太秦ライムライト 「Uzumasa Laimulaito」
Release Date: July 12th, 2014 (Japan)
Running Time: 104 mins
Director: Ken Ochiai
Writer: Hiroyuki Ono (Screenplay),
Starring: Seizo Fukumoto, Chihiro Yamamoto, Hiroki Matsukata, Masashi Goda, Hirotaro Honda, Hisako Manda, Anna Kawashima,
Uzumasa Limelight is all about the nostalgic regret for the passing of the golden age of samurai cinema. It tells a tale of a fading and unique tradition of cinema, the art of dying on screen in samurai movies, and draws on the history of lead actor Seizo Fukumoto to reveal the skill at the heart of what can be overlooked – a dramatic death that takes up a few seconds of screen time.
The story takes place in Uzumasa Studios which is located just outside of the historic city of Kyoto, It was once known as the Hollywood of Japan and was the location where thousands of jidaigeki (period dramas) were made, where stars would roam historical sets wielding katanas while acting as samurai and slice through cinematic swordsmen portrayed by actors known as kirareyaku (斬られ役which translates as “to be cut role”). These actors dedicated their lives to learning complex fight choreography and dying spectacularly on screen and helped make the samurai drama popular all over the world. Times are changing and the kirareyaku are ageing. Audiences are moving away from tried and trusted traditional tales of chivalry and embracing modern detective shows starring ikemen. Film and dorama producers are responding by cancelling movies and the few jidaigeki still being made are packed with pretty pop idols carrying CG swords. Meanwhile, the venerable extras with sword skills are being replaced by younger models.
One of these kiraryaku is 70 year old Seiichi Kamiyama (Seizo Fukumoto). His dedication to dying dramatically in samurai dramas has left an indelible mark in Japanese cinema and given him a long career as an on screen performer. He is a man looked up to by those who work in the studio and respected by older actors, but he is looked down upon by a new generation of arrogant filmmakers less interested in the craft and more interested in spectacle. With work drying up, Kamiyama and his fellow extras endure the indignity of being treated badly on set and making appearances at the Uzumasa theme park, practicing sword fighting for throngs of tourists. When the studio looks to discontinue chanbara productions altogether he faces the biggest crisis of his career and with his body ageing it seems that he will unable to hold onto the limelight.
However, his dedication, quiet passion, and professionalism inspire a young actor by the name of Satsuki Iga (Chihiro Yamamoto) to become a disciple and train hard under Kamiyama’s instruction. With the world taking notice of her, will Kamiyama’s legacy of dying spectacularly live on in the skill of this woman?
Uzumasa Limelight is built around Seizo Fukumoto, a veteran actor who started his career at the age of 15 back in the 1960s and is said to have died on-screen 50,000 times. He has become Japan’s most famous kirareyaku and uses his experiences and their physical impact on him to make Kamiyama, a unique character.
Fukumoto has a wonderfully creased face that speaks of efforts made in honing his
craft over the years. Every exertion ever made in his career is evident in the lines on his face and his features that are quietly expressive and emotive. His calm, kind eyes and steady countenance and movements speak of the wisdom, experience, and patience built up over the years. Kamiyama’s actions and dedication to practicing his work bear it all out and he is hard not to admire and regard with affection, especially when he looks out for friends abused by loudmouth directors. Other characters respect him tremendously as demonstrated by the way people speak to him and show concern over his dwindling career prospects and his ageing body. Every role lost and every bruise gained produces pathos, we fear that Kamiyama will lose touch with everything.
The script and direction presents Kamiyama’s end of career troubles in an unfussy manner. The narrative flows easily in a mostly linear way and apart from a few monochrome tinted flashbacks to a younger Kamiyama, it mostly focusses on the ageing process and the problems of injuries. There is a lot of commentary on the changing times in the entertainment world where stunts are more important than acting, fighting skills, and dying artfully. Kamiyama and his cohorts old school dedication is discarded in a series of vignettes where problems facing the characters are neatly laid out and the impact is shown soon after. There is the sense that one or two of the events fall a little too easily into place and their resolutions feel schematic rather than organic but the film builds up an interesting and revealing glimpse into the movie making process of Japan and heads to an ending that offers a denouement that audiences can get behind and cheer for as we come to share the nostalgia and melancholy for a disappearing way of filmmaking.
Throughout the film we focus on Kamiyama who is made of stern stuff and while he is inspiring by himself he is also surrounded by supporters who capture the imagination. There is a rich cast of veteran actors and newbies such as Chihiro Yamamoto who deliver earnest and dedicated performances that are full of physicality and emotion as shown in training montages and action sequences and it all helps deliver the sense of respect for Kamiyama and all he represents in terms of old traditions and hard work. The cinematography from Chris Freilich ensures that scenes are framed and lit in expressive manners that champion the colourful theatricality and the team aspect of filmmaking, allowing the cast to take the centre of the screen together and close-ups on the actors, Fukumoto getting ample screen time to charm the audience.
Uzumasa Limelight is an easy watch and has a gentle, nostalgic tone. The great strength of the film is that it is calm and elegiac and presents the story in an accessible way. By foregrounding Fukumoto’s character we see what skills will be lost and realise that although kirareyaku may be a dying breed, their visual style will live forever in the hearts of film fans.
Chris Freilich Cinematography Reel featuring Uzumasa Limelight.