by Jason Suzuki
Bare Essence of Life (2009) is one of the buried treasures of the past few years. An odd, yet not cutesy, meandering story of small town aimlessness. A man becomes "normal" when exposed to pesticide. The inclusion of such elements like a wandering invisible man made the film highly original and creative on the level of the two films of Miranda July. The Actor, Yokohama's feature follow up to Bare Essence of Life (she directed a short in 2013 in the interim), is an ode to the bit players of the Japanese film industry. Its execution allows you to think anything is possible, giving off the energy of a first time filmmaker yet the case and assurance of someone who has made many more features than Yokohama's three.
Kameoka Takuji (Ken Yasuda) is a respected character actor but can't seem to get his big break, nor does he seem too interested. Directors know him and wish to talk about past films he has done, but when it comes to actually giving Kameoke a major role it does not pan out. While not as relegated to the work of "homeless man 3" as Kameoka is, Ken Yasuda should be a familiar face if not necessarily a familiar name. His long face instantly recognizable, sort of like Yoshiyuki Morishita's teeth. The meta-connection between portrayer and portrayed is that they are both actors, Birdman this is not.
Yokohama's film follows a classical structure: it is episodic, inherent to Kameoka's profession going from gig to gig. Deviation from the existential aspects of the classical Japanese film narrative comes in the form of the film's almost impenetrable combination of predestination and individual choice. In other words, the films feels a lot like life despite the at times hallucinatory moment's when Kameoka's endeavors get blended together. But even then, that too is reflective of human experience. Neither his effort or his fuck-ups seem to lead Kameoka higher up or further down in show business. When he decides to change his avoidance of stage material he ends up becoming involved in a trying endeavor where the lead actress/director of the play (Yoshiko Mita) is tough on him. It helps him grow as an actor. But when these moments of growth on the stage are intercut with him staying out too late to drink with a fellow character actor, his film performance suffers with his penchant for vomiting. One step forward and one step back. It doesn't seem to bother Kameoka and there is a certain admirability in just living.
Kumiko Aso reunites with Yokohama playing bar hostess Azumi whom Kameoka meets in a small town after one of his shoots. Aso is only in a few key scenes but unlike Sono's Love and Peace she is not underutilized though. It's these interactions between Kameoka and Azumi where the complicated relationship he has with his professions announces itself. He says he is a traveling bowling ball salesman. Ridiculous but she still believes him. When confronted by the lie when Azumi knows better on their next meeting, he says the ruse was only because he is an actor of bit parts, nothing to boast about. While there might be some truth in that, we know better and so does she.
The film's middle set piece, one that is sure to stick with anyone who gets the opportunity to see the film, is Kameoka's audition for an esteemed foreign art-house filmmaker. Kameoka, who just had to crawl to get under the garage door that only opened partially, enters a vast expanse. At the opposite end is the aged Spanish director sitting in a chair next to the woman who is his Japanese translator. In Spanish: Who are you? The woman translates that to English. Kameoka's response in English: I am Kameoka Takuji. Japanese Actor. The interaction is stilted and just one of the ways the world seems to quietly work against Kameoka, but when the audition actually starts and Kameoka is able to get into the process it is a sight to behold where even the film gets into the joy of creation with Kameoka. Multi-layered and will prove to be rewarding on multiple if only Yokohama wasn't one of many Japanese filmmakers who can't seem to strike Western distribution outside of the small festival circuit.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.