Writer-director Shin’ichirô Ueda made a huge impression with One Cut of the Dead – a film that started like an el cheapo zombie exercise of the sort horror film festivals are littered with, then took an abrupt left turn into sheer genius and turned out to be one of the warmest, most inspired films about the creative process ever made. I admitted in my review that I found the first reel a struggle – and recently saw a post from a savvy critic who’d made the crucial error of giving up on the movie before the rug-pull … so, from now on, I’m paying close attention not only to every film Ueda makes, but to every scene since his speciality seems to be a kind of mercurial trickiness.
Here, he tells a story which has some similarities with The Sting or a Mission: Impossible TV episode – and could even be laying down the groundwork for a long-lasting franchise (seriously, big players will be circling English-language remake rights) … though, as ever with Ueda, there are surprises upon surprises, with the extra sneakiness of making a type of film that prompts audiences to look ahead for twists and turns and then still manages to trump some of the reveals you expect with a bunch you definitely don’t. Like One Cut of the Dead, you might prefer to go in cold … but, if not or if you’ve seen it, come back and read the rest.
Security guard Kazuto Ohno (Kazuto Osawa) is fired from his job because he has a long-standing condition caused by a demanding father – when put under pressure by a man, he faints dead away. Not only does this make him unsuited for dealing with troublemakers in a mall, but it scuppers his other ambition to become an actor – when a director yells at him at an audition, he’s out like a light. In the street, he watches a set-up scenario as a guy hassles a couple on a date and is then pushed away by the man, impressing his girlfriend … Kazuto recognises the punk as Hiroki (Hiroki Kono), his wayward younger brother, who introduces him to a new profession of ‘special actor. Hiroki works with a company – a sit-com like stable of characters with their own complex interrelationships – who furnish actors for real-life situations … crying at a CEO’s funeral, laughing at a terrible movie comedy, stress-testing the staff of a restaurant by posing as demanding customers, helping out those in distress.
Because his first on-the-job faint works out in the situation, and most of the actors assume he was faking, Kazuto becomes a key man on an elaborate mission to persuade an heiress (Rina Tsugami) that the Scientology-like cult (which is amusingly crackpot but still sinister) she is about to hand her family inn over to is an arrant fraud. The special actors go undercover as gullible recruits to expose a group of confidence tricksters. Even within impostures, there are other impostures — and a sense we’ve not met all the actors yet. Though the focus is on the brothers, there’s a large cast and everyone gets to play several different registers. Kazuto is moved by Rina’s situation, as she’s taken a vow of silence after a trauma he can relate to – while some of the other players get a bit too wound up the theatricality. The group’s scenarist is inspired by an Inframan/Supersonic Man-type knockoff (Rescueman), which is Kazuto’s favourite film, to stage a superheroic charade for the final (or maybe penultimate) grandstand play on which the case hinges. But what actually is the case?
For some, there will be a plot reveal or two too many – but what Ueda manages is an unusual mix of charm and idealism, even when dealing with cynical, deceptive characters. With its clean, crisp video look and slightly stylised performances – everyone is acting, after all – it’s the sort of thing that, as with One Cut of the Dead, you could catch a few minutes of mistake for a weird soap opera. But, in toto, this rewards close attention. Apart from everything else, this is just so much fun – when the actors take a bow, you’ll want to applaud.