When your made on a shoestring indie debut becomes an accidental international phenomenon, no one could really blame you for succumbing to imposter syndrome. Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead, a meta comedy with high concept conceit, delighted fans around the world but rather than slide into summer tentpole territory Ueda remains true to his roots with follow up feature Special Actors (スペシャル アクターズ) once again developed through actors’ workshops and owing a significant debt to contemporary stage comedy.

Our dejected hero, Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa), is an anxious young man burdened with PTSD from childhood trauma that causes him to faint when he becomes overly stressed or is confronted by an overbearing, if not actually violent, male authority figure. He dreams of becoming a hero who can protect people like Rescue Man, the star of an American tokusatsu-style show he’s obsessively watched dubbed into Japanese since childhood, and is determined to become an actor only his habit of fainting mid-audition constantly frustrates his ambitions. Already behind on his rent and about to be fired from his part-time job as a security guard on the grounds that he didn’t disclose his “illness” when he applied, Kazuto is reunited with his estranged younger brother Hiroki (Hiroki Kono), also an actor, who offers to introduce him to his agency, “Special Actors”. In addition to the usual TV and advertising work, Special Actors speciality is renting out talent for “real” as in providing professional mourners, bulking out theatre audiences with laughing stooges, and engineering long queues outside previously empty restaurants. 

Kazuto isn’t quite convinced, not only because it seems like anxiety central, but because it’s more than a little bit shady. The lead “scenario” writer was once a conman, and you can’t get away from the fact this is all quite manipulative and essentially unethical. Forced to take the job because of his financial predicament, he finds himself involved in various plots to change problematic behaviour at the request of well-meaning relatives such as a mother desperate to rescue her daughter from frittering all her money away at host bars. But are the Special Actors really any different than a host at a host bar who is after all only playing a role, as the young woman must know even if she has for some reason been taken in by it? Perhaps they’d be better to find out what is fuelling her obsession rather than coming up with some hokum involving a fake shaman to convince her that her behaviour is dangerous on a cosmic level. 

The moral ambiguity only deepens when the team take on their biggest challenge yet, taking down a shady cult at the request of an orphaned teenage girl whose sister seems primed to give away the family inn. Abruptly shifting into the realms of the espionage thriller reimagined as theatre, Ueda concocts an elaborate heist as the Special Actors infiltrate with the intention to expose. The central irony is of course that in practical terms there isn’t so much difference between them. They are both “lying”, manipulating vulnerable people and doing it for financial gain. “Acting is a big lie” the irate director had screamed in Kazuto’s face, “you have to mean it”. Is the shady cult merely “theatre” taken to an extreme, and if so who if anyone should be held responsible?

Ueda isn’t so much interested in these themes as the ironic potential of their latent comedy, stitching together a series of theatre skit set pieces working towards the epic finale in which the hero, Kazuto, learns to put on his cape and save the day by overcoming his internal “villain” in the shape of his abusive father. Like the cult, the Special Actors are also promising salvation or at least liberation from behaviours which others find problematic regardless of the target’s own wishes or desires even if in the case of some it may be for their own good, a more elaborate form of role play than that enacted in a therapy session. We are indeed all “acting” to one extent or another and you can never be sure that anyone is who they say they are because life itself is theatre. Shot with a perhaps thematically appropriate TV drama aesthetic, Kazuto’s zero to hero journey is pure wish fulfilment fantasy, but even if never reaching the perfectly constructed heights of One Cut of the Dead is undeniably entertaining. 

Special Actors is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts. Tune in for the live Q&A (available worldwide) after the movie on July 17 (also available afterwards on demand)!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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