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Friday, July 24, 2009
An Italian job on a Japanese thriller
Films produced by Fuji TV — one of Japan's five national TV networks — have regularly hit the top of the box-office charts in the past decade. Fuji's biggest franchise started in 1998 with "Odoru Daisosasen The Movie" ("Bayside Shakedown"), a thriller starring Yuji Oda as a rambunctious detective in the trendy Tokyo Bay area, who is constantly butting heads with the police bureaucracy. The sequel, released in 2003, raked in ¥17.35 billion — the highest total ever for a Japanese live-action movie.
Now, Fuji is celebrating its 50th anniversary with another film starring Oda and with executive producer Chihiro Kameyama at the helm. Kameyama is the head of the network's film division and the mastermind behind "Odoru" and many other hits. Titled "Amalfi: Megami no Hoshu" ("Amalfi: Rewards of the Goddess") and directed by TV drama veteran Hiroshi Nishitani, this big-budget thriller is not, like most networked-produced films, based on a popular TV show, best-selling manga or other pretested property. But it does include many elements of Kameyama's past successes, while lacking those that Hollywood considers de rigeur.
First of all, it is set in a location that, like Odaiba, spells "cool" for the target young audience: Italy. And just as the "Odoru" films featured the Rainbow Bridge and other Tokyo landmarks, the action of "Amalfi" unfolds against a backdrop of famous tourist sites: the Coliseum, the Forum, the Spanish Steps and, of course, the magnificently rocky Amalfi Coast — all photographed by cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto with a golden romantic glow. "Amalfi," in fact, was shot in entirely in Bella Italia — a first for a Japanese film.
Also, in common with the Kameyama-produced "Dare mo Mamote Kurenai" ("Nobody to Watch over Me," 2008) and about 10,000 other Japanese thrillers, the story of "Amalfi" revolves around a kidnapping. Naturally, the snatched child is adorable and, naturally, her single mom, Saeko (Yuki Amami), promptly falls into hysterics, from which she never quite recovers.
Coming to her rescue is Kuroda (Oda), a diplomat assigned to the Japanese Embassy in Rome, whose job is to protect Japanese citizens from terrorists. His main client at the moment is the Foreign Minister, who will soon arrive in Italy for a G8 meeting. The embassy staff, from the urbane councilor (Shiro Sano) to an earnest, if hopelessly tongue-tied trainee interpreter (Erika Toda), are all in a dither about this visit, introducing another common theme in Kameyama's films — fallibly human, but basically decent folks uniting for a major task. In other words, a shout-out to all the salarymen (and the stray bureaucrats) in the seats.
The film's biggest departure from the Kameyama formula is the character of Kuroda, who is fluent in Italian, well-versed in the culture — and hardly ever cracks a smile as he tries to sort out the motives and methods of the kidnappers. This is something of a first for Oda, who has spent decades trading on his boyish charm, but his all-business attitude adds a needed gravitas to a story that, from the second act on, becomes as far-fetched as any Bond film.
In yet another trope from the "Odoru" franchise, various sorts of gadgetry, from GPS tracking devices to security cameras, play a big role in the pursuit of the bad guys, while the usual Hollywood devices for pumping up the action, car chases, fist fights and gun battles are conspicuous by their absence. Kameyama has made it a point of pride to never show violent deaths in his films — and "Amalfi" is no exception.
This is actually a nod toward realism for films set in Japan, where lethal firefights are about as common as solar eclipses, but not for one set in Italy, where the history of violence has been different, to put it mildly.
Also, only one Italian character, a detective played by Rocco Papaleo, emerges as an individual. The others, including the kidnappers, are little more than local color. Even the Bond series, in its only visit to Japan for "You Only Live Twice" (1967), did better than that.
There is also an extended stage appearance by pop diva Sarah Brightman, belting her hit "Time to Say Goodbye" — another blow to Italian pride. In the land that gave birth to opera and canzone, Kameyama couldn't find one singer?
But "Amalfi," in common with nearly every other Fuji film, is not made for export — and its intended audience will probably like it just fine. It's pretty to look at, mildly entertaining and reaffirms the essential niceness of Japanese folks, even ones in a country not nearly as well-ordered as dear old Nippon. And it added Amalfi to my check list of places to see before I die.