Release Date: January 30th, 2016
Duration: 123 mins.
Director: Satoko Yokohama
Writer: Satoko Yokohama (Screenplay), Akito Inui (Original Novel)
Starring: Ken Yasuda, Kumiko Aso, Shohei Uno, Yoshiko Mita, Shota Sometani, Hirofumi Arai, Youki Kudoh,
It is fair to say that most people go into acting with the expectation that they will be cast in a leading role at some point. However, not everyone can be centre stage and some are relegated to a career of supporting roles. In a profession where acting in the limelight is what actors pursue, how does being in the shadows feel? This is a question that the titular actor, Takuji Kameoka, faces when a mid-career crisis meets an existential crisis as he takes stock of his life in this melancholy comedy, or should that be, melancomedy.
Takuji Kameoka (Ken Yasuda) is a lonely thirty-something bachelor who plays bit-parts in movies and dramas. His only interest outside of cinema is drinking. One day, on a shoot in snowy Nagano, he gets drunk and sadder than usual at an izakaya where a woman named Azumi Murota (Kumiko Aso) runs the bar in her father’s stead. Takuji and Azumi talk while sharing saké. He quietly falls in love with her and it happens just at the point he begins to wonder if he will ever be the leading man in his own life and in the acting profession.
Based on a novel by Akito Inui, this stars a whole host of actors regularly seen in supporting roles and it is adapted with grace by Satoko Yokohama. It is her second feature film after a career of shorts and she and her cast achieve a familiar intimacy as we get involved in the acting life of Kameoka.
The first third of the narrative segues between life on set, which Kameoka commits to with diligence and talent, to the lonely drudgery around his shoots before the story enters his search for meaning in his life and career.
In reality, he is a small figure. His voice drops to a whisper when talking to others and he awkwardly moves around. Despite this, he is skilled at acting small parts and he can transform into any character and carry scenes and is seen as a reliable performer by the people who hire him. However, the stage is totally different where he has to dig deep inside himself, something much demanded by the tough but fair director of the play he signs up for.
Whether he can or not forms the tension of the film. A meandering middle unfurls as Kameoka experiments with method acting and takes on the stage role to test himself and evolve.
His actor’s journey is tracked steadily, on and off stage, training and going to casting calls, and all comes together during a boozy night out with a fellow player (portrayed by another experienced character actor, Shohei Uno) where Kameoka tells his compatriot how things are going. Here, Yokohama intercuts between different temporal and spatial moments which allows a compare and contrast of the techniques involved in film and theatre. She also allows Kameoka’s dreams and reality to mix together in the narrative as he begins to test his capacities as a thespian, dreams more ambitious things and dives into his love for film, and comes to realise his need to confess his feelings to Azumi in a romance he soon imagines like a movie.
Yokohama’s smart adaptation and the fluid editing allows viewers an intimate look into Kameoka’s life while her directorial choices, the wide shots used and how she places her actors, allows us to enjoy the minutiae of the scenes and the glitz and glamour of the movies.
The theatricality of films is highlighted with canned sound effects, a sudden rain shower, spotlighting, shadow plays, rear projection and more martialled on screen for playful moments of movie magic that spices up reality.
The details of the day-to-day work is also shown, the way cast and crew members move during a jidaigeki or yakuza film shoot, the tape on the ground indicating the marks Kameoka has to hit, the mundanity of sitting on a film set between takes smoking a cigarette, sitting in a cafe alone, riding a train alone, drinking beer alone – we notice the lonely lifestyle especially as Ken Yasuda is relegated to one corner of the screen where he radiates a certain melancholy and we sympathise with him. We also recognise Kameoka’s skill as an actor by seeing how he transforms into different characters, shedding his melancholy self for a fierce yakuza persona and winning praise for his efforts and we see how it might work on the stage. At points they intersect and diverge and there is comedy as he tries to make scenes work and sometimes fails, sometimes succeeds. He may overact and certain method acting strategies may turn out catastrophic but we root for him and are aware of his progress and also hope his romance works out.
Whether he can grasp the lead role in life and on stage will be for audiences to discover.
The ending of his actor’s journey comes after wandering through a very physical desert wilderness which doubles as a metaphor for Kameoka’s career and life. He finds himself and his existential angst is over. Whether or not he can take top billing in films is left open but it is clear he has found his niche and some peace. Stay during the credits to see his satisfaction.
The film may focus on the craft of acting but it houses a universal message about finding a place in the world, a niche of ones own. Kameoka’s journey shows there is satisfaction in learning a craft and doing it to the best of your ability. Very few people get work doing what they like and if you can, you should count your blessings, much like Kameoka does.