Extras are the unsung heroes of the movies. Getting up in the middle of the night, prepared to spend hours in makeup, and enduring not only the discomfort but also the boredom of standing around all day waiting for something to happen. Naoki Murahashi’s affectionate mockmentary Extro (エキストロ) is dedicated to those whose names do not appear in the credits and are, according to the characteristically warm onscreen interview from the late Nobuhiko Obayashi, the very force that brings life to the otherwise artificial world of the film set.
The set in this case being “Warp Station Edo”, an artificial replica of a historically accurate samurai-era town used for the production of jidaigeki TV serials. Murahashi’s first subject is a retired dental technician, Haginoya (Kozo Haginoya), fulfilling a lifelong dream as a background performer, but as we quickly see the life of an extra is not an especially glamorous one. Having got up at the crack of dawn to be there at the time listed on his call sheet, he’s nearly sent away because he doesn’t want to shave his beard and back in old Edo facial hair was prohibited for civilised people. The only solution is to switch his role from townsman to farmer, which causes a costuming delay and gets the AD into trouble. Haginoya then goes on to cause yet more problems by bigging up his part before being taken ill, complaining that his intestines hurt right in the middle of a take. Unsurprisingly, he sits the rest of the day out.
Meanwhile, the other extras are mostly forced to stand around in the cold waiting for the cameras to start rolling. The agency which provides the background actors laments that extra work is only suitable for flexible people with a lot of free time, i.e. pensioners like Haginoya, but that it also requires physical stamina which they often lack. It also transpires most of the agency’s employees are working on a volunteer basis and earning their money through a separate main job, which really begs the question why they bother especially when the agency itself becomes liable for the extras’ mistakes such as those repeatedly made by one “problem child” including making sneaky peace signs, smiling at the camera, and posting strange on-set photos to social media.
Not quite content with satirising the production environment and its tendencies towards exploitative employment practices, Murahashi adds a second surreal plot strand introducing two bumbling policemen who are seconded to go undercover as extras after a suspected drug dealer is spotted on camera, somewhat incomprehensibly stepping out of hiding and into living rooms across the country. Predictably, the policemen aren’t very good at the acting business and quickly forget all about the case while becoming overly invested in their cover identities, even attending an acting workshop in an effort to blend in with the background stars.
While the hero of the jidaigeki TV drama earnestly insists that the extras are what give the fake town “life” and it is in a sense he who is being allowed to perform in their world, not everyone is so forgiving. A pro-wrestler brought in to star in a low budget movie titled Dragon Samurai gets so fed up with the antics of the two policeman that he eventually quits, presumably costing another production company somewhere a lot more money, while a repeated gag sees most of the projects go unreleased because someone involved with the production had too much to drink and engaged in acts of public indecency. One such project is the amazingly titled “Prehistoric Space Monster Gamogedorah”, apparently inspired by a local legend about a giant evil duck.
From the self-obsessed stars who turn up when the money’s right to the embattled agency staff and the stressed out ADs, Murahashi doesn’t quite so much sing the praises of the extras as satirise the low level production industry, but does eventually cycle back to the unironic intro from Obayashi who affirms that the extras, or “extros” as he likes to call them short for “extraneous maestros”, are a part of what gives film its beauty and power. As if to prove that sometimes dreams really do come true, even Haginoya gets his moment in the spotlight mimicking his screen hero Steve McQueen as an Edo-era fireman but disrupting the filming once again by laughing maniacally in joy as he rings his bell while Gamogedorah looms ominously on the horizon.
Original trailer (no subtitles)