by Jason Suzuki
Ken Ochiai's film tries to strip away the postmodern tactic of requiring familiarity with another text in order to analyze his own but it's hard to shake Chaplin's personal 1952 film, which Uzumasa Limelight quotes at the start of the film, along with introducing the concept of a kirare-yaku: actors who specialize in being cut down in jidai geki. The film follows one such kirare-yaku, Kamiyama (real-life kirare-yaku Seizo Fukumoto who has appeared in films like The Last Samurai and the work of Kinji Fukasaku), as he finds himself with less and less work in the changing world of the business of film. Both films follow a veteran performer slowly being pushed out of the only world they know in favor of those younger hoping to break into show business. Unlike Chaplin's Calvero, Kamiyama has always been in the background, playing hundreds of henchman whose blood will we the blade of the hero before his showdown with the villain. He's not washed up but rather works in an industry ready to clean up and scrub out the old and in with the new.
While watching Limelight it is hard to separate Chaplin from Calvero (and in hindsight, knowing Fukumoto is actually a kirare-yaku, accomplishes the same effect), both vaudevillian performers who the rest of the world sees as outdated and washed up. You get a sense that Chaplin might not entirely disagree, stating that it is the natural order of show business for the youth to upstage and replace the veterans. The film shows the dynamic as much more complicated than that with Calvero becoming a mentor to the young Theresa (Claire Bloom). Uzumasa Limelight finds a similar dynamic between the silent Kamiyama and the bright eyed novice Iga (Chihiro Yamamoto). The film, at its core shares the sentiment of Chaplin's original but with some major deviations which help it stand as a work in conversation with Chaplin's film rather than a chanbara themed remake.
Uzumasa, the Kyoto-based "Hollywood of the East" has been churning out jidaigeki pictures for decades, becoming a tourist attraction in the process. With film studio and neighboring tourist trap of a tour ground where small scale live performances are given, the entertainment location as a whole is struggling to reinvent itself for a new era. Something that Kamiyama is not concerned with, rather taking on the parts he is given and giving them his all, practicing on a daily basis. When he stands up to a director abusive towards his extras he is put on probation, down-graded to working at the neighboring fair the same time a new, hip take on the jidaigeki is being filmed. Complete with a pop-star wearing an extravagant wig while playing Nobunaga.
In Chaplin's film the old must make room for the new but there is hardly ever a sense that what is new is not as pure as what came before it. In fact, the way Chaplin plays Calvero you realize that in private he is much more witty and entertaining than his act which he has decided not to update and thus has become tired and trying on the audience. Ochiai asks the question whether or not the jidaigeki swordplay pictures can be updated without losing that purity. If the kirare-yaku have no work and are replaced by CGI where does that leave future generations or the art form in general for that matter. Definitely a much more sentimental exploration than what Chaplin made at the time.
Uzumasa Limelight is a well done and well thought out behind-the-scenes drama which works both as an extension to Chaplin's late career masterpiece as well as explores the changing tides and trends in the Japanese film industry. And just like Chaplin is able to find hope for the future beyond the forces of those who want to change an art form without progressing it.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.