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Proud love pervades NHK’s ‘Madame Butterfly’

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

“Well, little Chrysanthème, let us part good friends; one last kiss even, if you like. I took you to amuse me; you have not perhaps succeeded very well, but after all you have done what you could: given me your little face, your little curtseys, your little music; in short, you have been pleasant enough in your Japanese way.”

So wrote French sailor Louis Marie Julien Viaud — under the pen name of Pierre Loti — in his 1887 novel “Madame Chrysanthème,” which later became one of the models for Giacomo Puccini’s famed 1908 opera, “Madame Butterfly.”

The young Chrysanthème, who in the opera is named Butterfly, is tricked into the marriage, thinking it real, when in fact the French sailor (in the opera, an American sailor named Pinkerton) is just looking for a companion during his Nagasaki posting. When that posting concludes, a few months later, he ups and leaves with nothing but the offer of a last kiss, “if you like.”

But that’s not how it “really” happened — not according to a new (and, admittedly, no less fictional) television adaptation of the tale that is airing this Saturday evening and next on NHK.

As the program begins, a dapper gent walks out at the conclusion of a Tokyo production of the Puccini opera, in 1936, and announces to a passerby: “That’s not the real Cho (Butterfly).” He has a copy of Viaud’s book with him, but that doesn’t capture the woman any better, he says. “I knew the real Cho, in Nagasaki.”

And thus, as the gent — who is played by the well-known playwright and actor Hideki Noda — launches into his recollections of the “real” Cho, there is a slow dissolve and we find ourselves back in the Nagasaki of the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), where foreign sailors and diplomats were gradually establishing a community.

It turns out that the Cho of the new NHK drama is a much less tragic figure than the original.

“She was certainly not tricked,” actress Aoi Miyazaki, who plays the character, told The Japan Times in a recent interview. “It was a marriage of love, and her husband (in the program, an American named Franklin) was entirely true to his feelings.”

In order to establish the authenticity of the relationship, the first of the new program’s two 73-minute episodes (which was shown to journalists last week) is devoted entirely to establishing the character and motivations of Cho, prior to her marriage. It turns out that she inherited a fascination for “A-me-ri-ka” from her deceased samurai father and is desperate to study English and travel abroad.

Thus the NHK drama, which was penned by veteran screenwriter Shinichi Ichikawa and is titled “Cho Cho,” after its lead character, is a corrective to the original “Madame Butterfly” in that it tells the story from the perspective of the woman.

This approach of course works well for NHK because the show’s biggest selling point is its star, the 25-year-old Miyazaki, whose services NHK was lucky to secure. Since playing the lead role in the hugely successful “Atsuhime” (“Princess Atsu”) a yearlong Sunday-evening drama that screened on NHK in 2008, Miyazaki has been focusing almost entirely on film work. She has completed six films in the last three years, and two of them — “Tsure ga Utsu ni Narimashite (My S.O. Has Depression)” and “Kamisama no Karute (In His Chart)” — are currently at cinemas.

But there is another reason why the program focuses on Cho, and, according to NHK producer Motohiko Sano, it has something to do with the timing of the production just months after the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11.

“As a television company, we had a responsibility to think about the circumstances in which our viewers will be watching this show,” he told The Japan Times. “Some people will be watching from temporary housing, others will still be carrying the scars of that tragedy.”

Thus, he decided, the program should have two underlying themes — that “love is everything and that one must live with pride, even in difficult circumstances.”

The program sticks so close to that formula that the “live with pride” line is included in the script — toward the end of the first episode.

Cho says the words in a steely voice after a series of misfortunes force her to abandon her dreams of attending school to learn English in favor of becoming a maiko (apprentice geisha) in Nagasaki. She vows that she will become the first “English-speaking maiko.”

Thus a more-or-less respectable explanation for the cherubic Cho’s entry into the world of maiko is established, and at the same time the seeds are sewn for her meeting with Franklin, who arrives in Nagasaki after his ship is diverted due to engine trouble.

