The art of dying is a dying art.
The movie starts out by explaining that a suburb of Kyoto called Uzumusa is known as the “Hollywood of the East” due to many great Japanese films having been made there. During the heyday of Samurai films, Uzumasa had over 100 Kirare Yaku, or extras who got killed on-screen. These days, there are much fewer.
Right, so the opening credits sequence is sick as fuck. A hyper-stylized depiction of two swordfighters going at it until one finally kills the other. I just…had to point that out.
Anyways, now we get another fight scene. Slightly less stylistic. Three men attack a fourth, but the fourth kills the others.
And the third man’s death reveals that this is all being filmed for a television show called The Saga of Edo Zakura.
Huh. It looks like that is a wrap on that episode. The main actor walks off and everyone bows to him. He goes over to Kamiyama Seiichi, the third man to die, and tells him that he did nice work.
Kamiyama walks through the studio. He greets everyone whom he passes and they greet him, some being more friendly than others. He makes his way to a secluded area where he can practice his craft of fighting and falling over dead.
It is the next day and a pair of…let’s say casting directors, are picking which actors in the roster to cast for which role in a detective show. The production coordinator, Naganuma Kenichi, comes around and approves of their choices after only a few seconds of looking at the board.
The cast list for the Edo Zakura scene has been published and Kamiyama goes to take a look. He and his buddies have been cast as ronin. Huh. So, they just get recast over and over. Nothing yet for young Nonomura, but one day. The elders go for coffee and let him tag along.
Some time later, Kamiyama and his co-extras are preparing for the shooting. I am not sure if that wig is meant to make him look younger, but whatever.
The…sword action director, Azuma, is telling the lead and the fighting extras what to do and…his instructions seem less detailed than I had assumed fight choreography to be. Perhaps they are just going over last-minute adjustments after days of preparation and Azuma trusts his actors enough. I don’t know.
So, this is the final fight scene. It is pretty long, but yes, the good guys kill the bad guys and the scene is over.
Cut. Everyone claps. The dead bad guys get up. The leads get flowers and…wait…this is the final episode? Some people were not informed that this 40-year-old series was just canceled. The producer, Kawashima Akihiko, gives a speech expressing regret that the traditional samurai drama will not be able to be passed on to the next generation. Azuma mutters that everyone knows that Kawashima doesn’t care at all.
Now, it is time for the lead actor, Onoe, whose father had been the lead before him. His speech, thanking everyone, seems a lot more sincere and full of melancholy. He says that they are now at square one, but will return here someday.
Onoe goes over to Kamiyama and shakes his hand, promising to kill him again someday. Kamiyama thanks him.
Later in the day, Kamiyama and a couple of his colleagues go to get some drinks. Oh, hey, there is Kawashima on the TV, trying to explain why he axed a 40-year-old TV show. Kamiyama stays silent, but his coworkers start badmouthing Kawashima. Apparently, he had become producer only recently, so it is likely that this was his decision. Also, he had been an actor and tried to learn sword techniques from the vets, but was hopeless. There was also a rumor that he had been living with an older actress, but left her to marry the daughter of a TV network president, which is how he ended up a producer in the first place.
It is at this point that the woman at the bar, Ayuna, turns to her mother and decides to turn off the television, signaling to the actors that they should shut up. One of the older actors apologizes to the mother, Tamura Mitsuru. She had been on the show in the past and he says that it was she who made the show popular. She was the lead next to the elder Onoe for a while. And now she owns a restaurant? At least the restaurant has some signs that she had been on the show, such as a poster and a hairpin. Ayuna does not care for acting or samurai dramas, but whatever.
Kamiyama leaves rather suddenly and goes to be alone…to practice his craft some more. He flashes back to when he was…erm…younger, and fell into the water during a take. The elder Onoe took notice of his ability to die on screen and gave him a wooden sword.
Mitsuru appeared behind an already starstruck Kamiyama and adjusted his hair with her hairpin…wait…is she supposed to be his age or older? It seems so in this flashback, but back in the present…well, nevermind. Anyways, young Mitsuru told young Kamiyama to practice as best he could and he would become a good actor.
Aaaaand…a young woman wakes Kamiyama up from his slumber. She expresses concern as to whether he is okay, but he assures her that he is. She tells him that she got lost on the way out after an audition. He points her to the exit. She thanks him, and then leaves.
The casting department has a bit of a dilemma: without Edo Zakura, there are no roles for Kirare Yaku. Naganuma asks about the detective shows, but casting director Nakajima tells him that director Wada Shigeru apparently want younger actors.
