Let’s get right to it: Uzumasa Limelight should be better than it is. The premise is strong—the film centers around the “kirareyaku,” unsung actors whose job is to be killed by the lead in “jidaigeki” (samurai pictures) filmed in Uzumasa, affectionately called the “Hollywood of Japan.” We follow Seiichi Kamiyama (played by real-life kirareyaku, Seizo Fukumoto, who has appeared in hundreds of films) as he deals with a dwindling public desire for the movies in which he specializes and a younger generation of actors threatening to force him out.
Fukumoto is a wizened reed of a man, lithe and powerful even in his seventies. As the stoic Kamiyama, we see him practice swordsmanship and his death throes in the dust while other actors leave for the nearest sake bar. He’s a craftsman, a niche artist (only in Japan would a type of artistry form around those who perpetually die) but like Calvero in Chaplin’s “Limelight,” which this movie is loosely inspired by, time is pushing Kamiyama out of the game. For now, there’s just pats-on-the-back from his fellow actors who alone recognize the reverence due men like him.
Kamiyama is approached by the beautiful Satsuki Iga (Chihiro Yamamoto), a young “shidashi” or extra for the studio. Satsuki is from Uzumasa (Kyoto) and appreciates and loves the history of the studio. She persuades Kamiyama to teach her how to fight with a sword (see “Karate Kid,” “Million Dollar Baby,” etc.) so that she can get better parts. What follows is the beginning of what ultimately hampers the movie to the end—sentimentality and plot twists that we’ve seen before.
Satsuki and Kamiyama work out in montage until Satsuki slowly works her way up the ladder and finally gets a chance to step into the limelight. Her nerves nearly get the best of her but Kamiyama of course steps in, reminds her who she is and what she’s done to earn this chance, and from there she finds her steel and becomes a big star on her own. Kamiyama is edged out of his job and forced to work at a theme park but even that is threatened to be cancelled. Finally, he and the old crew are asked to come out of retirement for one last movie starring a returning Satsuki who demands that Kamiyama play the villain, that is, that he die one more time on film.
None of this is bad in and of itself, but we are delivered what to feel on a plate. The best definition I’ve heard between sentimentality and sentiment (what we’re shooting for in art) is that sentimentality is the representation of a certain emotion and sentiment is feeling the emotion itself. We do get those moments of true sentiment here—the stunning jump-cut between the falling septuagenarian Kamiyama to him as a young man falling back in his first filmed moment is a powerful way to show how Kamiyama’s past is very much his present; the sobs wracking his emaciated body in front of the dressing room mirror is perhaps the emotional highlight of the whole film. But these are scattered among a lot of meaningful looks, earnest handshakes and static characterizations.
It’s hard not to play the “cultural difference” card here, but I imagine a Japanese audience raised on “jidaigeki” might feel an historical resonance, a nod to the honorable old Japan, when Kamiyama comes back for one last go. Just as an American audience can’t help but feel the echoes of past westerns (and by extension, that old nagging nostalgia for the “American West”) when, in the vastly superior Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s William Munny rides back into town to kick Little Bill’s butt. Then again, Eastwood is the lead in all his movies and is no stranger to the limelight.