How do Japanese actors do it? I don’t mean the stars of mainstream films — those “multi-talents” that are busy 24/7 with TV, stage and advertising gigs — I’m talking about the legions of supporting actors who may have only a single scene or line in a film, or play a body floating in a river. How do they pay their rent and also keep plugging away despite their slim-to-zero chances of landing a big role?
One persuasive answer is found in Satoko Yokohama’s “The Actor” (“Haiyu Kameoka Takuji”), based on a novel by actor and stage troupe director Akito Inui. Premiering at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, “The Actor” is something of an industry in-joke, but made with the quirky style and offbeat perspective of Yokohama’s earlier films, including her 2009 international breakout “Bare Essence of Life” (“Urutora Mirakuru Rabu Sutori”).
In “The Actor,” veteran stage, TV and film actor Ken Yasuda — who is hardly a household name himself — plays Kameoka, a 37-year-old journeyman hustling from role to minor role in local films. We first see him playing a homeless guy who is shot by a stray bullet — that is, he is a glorified extra.
But when the shooter, played by ikemen (“pretty boy”) star Kodai Asaka, hams it up in his death scene, the director asks Kameoka to show him how to die from a fatal gunshot wound on camera, i.e., flop down and expire. No fuss, no muss is the way of the pro. So why is Kameoka on a slow slide to oblivion?
The film, with a script by Yokohama, does not supply pat answers. True, our hero is a lush, drinking night after night in this bar or that hostess club. At the request of a young indie director (Shota Sometani), he even knocks back real glasses of mizuwari (whiskey-and-water) in a series of inebriated takes with an unprepared and uncooperative Filipino actress (which happens to be the film’s funniest sequence). But no matter how sloshed he is, on or off camera, Kameoka always delivers.
At the same time, he takes whatever film jobs come along, from working in an avant-garde play directed by an imperious grand dame (Yoshiko Mita) to a yakuza actioner made by a stocking-capped hack (Hirofumi Arai) and a period drama helmed by a sphinx-like maestro (Tsutomu Yamazaki). Though well-regarded by his peers, Kameoka is drifting rather than striving, and his shaggy hair, rumpled clothes and weary air do not inspire confidence that anything will change.
But things do change, twice — or seem to: Once, rather improbably, when he auditions for a big role in a film by a Spanish director he admires and the director raves about his past work; and once, more believably, when he walks into an izakaya (bar) and awkwardly falls head over heels for the proprietor’s charming daughter (Kumiko Aso). Later, when a bit-player pal (Shohei Uno) confesses he has recently tied the knot, Kameoka begins to think of proposing himself, working out a scenario in his head that involves a long journey to the izakaya — and adult diapers.
The perky, sitcom-ish score by Yoshihide Otomo sets up expectations that “The Actor” will settle into a heart-warming, happy-ending groove, despite its black comedy. But to the finish, the film refuses to entertain grand illusions, though it permits some surreal dreams.
Would a less sad-sack performance by Yasuda have helped brighten the film? Perhaps. But even with more spring in his step, the hero’s fate would still be sealed. In the Japanese movie business, pretty-boy looks usually trump experience and skill in the race to stardom. So, barring small miracles such as this film, the industry’s Kameokas are permanently doomed to play the guy who falls dead off a bridge into icy water.
But after a hard day on the set the sake still tastes great. And as that other bred-in-the-bone performer, Ethel Merman, once put it: There’s no business like show business.