Taking its title from Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed 1952 film Ikiru (“To Live”), the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016 - “IKIRU: The Highs and Lows of Life in Japanese Cinema” - explores the way in which Japanese filmmakers have been observing and capturing people’s lives, and how people across the ages persevere, negotiate and reconcile with the environment and situation they live in. This year’s programme features a mixture of classics, animation and contemporary films and Smoke Screen has been taking a look at some of them, and reviewing some of the highlights.
The season will open at the ICA, London on Friday, 5 February 2016 before touring.
Film Review: Uzumasa Limelight
Director: Ken Ochiai
Seizo Fukumoto, Chihiro Yamamoto, Masashi Goda
2014, 103 min, English subtitles
Ken Ochiai's award-winning film (it took best actor and Cheval Noir for best film prize at the Fantasia International Film Festival in 2014) takes its title from the suburb of Kyoto in Japan which is home to Uzumasa film studios; AKA Japan’s Hollywood. It is also a nod towards Charlie Chaplin's 1952 film Limelight, as in both films a washed-up artist takes a young protege under his wing, affirming his own life's work in the process. This is a charming, affecting film which showcases a real affection for the art of movie making, and in particular the making of Japan's staple genre fare: "Chanbara" Samurai epics.
The main character, 70-year old martial arts actor Seiichi, occupies a very interesting and historically significant position in the Japanese film industry. He is a ‘kirareyaku’ actor: whose main job in samurai movies is simply to be killed-off by the lead star, typically after a virtuoso sword brawl. The casting in this film has a meta quality to it: as Seiichi is played by real-life kirareyaku Seizo Fukumoto, who is said to have acted out 50,000 on-screen deaths. As played by Fukumoto, Seiichi is a quietly noble, uncomplaining type who it is impossible not to sympathise with, especially seeing since he has spent his whole career happily "dying" for his art whilst the hero actors get all the glory and go onto greater things. Much of the film's pleasures lie in the depiction of the behind-the-scenes routines Seiichi and his fellow ageing veteran kirareyaku actors have to go through daily (wigs, mascara, sword training), and the admirable pride these unsung heroes take in their work. An oft-repeated line is that they are 'acting', not just swinging swords about. The life inside a major Japanese film studio is depicted in appealing level of detail, including several interesting idiosyncrasies such as the continued use by the studio production team of retro name chits on wall pegs which mark which actor is taking which position on every production.
When the studio where Seiichi works decides to discontinue its samurai epics and put the older cast members out to pasture working at the studio's park area (think Universal Studios but with samurai attractions), Seiichi takes a young stunt extra named Satsuki (Chihiro Yamamoto) as a disciple after she comes to him for help in her career. The two actors work well together, and even if the course of their relationship is a little predictable (the film is after all riffing on Chaplin's film, and master-pupil plot lines are as old as the hills) there are some superbly-crafted on-set martial arts sequences scattered throughout the narrative, with Seizo Fukumoto and his fellow actors pulling off moves (and plenty of stunt deaths) with stunning grace, power and precision.