Thoughts on life after the PhD
Uzumasa Limelight is one of those movies that never loses sight of the fact that it’s a movie. It’s formulaic, but when the formula works, it can be a beautiful thing.
I’m surprised that I was so utterly won over by Limelight, especially given my recent, not-so-positive reaction to Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking, which seemed to be trying for a similar level of poignancy but failed. The problem might be expectations, or inconsistency of tone. Still Walking had a lot of the trappings of an art movie, and thus its frequent forays into melodrama felt stale. Limelight, meanwhile, maintains from beginning to end that it’s a spectacle, and thus I was able to surrender to it.
There is, however, one very grounded element in the midst of all the spectacle, and that’s the breathtaking performance by Seizō Fukumoto. From his physical appearance to the timbre of his voice to the way that he can convey so very, very much with so little, he is never less than mesmerizing—and heartbreaking—to watch. Every line on his weathered face tells a story that you want to hear more of.
A bit on the plot. “Uzumasa” refers to a district of Kyoto that was once a famous center of jidaigeki (dramas usually set in the Edo period and featuring samurai). Seiichi Kamiyama (Fukumoto) is a 70-year-old kirare-yaku, or a particular type of bit player who’s especially skilled at dying onscreen. Sadly, the long-running drama series that he’s been performing in for decades is being cancelled, and he and his fellow bit players struggle to fit into a new system that puts all the focus on youth and computer-generated effects. But Kamiyama finds new purpose when he begins coaching a female actress in swordplay. She ends up getting a starring role in a new film. There are the usual conflicts, and most audience members will see the ending coming a mile away, but it still manages to pack an emotional punch.
Limelight’s narrative clearly takes inspiration from recent headlines. In 2012, TBS announced that it was ending the long-running series Mito Komon, which had been broadcast for an amazing 42 years. The reasons seemed to be declining ratings and a desire on the part of sponsors to affiliate themselves with hipper, more modern forms of entertainment.
In the role of the old master training a young protege, you might say that Seizō Fukumoto is cheating a bit. He is, in fact, a lifelong kirare-yaku who has appeared in hundreds of films (and first came to international attention as a silent retainer in The Last Samurai). There’s a reason he looks so at home in the studio backlot, or in front of his dressing room mirror applying his period wig and make-up. Maybe he’s just playing himself, but I didn’t care—I could easily have watched him for another two hours.
Limelight has a lot of fun satirizing the Japanese entertainment industry’s obsession with youth and looks over talent. In place of the usual jidaigeki, the studio is mounting a production called Oda Nobu, clearly meant to be a cooler version of the story of samurai Oda Nobunaga. The lead actor is an insufferable pop star who refuses to wear the traditional samurai wig, instead opting for a kabuki-style headdress of white fur. None of the actors perform their own stunts, and instead of real swords they use green sticks that will later become CGI weapons.
Young star Chihiro Yamamoto gets plenty of screen time, and she’s perfectly likeable as the ingenue. But thankfully it’s Fukumoto and a small group of older actors who are really allowed to shine. There’s the studio manager, played with a sense of weary pragmatism by Hirotaro Honda, who deeply cares for the actors and the films being made but is left with few options when arrogant directors won’t take his advice. There are Kamiyama’s fellow actors and cronies, who’ve been doing this a long, long time and have a deep love and respect for one another.
And then there’s another quiet, beautiful performance from Hisako Manda, who plays a former actress now running the local bar. Something clearly happened between her and Kamiyama—maybe they were lovers, maybe he just admired her from afar. But the amount of weight and history that they manage to pack into just a few brief, mostly silent scenes is incredible.
At this point I’m fairly weary of films that try to manipulate me into feeling something (and when it comes to dramas, that’s most of them). Some will probably accuse Uzumasa Limelight of just that—it certainly has its moments of swelling music, tearful speeches, and characters whose personalities shift with the demands of the plot. But Seizō Fukumoto could move me to tears just by sitting in front of his dressing room mirror and slowly, methodically applying his make-up and wig. And that is a rare, marvellous talent.
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
tales of travel, research, and life
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