Uzumasa Limelight: A Review

Review by Vladi

Ladies, gents, and other noble creatures of the earth, today I am proud to put on some hipster pants and review a movie you probably haven’t heard of. Today we look at Ken Ochiai’s Uzumasa Limelight. This little gem has just come out. I had the pleasure of seeing it at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Center several nights ago. However, as I am led to believe, it will be playing at Dundas Square (Toronto, Canada) for the next couple of days. It’s an independent film; it has only a limited release, so I suggest you go and see it while you still can.

As the movie’s title subtly suggests, this movie’s somewhat of a homage to Charlie Chaplin’s own film titled Limelight (1952) which looks at the life of a once brilliant entertainer, now washed up, trying to pass the torch on to a youthful protégé. Uzumasa Limelight shares the same theme. We look at the life of Seiichi Kamiyama, a professional kirareyaku. Kirareyaku were background actors for Japanese samurai dramas, also known as chanbara, whose job was to die spectacular deaths on the silver screen. Seiichi Kamiyama has been doing this for over fifty years. He has earned the respect of his colleagues and people of the Kyoto movie scene. However, the times are-a-changin’, and the new generation of films no longer has need for old washed up actors. Even proper swordsmanship is no longer appreciated, as everything is done using CGI. The sun is setting on the classic era of chanbara films, and with it Kamiyama’s only tie to a world which vanished long ago. Hope comes in the form of a young and aspiring actress called Satsuki, in need of a mentor.

The movie is very much a love letter to the bygone days of Japanese cinema. We’re given a very good look at what life might have been like for actors at that time. It’s very different from what theater culture is today, and even more so from the West. We are shown a world  where actors can spend their entire lives working in one big community, resembling something touchingly close to a family. Their only sense of accomplishment and pride comes from the reputation they’ve earned over decades of hard work, dedication, and respect. This makes it all the more heart breaking when you see it slowly fall apart.

I can best describe Seizo Fukumoto (Kamiyama) as a Japanese Clint Eastwood. You might remember him as Ugly Bob from The Last Samurai. He has that old, leathery toughness to him. The performance by him is really solid. This is probably partly because he actually is a kirareyaku. He has been killed thousands of times on screen, making him a far superior Japanese Sean Bean. A little side note: There was a Q&A session with the director and the cast after the film was screened. It was really touching to hear that the movie’s lead, Fukumoto, had to be constantly asked to stay in the center of the shots. This mostly because he was so used to being a background actor, he is used to staying at the edges of the shots so as not to bother anyone or draw attention to himself. It’s just humbling to see such humility and modesty in a performer. Especially with the over saturated market of divas we have in the West.

The movie’s an independent production, so don’t expect that high Hollywood polish on every frame you see. That being said, it’s shot very well, and the images are really clean. There’s some very good humour in it; I didn’t expect to laugh nearly that much at a foreign drama. It is Japanese cinema, so you will be exposed to a different world and storytelling than you are normally used to in the West. If nothing else, it’s a great piece to open you up to a different culture. There were some moments, mostly courtesy of Fukumoto, where I had to reign in the feels, for tears were knocking at the door. It is a very human story that will really draw you in if you let it. I strongly hold that one of the greater accomplishments in film is being able to tell a truly human story which explores the human condition and put us, the audience, in the shoes of the characters. If I can sit in a chair in a dark room and feel pangs in my chest because I feel like my world’s falling apart, the director’s done his job. To the cast and director of this film, I tip my hat. It was a great experience, I strongly suggest you go see it.

Because nothing in Japanese narrative is truly over without falling Sakura blossoms.

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