Cho’s steely resolve is soon directed at the achievement of a life that is true to her emotions, and that means marrying the foreigner.

“Franklin wasn’t someone who came to Japan and just got married for the fun of it. They fell in love,” Miyazaki explained. Furthermore, Cho had to stand up to many of her compatriots in order to go through with the relationship.

“The people around her worried that she had been swindled,” Miyazaki said, “but she remained committed nonetheless.”

Franklin, for his part, is an honest character who appears to have got in over his head. “He’s not a bad person, but he’s sort of got caught up on the mystique and the beauty that was all around him,” explained Ethan Landry, the American actor who was cast in the United States and brought to Japan especially to play the role.

Being in Japan for the first time himself, Landry admitted to The Japan Times that he could “see so many parallels” between the character and himself.

“I can certainly understand the choices he made,” Landry said. Still, he added, he had not found himself drawn into any unexpected romances during his five-week “posting” in Japan.

Going overseas to hire an actor for a non-Japanese role — as opposed to drawing on the pool of “foreigner talent” living and working in Japan — was an unusual move for NHK.

“I personally believe that Miyazaki is the actress with the greatest potential in Japan,” NHK’s Sano said, setting about a carefully worded explanation. “And, because acting is like catch-ball — you feed off the person playing opposite you — we decided that in order to give her the opportunity to shine, we really needed an actor who is devoting his whole life to his trade.”

The Americans available in Japan, he continued, are celebrities or entertainers. “There are no Americans who are dedicated entirely to acting here,” he said.

In Los Angeles, he continued, his search was greatly helped by Yoko Narahashi, a U.S.-based Japanese casting agent whose work usually involves placing Japanese actors in U.S. productions, such as “Babel” and “The Last Samurai.”

For “Cho Cho,” she did the opposite, and thus unearthed the 25-year-old Landry.

The American is in the unusual position of being able to compare the production styles in Japan and the United States. After initially saying that “filming is filming, wherever you go,” he recalled being surprised that most of the scenes in “Cho Cho” were shot in one take — a regular feature of tightly budgeted TV drama production here.

He also said it took a little effort to get used to the slow pacing in Japanese filming.

“There is a significant amount of pausing (in Japan). In America you tend to just shoot your lines out — that is how I’m trained,” he said.

Still, the young actor added that he saw this and other differences as “challenges to adapt myself to.”

One aspect of the work that apparently required little adjustment was working with Miyazaki, who he said was “one of the sweetest people I have ever met.”

“It’s so easy to forget that she’s famous,” he said, recalling being reminded only when passersby would stop and stare during shoots, or at other times when they were walking on the street.

He also noted that her English ability “improved dramatically” during the shoot. Explaining that he had gone to see her two current films in cinemas during his stay — despite not being able to understand the Japanese — he added that “her acting would translate really well to the U.S.”

Miyazaki herself modestly deflected suggestions that she could start working overseas, although she said that in her personal travels — to the U.S. and India — she has never found making the transition to a foreign culture a problem.

Of course, for Cho, who lived through an altogether different place and time, achieving her dream of overseas travel proves to be slightly more problematic.

Screenwriter Ichikawa and the NHK producers have tweaked the “Madame Butterfly” format significantly, but the outline remains the same. Thus, like Viaud and Pinkerton before him, Franklin does end up abandoning his wife when it is time for his ship to sail.

It is difficult to imagine how that twist of fate could be dressed up in such a way that Cho would retain her all-important pride — although the fact that she carries the blood of a samurai will no doubt prove significant. Still, Miyazaki remained unfazed.

“Ultimately, Cho wasn’t able to be with her husband, but the time they did have together was a very happy time for her, I believe. She still led a fulfilled life,” she said.

“Cho Cho” airs on NHK-G from 9 p.m. till 10:13 p.m. on Nov. 19 and 26.