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.

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