Sunday, July 25, 2010

Kameyama Chihiro: know your enemy

Television is both the savior and the destroyer of the Japanese film industry. Five of the top-grossing Japanese films in the first half of 2010 were TV show adaptations, and it is these productions that have played a major role in bringing audiences back to cinemas and driving multiplex construction around the country. On the other hand, they have done so by ushering in non-cinematic television production values and aesthetics, catering to a subtitle-abhorring demographic that can be herded into cinema complexes with excessive television promotional campaigns utilizing the lure of big small-screen names and familiar properties. To film fans such as myself who view this development with the kind of disdain reserved for fascist dictators and Johnny Kitagawa, the great Satan is the head of Fuji Television's film department, producer Kameyama Chihiro.

The following interview with Kameyama by (Fuji Sankei group) news site Iza on the eve of the release of the third film in Fuji's “Bayside Shakedown” franchise provides a glimpse into the mind that brought you such worthy dramas as “Mt. Tsurugidake” as well as utterly irredeemable abominations like “Shaolin Girl.”

Iza: How do you go about selecting the projects that you produce?

Kameyama Chihiro: Above all, they're TV station projects, so I consider them with a view to future television broadcast. Splatter horror and erotic subject matter are out. We'd never be able to get involved with something like [Nakashima Tetsuya's] “Confessions.”

I: Bluntly speaking, do you have a “hit formula”?

KC: Not at all. If I did have a formula, I'd be creating huge hits with original material. When I heard that Yaguchi Shinobu was going to make “Swing Girls,” I told him, “Comedies with girls are difficult, so you should give it up,” but it was entertaining when I saw it. If there's one thing I have, it's not a hit formula, more a rule of thumb I guess.

I: Using that rule of thumb, what kind of strategy did you come up with for “Bayside Shakedown 3”?  

KC: It's an event film, so this time we didn't hold any public previews, and just gave it heavy exposure on television to stimulate audiences' hunger. This method doesn't come from my knowledge of marketing, but rather it's a way of doing things that developed from my firsthand experience up until now. We created the video series “Kakaricho Aoshima Shunsaku” exclusively for streaming on the Docomo mobile phone network, and hoped that people would think “Bayside's really wild right now.”

I: Originally you wanted to become a film director, and in your university days you studied under Gosho Heinosuke, who made Japan's first talkie film “The Neighbor's Wife and Mine” (Madamu to Nyobo).

KC: Gosho spent his later years in my hometown of Mishima in Shizuoka, so during the summer holidays in my first year at university, I visited him hoping that he'd introduce me to some part-time film job. When I went to his place, he suddenly ordered me to “Go to the second floor and tidy up the bookcase.” He was the chairman of the Directors Guild of Japan, and when I asked him if he'd write me a letter of introduction for presenting to film companies when I started to look for work, he told me: “Film's no good anymore, go into television instead.”

I: Then you were employed by Fuji Television, but what had happened to your passion for filmmaking?

KC: I no longer had any. I loved ATG's films, but as a television professional I banned myself from watching strongly auteurist films.

I: In your fourth year at Fuji in 1983, the company began its involvement in film production with “Nankyoku Monogatari.” What was that like for you at the time?

KC: I looked after Taro and Jiro [the canine stars of the film] when I was working in the programming department (laughs). I wasn't envious of the young film department staff at all. I'd really lost all interest in film itself.

I: Later, the idea emerged of turning popular TV series “Bayside Shakedown” (Odoru Daisosasen) into a film.

KC: Even though I had no filmmaking experience, I bragged that we'd make a film to rank in the top three of [venerable film magazine] Kinema Junpo best ten list, but screenwriter Kimizuka Ryoichi and director Motohiro Katsuyuki told me that wasn't what fans of the series wanted to see in a movie. I came to the decision that we couldn't change the feel of the TV show for the film, so apart from the cameraman we shot it entirely with the show's crew.

I: That was the birth of 'TV company films.'

KC: I asked them to use the same camera angles as the TV show for the first half of the film so that fans wouldn't get confused. I took the stance that it's a film made by TV people, so why not.


  1. This is sad. So sad.

    "...but as a television professional I banned myself from watching strongly auteurist films."

    Huh. I think that this is a man I would verbally abuse upon sight.

  2. At the risk of sounding like I'm defending the guy, it has been pointed out to me on several occasions by people far more knowledgeable that Kameyama, Motohiro and the rest of these TV moviemakers are really just salarymen obeying corporate imperatives, so it would be unfair to criticize them for doing what they're employed to do. The real problem is that this style of filmmaking has become the mainstream.

  3. The "critics" who celebrate this stuff and viewers who pay for it deserve some of the blame too.

  4. Critics have to walk a tightrope with overzealous distributors who tend to wave the banhammer when they discover less than charitable things have been written about their films, while many audience members for these movies have probably grown to accept the Japanese television standard of acting and direction and expect little more. I'd much rather point the finger at television companies and talent agencies that have utilized their marketing and backstage clout to fill the gap left by the major film studios with their mediocrity.

  5. Is this what film critic / rapper Utamaru calls "Sekai no Kameyama model"? I've been trying to work out what that means for ages.

  6. Hi Daniel,

    So you're a fellow Cinema Hustler listener! "Sekai no Kameyama model" is originally a sales tagline for Sharp LCD TVs produced domestically at their Kameyama factory in Mie prefecture. It's used sarcastically by Utamaru to describe films produced by Kameyama Chihiro on behalf of Fuji TV that typically have large budgets (for Japan) and huge promotional campaigns, but are generally poor quality (Bayside Shakedown, Shaolin Girl, Almalfi etc.).

  7. Oh god, I finally get it! Thank you!

    If I'm understanding the term correctly, I'd put the Aibou movies in that category too.

    Yeah, I love Cinema Hustler. At first it was just for something Japanese to listen to, but now I find myself renting movies just so I can listen to his reviews. Unfortunately that has led me to watch every movie that you listed there ...

  8. The Aibou movies and the spin-off in particular are much smaller in scale (especially in terms of promotional clout and star power) and are only really aimed at fans of the series, so I wouldn't put them in the same class as Kameyama's mass appeal projects, which are more in line with Kadokawa Haruki's trend-setting media-mix productions in his heyday.

    If you like Cinema Hustler, have you come across Kira Kira? Utamaru has a weekly spot on the show, and there are also other contributors worth listening to such as Machiyama Tomohiro and Yoshida Go. The podcasts are short and sweet too.