were once a staple of American television, but now the genre has practically
disappeared. Presumably, this was bad news for stunt horse-back riders. Though
not quite to the same extent, production of Chanbara swordplay shows has also
steeply declined in Japan, greatly reducing work for kirare-yaku, the extras
specially trained to be “cut-up.” It is the end of an era for Seiichi Kamiyama,
but he always stays true to his art in Ken Ochiai’s Uzumasa Limelight (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
to his surprise, Seizô Fukumoto has become the world’s most famous extra.
Already the focus of several media reports on the kirare-yaku, he now appears
in his first leading role, playing a character not so very different from
himself. The Uzumasa studio establishment long recognized the beauty of
Kamiyama’s death scenes. In fact, he was once given a carved rehearsal sword
from the hero of a perennially popular samurai TV show (perhaps inspired by the
long-running Mito Kōmon). Like a
Japanese Gunsmoke, it continued for
forty-years, providing Kamiyama regular employment, even when the star’s son
took over for his late father. Unfortunately, it has just been canceled by the
younger generation of executives.
Kamiyama and his colleagues are scuffling for work, making do appearing as
corpses in yakuza dramas and performing in the suburban Kyoto studio’s live
action show for tourists. Even though his stock is falling, young extra Satsuki
Iga comes to Kamiyama for mentoring in his traditional skills. Thanks to his
training and conditioning, she lands a stunt role on a new hipster Chanbara
series, where she catches the eye of the obnoxious leading man. Suddenly, she
is a star in her own right, while the Uzumasa old guard just keep getting
Uzumasa Limelight is a lot like A Star is Born crossed with Charlie
Chaplin’s Limelight, with jidaigeki
costuming and the occasional nods to Ozu, but it is profoundly moving and
highly satisfying for genre fans. Fukumoto might be one of the great
kirare-yaku (he was recruited for Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai), but his touching performance as Kamiyama
suggests he could easily move into more conventionally dramatic roles. With
unusual economy, his deeply lined face and subtly communicative body language
eloquently expresses his pride in his craft and his pupil, as well as the
weight of all his life disappointments. He proves the film’s axiom—if you can
act convincingly during a sword fight than you are a good actor.
Fukumoto has been practicing his art for fifty years or so, Limelight represents the straight up
film debut of 2012 World Junior Wushu champ Chihiro Yamamoto, portraying Iga
with a maturity beyond her years. Their teacher-protégé chemistry feels very
real, but complex in a true-to-life way. Frankly, Fukumoto seems to bring out
the best in everyone, because Limelight is
stuffed with additional lovely little supporting turns.
production design team headed by Takashi Yoshida creates a vivid sense of the
old Kyoto studio world through their richly detailed work. However, one of the
most important contributions comes from swordplay choreographer Mitsuhiko
Seike, whose big film-within-the-film action-spectacle delivers the goods with style
to spare. Although Limelight shares a
certain nostalgic kinship with Ochiai’s previous film, The Tiger Mask, it is tonally more closely akin to his very
personal docu-essay short Frog in the Well.
This is an absolutely super film that should be
a breakout vehicle for Fukumoto, Yamamoto, and Ochiai. Although he will have a
fraction of the campaigning support, Fukumoto would be a far worthier choice
than most of the best actor contenders this time around. One of the best films of
the year, Uzumasa Limelight is very
highly recommended for all movie lovers when it opens this Friday (12/5) in New
York, at the Village East.
Labels: Chihiro Yamamoto, Japanese Cinema, Kirare-yaku, Seizo Fukumoto