Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Uzumasa Limelight (April 4th at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[UZAMASA LIMELIGHT screens Saturday April 4th at 8:45 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Wayne Richards
Many classic Japanese samurai films have been produced in Uzumasa, a suburb of Kyoto which has been described as the “Hollywood of the East.”  At one point a home to over 100 “Kirare Yaku" (sword fighting film extras who have mastered the art of dying well on screen), Uzumasa has begun to see a steep decline in the making of samurai pictures. This downturn has resulted in the vast majority of these skilled actors disappearing from the cinema landscape.  UZUMASA LIMELIGHT focuses on one of the last of the storied and dying Kirare Yaku breed.  The premise here is the equivalent of telling the life story of an indistinct actor who played one of the countless henchmen that were effortlessly and quickly disposed of by Bruce Lee in ENTER THE DRAGON.  

We are introduced to a man who is physically on the decline and averse to the prospect of joining the legions of film extras currently immersed in retirement.  Inspired by and clearly (in the opening title sequence) borrowing themes from Chaplin’s 1952 classic LIMELIGHT, UZUMASA LIMELIGHT uses the “movie within a movie” format to portray a man facing the imminent end of his livelihood as an actor, the culmination of a lackluster career that has lasted half a century and the passing of the torch.

Seizo Fukumoto (THE LAST SAMURAI) plays Seiichi Kamiyama, a weathered, sword-wielding 70 year old movie veteran whose current gig on a popular samurai drama series is ending due to the Uzumasa studio transitioning into a new era. The importance of skill and professionalism in acting (trademarks of the old guard) is now obsolete.  With the bulk of the current (dumb) viewing audience demanding a cast that consists of attractive young talent, catering to mass appeal has become the studio's primary objective.  Stereotypical Hollywood types including heartless executives, irate and domineering directors and needy, prima donna actors all contribute to the hellish on-set experiences of a film extra.  The Ricky Gervais program "Extras" on HBO has a brilliantly comedic take on this premise. 

As one job ends for Kamiyama, a series of lower-paying, undignified opportunities present themselves to a desperate actor who will take any work he can get. In his industry he is overlooked (and in some cases discriminated against due to his age and appearance) by top men.  Contrarily, he is well-respected and held in high esteem by a number of his small-time colleagues.  He struggles to be relevant, but Kamiyama is steadfast in his sword training and carries himself with honor and grace throughout his hopeless ordeals.

A relationship develops with an eager young extra named Satsuki (Chihiro Yamamoto), who adores and reveres Kamiyama as a legend of his trade.  She repeatedly pushes for instruction, and he reluctantly begins training her (a la THE KARATE KID) in the art of sword fighting. Enter the obligatory montage accented with gorgeous sunsets and the Japanese version of the ROCKY IV soundtrack to round out the middle act. 

Satsuki’s ascension in the business (a direct result of Kamiyama’s tutelage and guidance) is juxtaposed with Kamiyama’s woeful waning into obscurity.  Her brisk rise to stardom sharply delineates the spectrum of success in show biz and leads to her conflict of conscience in dealing with her mentor's calamitous situation. Although the story succeeds greatly in enchanting us to ache for the protagonist's plight, a picture dealing with such bleak circumstances should avoid applying its final brushstrokes with such heavy shades of RUDY.
UZUMASA LIMELIGHT is the first screenplay for Hiroyuki Ono and the second feature directed by Ken Ochiai.  Ochiai edits brilliantly (in particular the flashback sequences) and delivers a sturdy Japanese film.  The film perhaps answers a prudent question that was once asked on a classic Michael Schenker Group album by the incomparable Graham Bonnet: "Samurai, do you live to die?" 

If you are in the camp of slow readers like I am, the subtitles are displayed at an acceptable, moderate pace; so you can fully absorb the text as you enjoy the spectacular fake deaths.  The film won Best Feature and Best Actor (Fukumoto) at the 2014 FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL in Montreal. 2 ½ out of 4 stars.

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