Shinichiro Ueda’s debut feature One Cut of the Dead was a sensation both in Japan and abroad when it came out a few years ago. A clever riff on the indie film production comedy that unfolded over three different layers of reality (a single-take zombie film, a film about the pre-production of that zombie film, and then a what happened during the production of that film), with each layer becoming progressively less convincing as a movie and more like real life, or rather, more like a movie version of real life. A similar ambivalence about the distinction between performance and reality animates Ueda’s follow-up Special Actors, which serves as the opening film of this year’s Japan Cuts. A young man named Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa) wants to be an actor but inevitably faints whenever he finds himself under any kind of stress. His brother hooks him up with a group of actors that help solve real-world problems: they fill out audiences at movie theatres or funerals, laughing and crying as the situation demands; or they pretend to instigate fights to help guys look tough for their girlfriends. They get hired by a young woman to infiltrate a cult that are surely scammers, seemingly intent on taking over her sister’s inn.
Various capers ensue, mildly amusing but never really all that interesting. The shy person + acting troupe conceit is reminiscent of an idea in Shunji Iwai’s A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, while the cult recalls Sion Sono’s Love Exposure, but the film lacks either of those movies’ boldness or willingness to really engage with its broken characters. Kazuto remains a blank slate: he doesn’t seem any more interested in the cause of his condition than we are. In a stab at whimsy, he’s obsessed with an old VHS tape of a tacky superhero movie (it looks just like an old Bill Nye “Speed Walker” skit from Almost Live, for those of you familiar with early ’90s Seattle sketch comedy), which the film’s conclusion will inevitably see him reenacting in an instance of self-actualization through imitation. As in all good con artist movies, there’s one twist more than you expect, and as a result the movie is a little more interesting to think about afterwards than it is to watch. But even that twist mainly serves to remind one of other, better movies.
Published as part of Japan Cuts 2020 – Dispatch 1.