Thursday, July 23, 2020

Japan Cuts ’20: Special Actors

This cult supposedly worships a god from Jupiter about to celebrate its 8,396,825,800th birthday (hey, who’s counting anyway?), but if it all sounds very Thetan, you’ve got the right idea. Of course, what the cult leaders really worship is money. A complex con worthy of The Sting is underway to expose them for what they are, but a struggling thesp with an acute physical aversion to confrontation is surprised (and a bit alarmed) to play a leading role in Shinichiro Ueda’s Special Actors, which screens as part of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

Poor Kazuto literally faints at the first site of aggressive behavior, so all his auditions quickly go from bad to worse. It has also made it difficult to hold down a job. His doctor makes it clear his issues are mental, not physical, but he is not ready for the rigorous work required to change. He also happens to be broke, but he fortuitously meets his long-lost brother, Hiroki, who hooks him up with an unconventional acting gig.

At the “Special Actors” agency, Kazuto and Hiroki are sent out into the real world to fulfill clients’ practical requests, like making them look good in front of a woman they are trying to impress. However, the stakes dramatically escalate when the agency is hired by a young woman, whose older sister has fallen under the cult’s influence. The brainwashed sibling is about to sign over ownership of the family’s quaint country inn to the cult. Obviously, this is a job for the Special Actors, who send nervous Kazuto and brash Hiroki into the lion’s den as undercover cult recruits.

Ueda caused an unlikely international sensation with his debut film,
One Cut of the Dead, which maybe features the biggest perspective changing twist since The Sixth Sense. He keeps the switcheroos coming in Special, but we are primed to expect them, especially since this is essentially a big con movie. Ueda maybe presses his luck a little this time around, but it still jolly good fun.

More importantly, Ueda’s sophomore is just brimming with heart, just like
One Cut. Kazuto is painfully shy, but we feel for him as much as Ueda clearly does—and we root for him accordingly. As his namesake, Kazuto Osawa looks like the saddest of sad sacks and acts like a nervous puppy dog, but when he has his day, it is quite satisfying.

Hiroki Kono shows a flair for madcap farce as his namesake, while the culty villains mug and chew the scenery with relish. Reportedly, Ueda developed
Special Actors from concept to final film with an ensemble of mostly amateur performers. What they lack in polish they make up for in earnestness.

Special Actors is not One Cut, but what is? It is still relentlessly likable and wildly entertaining. It is the kind of movie to watch with a big bag of Scooby snacks. Highly recommended, Special Actors screens virtually through July 30th, as part of the 2020 Japan Cuts.