The casting list is up and Kamiyama did not get a role. His colleague, who did not get one either, is about to go on a rant, when Nonomura arrives with…oh, the young woman from earlier. Nonomura introduces her as Iga Satsuki, a school friend who wants to study at the studio. She notices Kamiyama and thanks him for his help, even though she did not get the role. Next time, he says. Then he and his friend leave. One of the other younger actors, Amano, asks Satsuki how she knows Kamiyama and she says that she encountered him lying on the ground. Well, that makes sense, says the other actor, Matsumoto: Kamiyama must have been practicing…which is sort of true. Then she and Nonomura look at the casting list. He is in an extra in that detective show. Great! He invites her to see how things get filmed.
So, Satsuki observes a scene getting filmed. The background actors like Amano may not be into this, but Satsuki is taking it all in.
Another day, another nothing for Kamiyama, another extra role for Nonomura. One day, Nakajima asks Naganuma about having Kamiyama do a role that is usually assigned to new actors. She feels bad about it, but it is either that role or no role.
And finally, Satsuki gets a role as Nonomura’s girlfriend. So, everyone gets on the bus for extras. Elders in the front, the young ones in the back. Satsuki is surprised to see Kamiyama and the other samurai actors doing a modern drama, but Amano tells her that that is because there is so little demand for samurai roles these days. Nonomura says that they should bring samurai dramas back and Satsuki laughs in agreement.
What is Kamiyama’s role in this modern drama? Oh, the corpse of a gangster. Not even a gangster, just his corpse. His fellow corpses are getting very uncomfortable, but they are told that the camera is adjusting, so they should not move. Suddenly, Matsumoto starts flailing about, screaming that something burns. The director, Wada, says that a man who cannot stay still is worth less than garbage, which sends Matsumoto into a fury. His fellow corpses stop him from assaulting Wada, but Kamiyama manages to intimidate Wada enough that he falls over. Now Wada is in a rage and has to be held back from assaulting Kamiyama.
Wada goes to casting department, claiming that an extra had hit him, even though that did not actually happen. Naganuma says that Kamiyama hardly ever gets angry…so…perhaps…the director simply got what he deserved. Wada tries to double down on an extra hitting him, and Naganuma tells him, somewhat menacingly, that there are no extras in this studio, only actors, performers. Well, Wada still wants to report this assault and have the “actor” suspended for a while. He leaves in a huff.
Kamiyama goes back to his secluded section to practice some more until late at night. He goes home, where he lives by himself. He does some maintenance on his little tree and then makes dinner. There is a photograph across from where he sits as he eats. It is an old photograph of a young woman. That is his wife Nanako. Or was: she probably died couple of years after that photo was taken.
The next day, there is a new samurai drama in the making called Oda Nobu. Satsuki is excited, even though the title does not make it seem very serious. And the lead actor is Kudo Jun…who is part of a dance group. Whatever. Work is work. Except for Kamiyama. He arrives to find that he has been placed on extended leave.
Naganuma comes out and offers Kamiyama coffee. He apologizes, but asks Kamiyama to be patient for a while. Kamiyama is about to leave without responding when Yoko tells him that there is a role at the movie park show. Naganuma refuses to subject a motion picture actor to that. Kamiyama neither refuses nor accepts, but bows and leaves.
Kamiyama is back home drinking tea when he looks at the photograph of Nanako. He flashes back to bringing bananas to her at the hospital. He told her about getting the job on the show, that he got a bonus for getting killed, and that the two of them could go travel once she recovers from…whatever has gotten her hospitalized. She told him to go back to the studio, but also said that she saw him getting killed on TV. He was surprised that she was able to pick him out. She told him that since he had been looking out for her, she had been looking out for him as well.
And now she is gone.
Back in the present, Kamiyama takes the park show job and shows up ready to go. It’s fine; he did this when he was young. He can do it now. And how bad can it be? Taking photos with tourists. Showing off sword moves. Fake sword fights with his fellow Kirare Yaku. Fine. A swordfight with a little boy? With even less preparation than with that fight scene from earlier Sure. What could possible happen?
Kamiyama could twist his ankle. That’s what could happen. But, hey. He hides it. Later on, Azuma asks him if he is okay and he claims that he is; it was more important that that boy had fun. Well, he had better be okay, since the next show is in 15 minutes.
Sometime later, Satsuki approaches Kamiyama as he is practicing. She offers him some lunch, though he declines. She had been watching him in the show earlier and says that he was wonderful. Then she tells him that she is going to be in a samurai drama and wants to learn how to use the sword. He tells her that there are no fighting roles for actresses. Wait, that’s not true, as the final fight scene on the cancelled show had included a woman fighting alongside the lead. And so does the new one. Seeing him losing his grip on the wooden sword and perhaps having noticed that he had hurt his ankle before, Satsuki asks if he is okay. He says that he is fine and walks off.
