The man who lives for the art of dying

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Interviewing Seizo Fukumoto, the star of Ken Ochiai’s backstage drama “Uzumasa Limelight,” I wished I had brought a video camera, instead of my voice recorder and notepad. As he talks, this veteran kirare-yaku — an actor whose forte is being cut down with a sword in jidaigeki (samurai period dramas) — illustrates his points with sharp hand movements and sound effects, (with the sound of a body hitting the tatami being a loud “Ban!”). It was as though miniature sword fights were unfolding during the interview.

Actors talk about internalizing their roles, but 71-year-old Fukumoto, famed as “the man who has been killed 50,000 times,” lives his role out through every word and gesture in his daily life.

In “Uzumasa Limelight” he plays an elderly kirare-yaku named Kamiyama, facing the end of his career as the title Uzumasa Studio in Kyoto — a real production studio that has been making period dramas for decades — abandons its declining signature genre. A ray of hope appears in the form of Satsuki (real-life martial arts champion Chihiro Yamamoto), a young actress who is handy with a sword. She becomes Kamiyama’s apprentice, seeking to polish her technique but not knowing if she will ever use it again on the screen.

Fukumoto admits to “some overlap” between Kamiyama and himself, including the character’s dwindling number of roles and Spartan lifestyle. Scriptwriter Hiroyuki Ono was aware of Fukumoto’s personal life, and chose to include some that in the film. “That is, he added some reality,” says Fukumoto. “But you don’t just want reality in a film — it has to have drama. There have to be ups and downs or it’s not interesting,” Fukumoto says.

Kamiyama certainly experiences the downs, including acting in a CGI-heavy jidaigeki with an ikemen (pretty boy) actor playing a feudal-era warlord in a Kabuki-style wig. (A samurai-style topknot doesn’t look cool, the young actor complains.) Kamiyama is hired to wield a stubby sword (easier for the CGI wizards to work with) in action scenes that are little more than jokes by his standards.

In reality, though, Fukumoto welcomes films such as “Rurouni Kenshin,” a 2012 period action film with its mix of Hong Kong martial arts theatrics, CGI fireworks and traditional chanbara (swordplay), a film that was a hit with the young audiences that traditional period dramas have struggled to attract.

“I thought the fight scenes in that one were good. It’s not the sort of thing I do, but that’s all right. You can have different styles, you don’t always have to stick to the usual style of Japanese period dramas,” Fukumoto says.

In fact, as a young actor, one of Fukumoto’s own role models was not a martial artist at all but Charlie Chaplin, whose 1952 film “Limelight” provided Ono — a noted Chaplin scholar — with the inspiration for “Uzumasa Twilight.”

“I thought the way he fell was great. He went down with a bang!” says Fukumoto, slapping the table to illustrate. “Falling in action scenes was a matter of course for me, but seeing Chaplin, the king of comedy, falling with a bang like that really moved me. I thought I had to give it my all, the way he did.”

Fukumoto’s trademark dying fall — bending backward, like a bow, and then suddenly and dramatically collapsing, appears again and again in the film — and he gives me a demonstration, without leaving his chair.

“I didn’t do it that way to stand out and get more roles. I did it to keep myself from getting bored doing the same thing over and over. I was told I didn’t have to take it so far and hurt myself, but after seeing Chaplin I thought I had to do it that way.”

He adds, though, that traditional martial-arts training is not needed for his job. “The sort of form they use in martial arts just gets in the way. Kendo is a good example. They find a split-second opening and go for it,” and he illustrates this with a sweeping cut using his hands. “So the guy is holding the sword and waiting for an opening.” Fukumoto grasps an imaginary sword with nervously quivering hands. “But that’s not good for a samurai fight. You hold a sword that way and you just look weak.”

After entering Toei studio in 1958 at age 15, Fukumoto began appearing in everything from yakuza action films (“They still used swords in those films — pistols came in later,” he says) to samurai dramas for TV, including the long-running “Abarenbo Shogun” show. Despite having no lines in hundreds of roles, Fukumoto stood out for a total commitment to his craft, making fans both in and out of the film industry.

He was a natural for the role of Tom Cruise’s silent samurai guardian in “The Last Samurai” (2003), and his performance, including his character’s leap to take a fatal bullet for Cruise, was cited as a reason for the film’s enormous success in Japan.

After spending decades acting in Japanese-style action scenes (“You do a couple of tests to get the moves right and then shoot it in one take,” he says), Fukumoto was surprised by the relaxed pace on a Hollywood movie set.

“Japanese movies have no budgets, so you’ve got to do everything fast,” he says. “In Hollywood they’ve got millions of dollars and nothing is impossible. When they told me they’d be filming in New Zealand for six months I thought ‘Do they really have so many scenes to shoot?’ ”

Fukumoto doesn’t see another Hollywood role coming his way, or even another speaking part, such as Kamiyama in “Uzumasa Limelight.”

“It’s my last hurrah,” he says with a smile. At the same time, he has no desire to retire. “I’m OK physically. The problem is that no one wants to use me any more. It’s my age — they want younger people. I know I’m reaching my limit, but I try to keep a young attitude.”

I imagine him in a second career as a health and fitness guru, but he scoffs at my question about his workout regime. “I do absolutely nothing,” he says with a laugh. “I know I should. When I have a bit of time I go for a walk in the evening — that’s about it. I’m still fit, though, I get all the exercise I need on the set.” And, I suspect, from interviews such as this one.