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Uzumasa Limelight
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by Jay Seaver

"One of the dozens of samurai that the hero hacked through gets his due."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Uzumasa Limelight" wears its inspiration on its sleeve, opening with a quote from Charles Chaplin's original film before giving some background on where this contemporary Japanese version is coming from. That's absolutely fine, though - after all, what is this film (or, indeed, Chaplin's) about if not paying homage to old masters.

In this particular case, it's Seiichi Kumiyama (Seizo Fukumoto), who has been playing bit parts at a studio in the Kyoto suburb of Uzumasa, mostly as a kirare yaku - an actor whose job it is to fill out sword fights and die on the hero's blade - for decades, including almost the entire length of a samurai TV drama that has been running for forty years. But now that show is cancelled, an arrogant director on another program has had him blackballed, and Kumi is left doing theme-park work. Still, he has the respect of his longtime colleagues and some of the younger generation like shidashi (bit-role player) Nonmura (Kazuaki Tai) and his friend Satsuki Iga (Chihiro Yamamoto), who asks him to train her in screen fighting and doesn't take no for an answer.

As I write this, I don't know if star Seizo Fukumoto is a guy that everyone in Japan knows, someone from the stage, or a genuine kirare yaku that the filmmakers decided to build their movie around (apparently, he's more the latter). It doesn't much matter, because he's a treasure, with an exquisitely creased face and skin that has slackened a bit on his lean frame. He inhabits the role likehe's known little else, carrying himself with a cheerful dignity - even the moments of hurt have a streak of acceptance. He doesn't oversell the gravitas, but he makes Kumiyama into just enough of a showman in his deaths to tie the character together: He's an avatar of Japanese dedication and dignity, but also an entertainer at heart.

Entertainment is an industry, though, and while that's often taken to simply mean "business", that's not an exact definition. One of the joys of Uzumasa Limelight is watching characters go through the day-to-day business of making television and movies, with people like the kirare yaku and shidashi showing up daily to see if they have work that day and people like the production co-ordinator handling all the details that add up to a quality final product. The business is there - people go to Tokyo where the work is, the decline of the samurai drama has people with specific skill sets like Kumiyama either awkwardly trying to fit into police dramas or less prestigious jobs, and a former actress once described as the "princess of Uzumasa" now runs the studio's canteen.

The people populating that industry make up a fine supporting cast. Chihiro Yamamoto is the one who pops out, in part because she's the pretty young girl among what is mostly older men, but also because she often plays Satsuki as just a little more capable and professional than the other young actresses on set, but with a warmth and level of respect that shouldn't be as unusual as it is. Hirotaro Honda is a busy character actor and that's exactly what you want for production co-ordinator Kenichi Naganuma, someone who feels instantly familiar and long-tenured. Hisako Manda is quietly excellent as the former star now tending bar, implying a history with Kumiyama with just looks and maybe disappointment that her daughter is less interested in acting than the bar. A half-dozen other parts are cast to perfection as well, whether it's more-egotistical youngsters or Kumi's longtime colleagues.

With one of Chaplin's more beloved later movies as a template, writer Hiroyuki Ono has a pretty solid base to start from, and does right by it. Uzumasa Limelight keeps the themes of the original but also feels very contemporary, but neither Ono nor director Ken Ochiai injects much in the way of cynicism into the movie. There are occasional regretful words about how the industry and the audiences that drive it cast off the aged, but also a sense of joy in Satsuki's rise to fame, making the film about renewal as well as decline. Ochiai presents events clearly, often almost plainly (although several bits are striking), and pulls off a neat trick with the bits that open and close the movie, managing to show action scenes as great and exciting but also very technical and precise, with the final swing of a sword carrying the implications of time marching on and how, while Satsuki's and Kumi's positions are different, she is still connected to him.

It's a great little film, in large part because it doesn't obviously strive for greatness, but instead captures the beauty of small things that don't last forever. It's one of the less cloying displays of nostalgia you'll see, and a bit of a hidden gem among a festival's much louder movies.

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originally posted: 07/28/14 01:57:30
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Ken Ochiai

Written by
  Hiroyuki Ohno

  Seizo Fukumoto
  Chihiro Yamamoto
  Hiroki Matsukata

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