And here is the star of that samurai drama getting ready. Kudo Jun seems surprised to be given a bald cap, making him look bald. The makeup artist, Kitamura Kyoko, has to tell him that that was the style for samurai. Oh, this is going to be a great show. Anyways, here comes Megu, who is playing the second lead on the show. She laughs at Kudo’s bald head, which flusters him and annoys Kitamura. He asks Kitamura to put some hair on the top of his head. She…tries to explain that it would not look good for the great Nobunaga, but Kudo doubles down and gets his agent, Watabe, to put pressure on her as well. Kitamura tries to say that the director will be angry, but Kudo says that he is buddies with director Wada. The asshole who got Kamiyama suspended? AND Kawashima is producing? Oh, this will be a masterpiece.
Time to prepare for principal photography and…what is with the trampolines? And fucking green screen swords?
Well, whatever. Kawashima makes a speech about this being a new era of samurai dramas and introduces the show’s young Oda Nobunaga…and tries to pretend that what appears was exactly what he had expected. Jesus. If Kitamura gets fired for this…Anyways, Kudo Jun makes some really arrogant speech about sparking a revolution in acting. Kamiyama had been observing this whole thing from the crowd of media and onlookers, but this was too much for him, and he walks off to do his park show nearby.
Satsuki goes to Mitsuru’s for drinks with Nonomura and Amano. Amano expresses reservations about this show, but what can you do? Satsuki looks around and realizes that Mitsuru is THAT Mitsuru, from the show years back. She notes that her father was a fan of Edo Zakura, and named her after Mitsuru’s character of Satsuki. Then the cynical Amano starts arguing with the idealistic Nonomura about their acting prospects. Eventually, the argument starts to turn towards Kamiyama working in the park and Mitsuru tells them to stop. From Ayuna’s reaction, this is one of the few times that her mother has raised her voice like that. The two men sheepishly apologize and ask for the bill, but Ayuna tells them that it is free today: Uzumasa’s princess says no. The actors get ready to leave and Amano says that he is leaving for Tokyo. Mitsuru tells him to go wherever he wants. She says the same thing to Satsuki.
Satsuki goes to the studio to see Kamiyama practicing again. She holds up a wooden sword and sneaks up behind him. Eventually, he notices her, takes the “blade” of the sword and points it at his neck, telling her to go for the throat. He then fixes her stance and has her repeat his downward attacks.
And, thus, the training begins. And Satsuki gets good. Good enough for Naganuma to notice her and have her cast as Megu’s stunt double.
I guess in fight scenes with extras, viewers tend to focus on the ones doing the killing, not the ones doing the dying. Stunt people and action actors don’t really seem to get much fame unless they become lead actors. And I guess that the same could be said for Fukumoto Seizô, who had been acting as a Kirare Yaku for around 56 years before this movie. And this film was meant to pay tribute to him and the others whose talents were dying onscreen. Also, this movie was inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 film Limelight about a washed-up comedian.
At 70 years old, Kamiyama Seiichi is of a dying breed. He had gotten his start way back in the 1970s and had been acting as Kirare Yaku for…uh…40 years? 45 years? Look, I am not going to try to work out how old characters were back in the day, but I’ll just say that there is some muddiness. Anyways, Kamiyama was full of hope and energy back in his back in his…youth. The positive attention from young (how young??) Mitsuru and the elder Onoe for his onscreen death made him glow. So, he decided to focus on that act, honing his skills and talents. He thought that he would use his earnings to go traveling with his wife. Decades later and Kamiyama is widowed and alone, living a quiet and spare life. He still acts as Kirare Yaku, but mostly because that is what he does best. His skills are as sharp as ever, but his bright passion has been replaced by a quiet professionalism. And his reaction to the Onoe Jr. giving him compliments is more subdued than to his reaction to Onoe Sr. was. And now…his body may be starting to fail him.
I cannot say how accurate this movie is to how things were in the 1970s or how things were in the 2010s. The director, Ken Ochiai, was maybe 30 years old when he made this. And I have little information regarding screenwriter Ono Hiroyuki, but he seemed to look rather young from a photo that I saw of him from 2015. So, this movie may not have come from firsthand knowledge of how things were or had been. But perhaps there were first-hand observations of how things were going.
That lack of firsthand experience of that past could be why that depiction of the past is kept to brief flashbacks. Another Japanese movie could have shown the Kirae Yaku in their heyday, with the meta-knowledge that it will not last. Or portray the era when the turn started. Or even show the era right before the end. All of these could still have a similar elegiac feel as this film. You know, like those movies of high schoolers about to graduate and become adults. But this is not simply a romanticism of the past, but a kind of culturally conservative statement on the present.
