11:00 - 3rd April 2016, by NEO Staff

Uzumasa Limelight

Uzumasa is a region of Kyoto known as Japan’s Hollywood. It is the home of jidai-geki (period dramas), and especially action-packed chanbara (swordplay) film and TV productions. Many kirare yaku (to-be-killed actors) have been employed over the years, to act as fodder for on-screen heroes. However, as chanbara productions have declined, and jidai-geki have dwindled in popularity, these actors’ roles have dried up. Uzumasa Limelight follows the final months in the career of Seiichi Kamiyama (Seizo Fukumoto), a kirare yaku who passes his fight choreography knowledge on to Satsuki Iga (Chihiro Yamamoto).

Kamiyama has just been relegated to studio-tour stunt-performer when Iga stumbles across him practicing his sword skills. She is eager to become a stunt double as a means to get into the acting business. With Kamiyama’s help, she attracts the attentions of the makers of the latest CG-heavy sword-slasher, and ends up as the heroine opposite the vain pop star lead. Iga is then cast in another chanbara film and insists on Kamiyama being cast as the lead villain, even though he and his colleagues have been forced into retirement.

As the title suggests, the film mirrors the plot of Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 feature Limelight. Chaplin plays a musical entertainer who is also approaching the end of his career and helps a young dancer start hers. Kamiyama even has a photo from this film stuck to his backstage mirror. The film was partly financed by the Chaplin Society of Japan, and screenwriter Hiroyuki Ono is one of its members, which explains some of the inspiration behind the movie.

It would be easy to pass the film off as a simple remake of Chaplin’s story. However, there is more going on here. Instead of being restrictively slavish, Ono uses Chaplin’s story to reveal the current state of the chanbara genre within Japanese cinema. Swordplay successes, such as 13 Assassins from 2010, are few and far between these days. It also has to be remembered that Miike’s extravaganza was a remake, as were 2011’s Hara-Kiri and 2013’s Unforgiven. Other chanbara features are likely to be manga or anime adaptations, if not remakes, and often cast pop stars or popular TV actors as the lead (e.g. 2010’s Zatoichi: The Last). Uzumasa Limelight follows these trends while also using these points to provide a subtle commentary on recent chanbara releases.

There is sentiment galore in the film, but it is also punctuated with laughs and effective action scenes. The movie neatly avoids an overly saccharine tone, however, and any fan of chanbara will be aware of the genre’s decline and Japanese cinema’s corporate trends. Uzumasa Limelight expertly captures the mood of a fading industry through the eyes of an acting veteran. It could have worked without referencing Chaplin’s story, though director Ken Ochiai gets the tone right, and will hopefully get a chance to explore similar themes further in the future.

A touching look into the history of the chanbara genre, its actors, and the current Japanese film industry. The borrowing from Limelight deftly brings these elements together. Fukumoto is stern and emotive in the lead role, and the supporting cast do a great job alongside him. Third Window has unearthed another gem. Not one to miss for chanbara fans!
SCORE: 4/5
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