Uzumasu Limelight (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 104 minutes approx.
Time. It catches up with us all eventually and when it does we are forced to face our own mortality and accept our halcyon days are over. In show business this can mean much more, as modernity replaces tradition and the next generation are banging on the door ready to take over from their forbearers.
Not even historical Samurai dramas or jidaigeki is immune from such challenges as the cast of one such show at Nichiei Studios in Uzumasa, Kyoto, discover when it is cancelled after 40 years in favour of something modern. For its senior cast of extras this proves harder for them to find work after so long in this role, especially Seiichi Kamiyama (Seizo Fukumoto), who has known nothing else.
When a young actress Satsuki Iga (Chihiro Yamamoto), just starting as an extra, spots Kamiyama training with a wooden sword, she asks him for some training in the art of swordplay. This pays off as Satsuki soon rises from the ranks from background extra, to stunt double to star of her own jidaigeki while Kamiyama and his fellow veterans are reduced to display shows for tourists.
If this plot sounds like Chaplin’s Limelight, director Ken Ochiai and writer Hiroyuki Ono make it explicitly clear that this film was directly influenced by Chaplin’s work, going as far as quoting a line from the film at the start. But don’t look at this is a remake or rip off as the Japanese setting and unique take on the central themes are enough to distance this a worthy tale in its own right.
While Ochiai presents us with a love letter to the jidaigeki and the traditions of yore, he also shines a light on an unsung hero of the film world, the kirare yaku. This means “extra who specialises in being killed” – i.e.: one of those nameless chaps who is sliced up by the hero/villain – and Kamiyama was considered one of the best.
As expendable as the role sounds, a level of sword and acting skills is required which is never recognised, something Ochiai is keen to rectify. Seizo Fukumoto is in fact a kirare yaku of some repute himself, having been slain on screen since the late 60’s, making him the perfect choice for the main role and finally getting his first moment in the main spotlight.
His character Kamiyama doesn’t fare so well with the demise of the “Old fashioned” jidaigeki, suspended from the film sets after he gets on the wrong side of a jumped up young director and unable to find other roles. Rather cheekily studio executive Akihiko Kawashima (Masashi Goda) commissions a new Samurai show, only it will star pop idol Jun Kudo (Shogen) to appeal to younger viewers.
Another telling change is the reliance on visual effects as the weapons have small green wooden blades to be enhanced later via CGI. Meanwhile Kudo is a prima donna and unimpressive sword fighter, allowing Satsuki to shine as the stunt double for Kudo’s girlfriend and co-star Megu (gorgeous gravure idol Shizuka Nakamura) whom she eventually replaces, a testament to Kamiyama’s training.
Further to learning about the kirare yaku we are also taken behind the scenes of making a TV drama for that extra Meta experience, showing the amount of effort goes into the fight scenes including multiple takes where necessary. For the extras, the main station of attendance is the casting block, where they learn their work assignments, itself a job beholden to a specific system of operation.
With his age already working against him, Kamiyama also finds his body is letting him down, compromising his grip on his katana, further piling on the misery. But while he wallows in the bleakness of his twilight career curfew, there is a light in the form of Satsuki’s ascending star and unlike her peers, she at least has respect for her elders and Kamiyama specifically, and is keen to pay him back for his tutelage and shared wisdom.
The tone of the film is reflective and light, often slipping into melancholy with Kamiyama facing a life on the shelf, but avoids being sentimental. There are no room for tears as the power of fond memories serves as great leveller to offset any maudlin self-pitying, but Ochiai encourages us to feel for Kamiyama but not pity him – after all his legacy is being continued by Satsuki.
By paying tribute to the kirare yaku and the jidaigeki genre Ochiai isn’t saying goodbye to the past nor is he closing the door on the future either – he is reminding us that we can’t have one with the other and both deserve respect and attention. Kamiyama’s passing of the torch in the final act is a triumphant moment for both him and Satsuki, providing the perfect full stop for this delightful essay.
Looking every inch the 70 years with a heavily lined face and skeletal physique, Seizo Fukumoto still has the dexterity and moves to embarrass sword wielders half his age whilst making for a poignant protagonist in Kamiyama. Martial artist Chihiro Yamamoto makes her debut as Satsuki, opening a decent account in her first ever role and showing remarkable poise for a rookie.
For a character driven story, each member of the cast contributes to the film’s energy and charm, and that includes the many kirare yaku who now return the favour for Fukumoto! We are treated to many fights during the production stage but only the finale is shown as a real scene and Ochiai certainly saves the best till last – a beautifully shot and balletic showdown to finish on.
Uzumasu Limelight is a touching and genuinely passionate paean to a lost art that just might be the impetus for its revival, while extending the tribute to filmmaking in general via the Chaplin homage with a superbly balanced and affectionate piece of cinema in its own right.
Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
Behind The Scenes
Rating – ****
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