It seems pretty obvious early on that the movie treats the old ways and the older actors with reverence and then turns around and shows utter contempt for the CGI-laden popstar projects of the day. To be fair, I am not sure if that Edo Zakura could necessarily maintain my interest for however long, but that Oda Nobu was absolute nonsense. There is a sense that the old ways are from a romantic era of high-minded craftmanship and labors of love, while the new ways are cynical cash grabs shoveling garbage for ignorant youths. I wonder if Ken would be that Youtube commenter asking who is watching this 70s classic in 2014 and saying that he hates his generation.
Now, the movie refrains from portraying the old vs new divide as a purely generational thing. And that is probably for the best, since the director is like 4-years younger than the actor who plays Kudo. The generational shift seems to go in a different direction. The older people still in the business take whatever work that they can get, do the best that they can, and try to do right by each other. Acceptance of the new is purely a practical matter, with some accepting more than others. The younger people seem to be a little more individualist, just doing their own thing. Kawashima, Kudo, and Wada are all self-important assholes. Nonomura’s wish to uphold the samurai drama traditions may make him a more sympathetic a character than Amano with his sneering bitterness, but Nonomura’s stance come from his own personal feelings, with no real acknowledgement of how to take care of the aging actors.
And then there is Satsuki. She is like most of the working professionals, trying to do the best that she can in the job that she has. When she is just an extra for a detective show, then that is all that she is. She displays some concern about the future of the Kirare Yaku actors, but there is nothing that she can do about that. But when she gets cast as an extra in a…uh…new samurai drama…she can turn to Kamiyama for training with swords and other weapons. She doesn’t need his help as an extra, but she does for other reasons.
From a purely practical standpoint, Satsuki can gain skills that can get her roles above mere human scenery as long as someone in power, such as Naganuma, takes notice of her practicing. From a more sentimental standpoint, it can give Kamiyama some purpose and sense of worth during the time that he is temporarily suspended. From a traditional standpoint, she sees that Matsumoto is the only Kirare Yaku at the studio under the age of 50, and so she may see getting training under Kamiyama as the only way to continue the practice. And then from a personal standpoint, she feels a bit of connection to Kamiyama, sort of seeing something of her late father in him, even though he is probably twice as old as her father ever was. I am guessing that Matsumoto is closer to her father’s would-be age. And since her father named her after Mitsuru’s character in Edo Zakura, seeking training from Kamiyama can be not just a way to remind her of her time with her father, but fulfilling the legacy of her fictional namesake for him.
Sidenote: this appears to be Yamamoto Chihiro’s first credited role. She was maybe 18 at the time and had held wushu championship titles in Spear Fighting, Changquan, and Swordsmanship at 17. Those accolades may have been the reason for casting her in the first place, but she was able to launch an acting career; some focusing on fighting, and others not.
Parentage is a complicated thing in this movie. Kamiyama seems to not have remarried or had children, no legacy other than his profession. Onoe Jr. seems to be living under the shadow of his father, while Kawashima seems to have married the daughter of a big executive to rise through the ranks. But an interesting unstated story is that of Mitsuru and Ayuna. Mitsuru, who is demonstrably younger than Kamiyama and Onoe Jr. (okay, I will stop) has not been on Edo Zakura for a while, despite being the second lead. Why? It could not have simply been her age. More likely, it is because she had gotten pregnant with Ayuna and either had to quit or had quit earlier to start a family. I am not sure if Onoe Sr. had to deal with that. In any case, despite not having been on the show for decades, Mitsuru still has fond memories of being on the show, but she wants them to remain memories, even if they are romanticized and subject to crumbling if she were to return to the studio. Ayuna, not so much. She claims to not be interested in samurai dramas or the world of acting in general, but it is implied that it is more that she holds some resentment over how her mother had been treated and tossed out 20 years ago or so. The movie does not really explore that, though, so I am mostly just extrapolating.
It appears that Mitsuru’s words to Satsuki is what convinces her to convince Kamiyama to teach her swordfighting, not just meekly ask like she had the first time. What does Satsuki see in the woman who indirectly gave her her given name? Does she see that Mitsuru is floating through her glory days while working unglamorously at a restaurant? Is that all following her dream has to offer? Perhaps. But…perhaps it is worth it.
While painting a rather gloomy picture of the artistic future of Japan’s motion picture industry, it presents a sliver of hope that the traditional ways will be preserved and their practitioners will have their due. Is it a bit saccharine and conservative? Yeah. And it is a good one.
WTF ASIA 210: Saving Mr. Wu (China: 2015, approx. 106 minutes)
WTF ASIA 211: Beasts Clawing at Straws (South Korea: 2020, approx. 109 minutes)