We may still be in April, but we have a contender for the blog’s best film of 2016! Third Window’s latest release is the critically-acclaimed Uzumasa Limelight and I don’t see how anyone can watch this and not enjoy it immensely. The film (directed by Ken Ochiai, 2014) is set in Uzumasa, an Edo-era town in Kyoto known as the “Hollywood of Japan”, which is often used as a backdrop for samurai sword-fighting drama. Based on true events, it follows the older actors’ struggle with the more modern film industry, which favours CGI over more traditional swordplay.
Seiichi (played fantastically by Seizo Fukumoto) and his friends are kirareyaku, actors whose main job is to be killed by the star in films, and have been in the industry for decades. But in a new entertainment age where fans want a bit more “flash, bang, wallop” rather than traditional samurai sword-fighting drama, their art is at risk of dying out completely. As Seiichi and his colleagues are reduced to playing corpses in cop dramas, if they’re lucky enough to get cast for anything at all, a young budding actress approaches him and asks him to pass on his craft. As Satsuki (Chihiro Yamamoto) climbs the acting ranks and Seiichi watches on, his own future becomes more uncertain.
Using Charlie Chaplain’s Limelight as an underlying theme, Uzumasa Limelight is a send-up to the little known actors of the jidaigekis (period dramas) and Uzumasa itself. It’s very poignant and occasionally sad, especially when it focuses on Seiichi’s age and health, but is charming and entertaining throughout.
My favourite thing about the film was, unsurprisingly, the samurai costumes and brilliantly-choreographed swordplay. It’s hilariously contrasted with the kind of modern films Satsuki is cast in – ridiculously over-the-top stunts and cheesy dialogue, complete with vain celebrities playing the leading role. It pokes fun at the whole handsome-men-and-crazy-stunts-over-actual-history that series like Sengoku Basara are guilty of (I still like it, don’t judge me!) but you don’t get the impression that the director is saying it’s a bad thing in itself. The new generation may be elbowing its way onto the stage but there’s still a place for the more traditional element.
Uzumasa Limelight is an absolute must-watch for film fans of all kinds, even if you don’t know the first thing about the Japanese film industry and samurai. It’s touching, charming but also exciting. You might want to have some tissues ready to hand if you’re the weepy type, mind.