Saturday, July 23, 2016

Japan Cuts ’16: The Actor

Takuji Kameoka is a working actor, with the emphasis on working. Some of his roles are little more than extra gigs, but the professionalism and frequency of his supporting turns earns him the respect of his more famous colleagues. Inevitably, the journeyman thesp will have the inklings of a midlife crisis, but he will have trouble fitting it into his busy schedule throughout Satoko Yokohama’s The Actor (trailer here), which screens as the closing selection of this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Kameoka is also a heavy drinker, but that seems to go with the territory. He is a veteran of just about every genre, but his most frequent credit is “Thief.” He would like to settle down, but in his line of work, he never meets the sort of real world woman who might be interested in him. However, Kameoka finally starts to get ideas during a shoot in the exurban provinces. Finding himself at loose ends his first night on-set, he walks into a bar and is immediately struck by the proprietress, Azumi Murota (so will the entire audience).

The chemistry is immediately evident, yet also comfortable, as if they had known each other for years. It obviously means something to Kameoka, but he will allow himself to get distracted by other business, including an audition for a Spanish auteur he reveres and a rare theatrical casting in a hideously pretentious production directed by and starring a grand doyen of the stage.

The Actor is a lovely film that proves Japanese cinema has an overwhelming comparative advantage in bittersweet dramedy. However, it suffers in comparison with the sublimely poignant Uzumasa Limelight. While Seizo Fukumoto’s aching dignity took on regal dimensions, Ken Yasuda’s Kameoka is a more rough-and-tumble blue-collar kind of guy. Like his character, Yasuda is often cast as comic foils (that would be him portraying the hyper-judgmental high school teacher in Flying Colors), so he can clearly relate. Avoiding clichés, he brings out Kameoka’s rumpled charm and fatalistic sense of humor. It is easy to understand why he is such a reassuring presence on sets.

As Murota, Kumiko Aso steals our hearts and then quietly breaks them. The give-and-take of her scenes with Yasuda are just beautifully balanced. Yoshiko Mita also upends our expectations and drops some surprisingly heavy lines as Natsuko Matsumura, the dread terror of the stage. Regardless, it is Yasuda’s film and he makes the most of it.

Somewhat strangely, Tsutomu Yamazaki plays a cap and shades wearing jidaigeki director transparently modeled on the late, great Akira Kurosawa, whose last film released in 1993, over twenty years ago. Still, some the films charms are its knowingly nostalgic winks, like the rear-screen projection driving sequence. Regardless, Kameoka is a rather timeless figure and Yasuda’s fine performance will most likely only appreciate over time. Recommended with affection, The Actor concludes the 2016 edition of Japan Cuts, this Sunday (7/24) at the Japan Society.