‘Ready to be killed again?’
‘I’ll be back to kill you again someday’
The times they are a changing and so too do the expectations of cinema and TV audiences. This is the premise of Uzumasa Limelight, a charming and bittersweet story about ageing stars and extras coming to terms with new stories and new styles. At times serious, at times sad, but often with a vein of humour running through, this is a truly essential piece of entertainment that approaches modern media and cinema from the perspective of its past. As the title, and the pre-credit quotes from Charlie Chaplin suggest, this is based, in part, upon Limelight (1955), the classic film where Chaplin and Buster Keaton recall their spectacular silent film glories in an age where their films have become old school. Like its predecessor, Uzumasa Limelight incorporates the traditions and the comedy and also stirs in a significant amount of poignancy, but in this instance silent comedy isn’t the predominant genre; instead we are shown how the world of the jidaigeki (period samurai dramas), which were the staple of Japanese television and film in much the same way that the western was in Hollywood, has changed.
The cinema and television business is tough at all levels. Essential to the creative process is the work of the shidashi, extras whose roles in the many jidaigeki often involve running around, flying in the air, fighting or being killed in swordplay, skills which, if performed with a suitably dramatic demise can earn a good income – ‘I get a bonus by getting killed by the big boss’. Seiichi (Seizô Fukumoto) has worked as shidashi for more years than he cares to remember but still enjoys – and needs – the work. He is talented and reliable and respected by his peers. Every day he reviews the casting lists at the studio to see if there are roles available for him, but jidaigeki as a genre is declining and all he can seem to get is the occasional job as a corpse in violent detective dramas: no dramatisation really required. Additional problems lie with the new school of self aggrandising directors who want to bring new perspectives to his staple genre, replacing swords with green half-sized sticks – CGI will add the action in post production. This is because the new generation of actors are not skilled enough to fight with stage swords. Newcomer Satsuki Iga(Chihiro Yamamoto) wishes desperately to become a film star, or at least start out as a respected shidashi to work her way up in the industry. She befriends Seiichi and learns her craft from him. Meanwhile plans are afoot to give the old style entertainers a new lease of life as purveyors of theme park entertainment in Odanobu, recreating stage samurai performances. Can Seiichi maintain employment of any sort and can Satsuki realise her dream?
Kyoto, home of the studios, the stars and the theme parks, is the setting for Uzumasa Limelight. Kyoto is a city that mixes the traditional with the modern and it is also home to a studio theme park at Toei, which is something akin to Universal Studios, only with kaiju (monsters), ghosts and ninja aplenty. This is the location where the clashes between the generations and the changes in cultural expectations in a new media world take place. The flashback recollections of the old dramatisation of jidageki are reverential and witty, contrasting with new techniques as the team of old shidashi over-dramatise falls in battles against silhouetted screens and deliberately squirted fake blood. The new form CGI is undoubtedly less precisely choreographed and requires far less skill on the part of the performers. The differences between the old and the new hit a particular note when a young upstart director is criticised by one of the oldies: ‘He hit me, the director! An extra!’ Uzumasa Limelight also parodies this sense of multiplicity by showing the ‘behind the scenes’ shooting with the on-screen acted vignettes, interspersed with more dramatic realism and a number of key artistic shots (notably water sword slashing effects and sakura samurai loveliness) that show the whole perspective of the old film-making processes. But the real purpose of this film is to offer us a character study in a setting where characterisation is deemed to be increasingly superficial. The friendship between the generations as Satsuki persuades Seiichi to teach her the old school techniques to improve her sword skills on film is based upon mutual respect. The performances are wonderful too, especially the overly dramatic death scenes – but that is the point! Even the music reflects aspects of Ennio Morricone which occasionally make this feel like a ramen western.
Poignant and funny, for sheer entertainment that makes full use of narrative cliches only to mock them later, Uzumasa Limelight is a genuine cinematic treat.