put-together and coordinated in times of crisis through the use of computer technology. It is these images of an all-around cosmopolitanism and technological modernism that makes way for images of what can be termed a new Tokyo. In depicting this new Tokyo, it's interesting to note that MW specifically chooses "new" sites within the metropolis. Rather than focus on urban centers which have been a firmament in the imagining of Tokyo both in Japanese and "Western" films, such as Shibuya and Shinjuku, MW fixates on a newly-gentrified Akihabara. Furthermore, while evoking the financial Marunouchi district at several points in the film, MW chooses to look less at the older sites of the area and instead focuses on the much newer Marunouchi OAZO building, which opened in 2004. In this way, by showing the new sites of Tokyo situated within the context of the equally modernizing presences of both Asia and the West, MW can be thought of as illustrating the new role that Japan plays as a mediator between both parties.