Once upon a time, Japanese network television was dominated by "Jidaigeki" or samurai dramas filled with tales of glorious battles and petty vendettas. Of course, they had their stars - the guys on the posters looking mean with their swords held high - but they couldn’t have run without the “kirareyaku” or the guys whose sole job it is to get killed by the star of the show over and over again. However, times have changed and samurai dramas aren’t as popular as they used to be. Consequently, there’s not so much work to go around and it’s hard to make a living getting by on ordinary “extra” work in modern-day dramas when you're used to the comparatively more active chanbara world. The days of the once famous Uzumasa studios as the capital of period drama in Japan are coming to a close, yet perhaps it’s just time for the older generation to step out of the limelight so that the young ones can enjoy its glow.
Inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight - the story of a once famous washed up clown who finds a new lease on life after saving a young dancer from suicide - Uzumasa Limelight is a poignant tale of the transient nature of art as it evolves from one generation to the next. In a bit of smart casting, the leading role of the veteran kirareyaku, Kamiyama, is played by a real life master - Seizo Fukumoto, who has been dying on screen for over fifty years and takes on a leading role here for the first time! After falling over in the street he encounters a young, hopeful actress just leaving an audition. Satsuki (played by world champion martial artist Chihiro Yamamoto in her first dramatic role) as it turns out is fascinated by the kirareyuki craft and becomes intent on training under Kamiyama despite being warned there are generally very few of these sorts of roles available for women. Nevertheless, Kamiyama begins to pass on some of his skill and before long Satsuki herself begins to step into the limelight.
Things have certainly changed a lot since Kamiyama began working back in the glory days of the TV chanbara serial. A new producer has come in and a series which had run for over forty years has been cancelled to make way for a new show - still a period drama but more modern and contemporary. It’s going to star a handsome idol from a top dance group - one who refuses to wear the bald cap so they have to put him in a ridiculous helmet with a giant fur train. He also can’t use a real sword so all the fights will be done with cut off green sticks and replaced with CGI blades. The new producer doesn’t care about skill or experience, he just wants handsome faces to pull in the young viewers - old guys like Kamiyama are totally out of luck! Who wants to see some random old guy when you could just pull in a few idols to wave a little stick around and fall over on queue? It’s a shame, but it’s the way of the world. Old soldiers fall but new faces rise in their place. There may be scant respect for the craft, but the art form carries on - it changes and evolves from one generation to the next but the spirit remains.
In this way, Uzamasa Limelight feels very Japanese in that it sets up the conflict between a perceived decline in values in modern movie making - what was once an art is now a (fairly ridiculous) business - whilst simultaneously accepting the transient nature of all things. Kamiyama accepts his time has passed, he barely fights it and when he decides it’s time to go he does so with dignity. He passes his skills onto his young protege and watches her use them to become a star in the new artistic world whilst retiring to the sidelines, content to have played his part to the best of his ability. Uzumasa Limelight is a beautiful, poignant tribute to the bit-part players of countless movies whose performances are little appreciated, but without whom an entire industry would not have been able to function. Imbued with a gentle melancholy, Uzumasa Limelight also offers not a little hope for the younger generation who will pick up where their forebears left off and create something - if not necessarily better, then at least different.
Uzumasa Limelight will receive its European Premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival 2015 where it will be screened on 20th and 21st of February.