Uzumasa Limelight

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Uzumasa Limelight
"What marks out Uzumasa Limelight... is its willingness to combine withering criticism of the laziness and corruption in much modern filmmaking with graciousness in the face of change."

In 1952, as his career drew to a close, Charlie Chaplin made one last great film: Limelight, about a fading clown who passes on his skill and love of performance to a young dancer. It's a story that cleaves closely to the Japanese idea of a master passing on his skill, but both recognise that this is a challenging thing to do when changing culture is altering the nature of the opportunities available. In this affectionate tribute to the history of Japanese cinema, writer Hiroyuki Ono transfers the Chaplin plot to Uzumasa, once the Japanese Hollywood, to celebrate the genius of the past and the enthusiasm of the upcoming generation.

At its heart is SeizĂ´ Fukumoto, taking on his first leading role at the age of 69. He's extraordinary to look at, all extraneous flesh whittled away by time, nothing but taught muscle and sinew over a skeletal frame. A real life kirare-yaku ('chopped-up actor'), he has died onscreen over 50,000 times in a 50-year career. Here he shows that he can do much more besides, and delivers a complex, touching performance as Seiichi, a kirare-yaku facing the end of his career as the age of the classic samurai movie ends and the genre must itself die or face clumsy reinvention.

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What marks out Uzumasa Limelight's contribution to the genre is its willingness to combine withering criticism of the laziness and corruption in much modern filmmaking with graciousness in the face of change. It's a mature approach typified by the character of Seiichi himself, who accepts that he is no longer needed and settles for performing for tourists in the studio's theme park. Not so accepting, though, is young actress Satsuki (Chihiro Yamamoto), who gently and very politely stalks the ageing master until she finally feels able to confront him in the dojo. There, moved by her persistence, he sets aside his concern about there being no fighting roles for women and begins to teach her the craft of swordsmanship.

For any admirer of Samurai film craft, Uzumasu Limelight provides a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes, revealing how expert choreography (here partly designed by Fukumoto himself) makes it possible to use real blades and simulate dozens of deaths in one scene without anyone actually getting hurt. This is a film that will have far broader appeal, however, as it touches n the magic of cinema in a way that spans different traditions and as it explores the dramatic potential of relationships between the old and the young, with a sense that something has been turned on its head by Satsuki's willingness to discard modern custom and take an old man seriously. The capable Yamamoto, in her first starring role, is herself gracious in her willingness to take a back seat when the story demands it. This is Fukumoto's film, and no better man could have been chosen to symbolise the buzama death of a cinematic era.

Reviewed on: 03 Feb 2015
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A rising star asks a once prolific film extra for lessons in the art of onscreen swordfighting.
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Director: Ken Ochiai

Starring: Seizô Fukumoto, Chihiro Yamamoto, Masashi Goda

Year: 2014

Runtime: 103 minutes

Country: Japan

Festivals:

Glasgow 2015

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