Film / Reviews

'Extro': A Japanese mockumentary that works

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

I was once an extra for film being shot in the dead of winter in Nagano Prefecture, playing a member of a media pack running down a snow-covered slope to an ambulance. To stand out, I kept a step behind the others through retake after frigid retake. Naturally, I was edited out.

So, I could sympathize with the elderly star of “Extro,” Naoki Murahashi’s film about extras who labor long hours for little recognition and low or no pay. A former dental technician and part-time farmer in Ibaraki Prefecture, Kozo Haginoya (Kozo Haginoya) is dedicated to his new profession, rising at four in the morning to make a morning shoot at Warp Station Edo, a permanent set for period dramas.

But Haginoya also refuses to shave his beard to play an Edo (old Tokyo) townsman, despite a harried assistant director’s repeated requests. (They reach a compromise: Haginoya keeps the beard, but plays a farmer, a class not subject to Edo’s rules on facial hair.)

Extro (Ekisutoro)
Rating
Run Time 89 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens NOW SHOWING

And, once on the set, he ruins take after take, at one point collapsing with a stomach ache just as the samurai hero (Koji Yamamoto) is uncovering a dead body.

Coming to the film cold, I was cracking up with laughter at this point, as I realized I was watching a rare local mockumentary. Rare because, for such films to work as comedy, the actors have to play it straight, the 1984 rock mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap” being a classic example. But in Japanese movie comedies, the characters are typically over-the-top cartoons. (Given that so many films here are derived from manga this is the path of least resistance.)

By contrast, first-time feature director Murahashi comically riffs on sharp observations, not stereotyped exaggerations. The sketchy president of Haginoya’s agency blandly tells an unseen interviewer that his extras are “volunteers,” which gets a laugh — but is rather close to the painful truth.

Also, famous faces such as director Nobuhiko Obayashi, actress Yuki Saito and comedian Kazuko Kurosawa are filmed seemingly speaking from the heart, not a gag writer’s script. The veteran Obayashi, who is still active in his ninth decade, supplies the film’s title, which is a portmanteau of “extra” and “maestro.”

“To me, extras are ‘maestros,’” Obayashi says. “They create the atmosphere, the emotion of movies.”

In its second half, “Extro” descends toward farce as two bumbling cops go undercover to nab an extra who deals drugs. (Why a drug dealer needs to ‘volunteer’ as an extra is not explained.) But after their amateurish acting sends a macho star (Tatsumi Fujinami) storming off the set, they enroll in acting school and become passionate about their new craft, while losing interest in the criminal they are supposed to catch. TV variety show silly? Maybe, but their rock-headed earnestness becomes laugh-out-loud funny.

In this and other ways, “Extro” resembles “One Cut of the Dead,” the hit 2017 zombie comedy that won hearts and filled theaters with its “hymn to filmmaking” message. And Haginoya? A fan of Steve McQueen, he wants to play a fireman, as his hero did in “The Towering Inferno” – and, by some miracle, gets his chance. Like so many others in the film, extras included, he longs to live the dream. Even when the job becomes a nightmare.

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