Brilliantly blending reality and fiction Uzumasa Limelight sees veteran actor Seizo Fukumoto play Seiichi Kamiyama both of whom have made their names within the Japanese film and TV industry in sword fighting period dramas (also known as jidaigek) as a kirareyaku an actor whose main role is to be killed by the lead again and again across a multitude of movies.
Unsung heroes of the silver screen and the Hollywood of Japan Uzumasa in Kyoto having dedicated their lives to perfecting the art of suffering a spectacular death the film set at the studio sees Kamiyama lose his job when the long running samurai TV show he stars in is unexpectedly cancelled.
Lost without the only life he knows he continues to train and find piecemeal work in the studio tour show however as the world around him changes his body seems to be deteriorating as well leading to him being unable to fight the way he used to.
Hope comes to him in the form of feisty ingénue Satsuki Iga (Chihiro Yamamoto) who is in awe of Kamiyama and begs him to teach her everything he knows so she can one day star in a samurai epic as he once did.
Thus begins an unlikely friendship that allows Kamiyama’s legacy to live on as the young actress trains with him to perfects her skills in the hopes of finding fame and fortune while honoring the traditions of the kirareyaku even if it is against the wishes of the studio.
Multifaceted and quietly magnificent director Ken Ochiai blends the basic story and themes of the Charlie Chaplin film Limelight with a touching tribute to the actors whose talents are legendary even if their names are not.
Born in 1943 having entered the Toei Studio Kyoto at 15 Seizo Fukumoto, who was inspired to act by Chaplin, is said to have died on camera 50,000 times becoming slightly better known outside of Japan as the Silent Samurai in the 2003 Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai.
Although reluctant to take on the project at first Uzumasa Limelight has already gained Fukumoto the best actor prize at the Fantasia International festival in Montreal where the movie also won the Cheval Noir for best film and both are more than valid accolades as his performance is sublime and immensely powerful made more impressive by the fact that he has very few lines.
With complete mastery over his body and movement he conveys the majority of the characters heart wrenching journey through his face in his slow decline from full time working actor to a disrespected and cast away dinosaur replaced by talentless kids and a ridiculous pop star who takes the lead in the terrible reboot of the show he once featured in.
Dealing with many themes and ideas including the brutal realities of the aging process, the film industry in Japan and what makes an actor the story is also a perfect reflection on one of the deepest running issues Japan faces as a society and culture, how to combine the ever evolving demands of the future with the traditions and customs of the past.
Like a masterless samurai or Ronin Kamiyama is lost without the studio to serve finding it hard to let go of the past and embrace change. In a country steeped in so much history yet flooded with cutting edge technology Japan has always been torn by this conflict which is played out in Uzumasa Limelight without becoming too saccharine or simplistic.
Packed with poetic violence, excellent acting and a great story and dealing superbly with loss in a multitude of forms from the loss of tradition to the loss of a purpose to the loss of youth Uzumasa Limelight is one of the most poignant and moving films about death in recent years.