One Cut of the Dead is a tough act to follow. Shin’ichirô Ueda’s lively, gory, and super-meta take on zombie movies and the perils of low budget filmmaking was a massive hit not just in its native Japan but all over the world, selling out screenings at film festivals and garnering a fittingly rabid following on home video. Spare a thought, then, for Special Actors, which has the unenviable task of following in its stead. Happily, Ueda’s film is more than up to the challenge. This might not be the horror-filled gore-fest genre fans are baying for, but it’s a more than worthy successor from a filmmaker who continues to impress with his ingenuity, skill, and just plain fearlessness.
Our hero this time around is Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa), a timid, shy guy with dreams of becoming an actor. We meet him midway through a disastrous audition as he faints upon being confronted by a jerky director (seemingly a running theme in Ueda’s work – is he trying to tell us something here?). Later, Kazuto takes solace in his favorite TV show, a low-budget production that’s been hilariously dubbed into Japanese, not at all convincingly of course, and fantasizes about being a superhero himself just like the lead character. Later, he gets the opportunity after witnessing a dramatic attempted assault on the street but, once again, Kazuto cowers when confronted with any kind of aggression.
As it turns out, the scene was an actual scene, performed by the titular “special actors” who are hired by those in need to help them get out of dodgy situations, such as with a cheating spouse or a horrible job. Kazuto’s own brother, Hiroki (Hiroki Kono) is already a key player and he encourages him to join up. Soon, Kazuto has found his calling in life and is becoming not just a stronger actor but a stronger person too. Their toughest challenge yet announces itself with the arrival of a desperate schoolgirl whose sister has been indoctrinated into a cult and risks losing the family business left behind by their deceased parents as a result. Hijinks, hauntings, and much bad hair ensue as the brothers and their cast-mates fight to find out the truth.
Special Actors is two hours long which, for this kind of goofy endeavour, usually spells trouble. However, each moment is so well-considered and brilliantly executed it’s difficult to pinpoint what could’ve been cut along the way. The setup is relatively quick, but Ueda doesn’t spend too long showcasing the special actors’ talents either, trusting we’ll get the picture from a few short interludes. Likewise, romance is hinted at but doesn’t become the focus. This is a story of brothers reconnecting and of finding yourself in spite of increasingly bizarre circumstances, so the emphasis isn’t on a quick fix for Kazuto. As co-leads, Osawa and Kono do lovely, low-key work, their banter suggesting closeness even if they’ve drifted in their adult years.
Much like One Cut of the Dead, Special Actors is proudly DIY, goofy, energetic, and fun. Its jaunty, omnipresent score is reminiscent of that terrible music they play as you’re walking around Universal Studios, which isn’t an insult even though it may sound like one. It fits perfectly within the confines of this lovably odd little film. The thing is charmingly low budget, embracing the constraints of this kind of filmmaking by including several instances of events being faked and, again similar to its predecessor, later showing us how they were captured. The camera is once again shaky, handheld, and close, which adds to the excitement. There are several brilliant rug-pulls as the many layers to the story are gradually unveiled, boasting the kind of conspiracy-within-a-conspiracy that would make Christopher Nolan scratch his head (no joke, this overdone method of grand revelations late in the game is actually done better here and is more satisfying overall).
The film is frequently very funny, with most of the jokes coming at the expense of the central cult and its dopey leader who, as one character points out, really shouldn’t have permed his hair, although it does make for a consistently excellent sight gag. Clearly the central religion is meant to invoke comparisons to Scientology, from the confusing ideology to the reams of overpriced merch on sale at their headquarters. Ueda doesn’t lay it on too thick, though, again trusting we’ll know what he’s getting at. He also goes for sillier laughs just as often as smart ones, such as with the booby stress-ball Kazuto carries around which doesn’t actually resemble a woman’s breast at all, making the reference even funnier.
The characters’ central occupation is so weird it might just be a real job in Japan, as with Werner Herzog’s recent mockumentary Family Romance, LLC but regardless it’s an ingenious setup for a movie. Special Actors will no doubt be compared to One Cut of the Dead, likely in an unflattering way, but taken on its own as well as a worthy successor to one of the smartest horror-comedies in recent years, it’s a genuinely funny romp that keeps the energy levels up for a lengthy run-time that whizzes by. The wait to see what Ueda comes up with next will surely be interminable.
WICKED RATING: 8/10