Extro (Japan, 2020) [JAPAN CUTS 2020]

Film is a collaborative art form. Yet, the film industry is such that it elevates only few of its members to glory, while drowning the rest into relative anonymity and thanklessness. We give praise and recognition to directors and actors, sometimes writers, editors, cinematographers and occasionally composers. But everyone else remains simply “the cast and the crew.”

Naoki Murahashi’s latest film, Extro attempts to light a beacon of recognition into one particular such group, that of film and television extras. Presented in a mockumentary format, Murahashi’s film takes a deep dive into the world of extras, revealing their struggles, motivations, and their occasional moments of pleasure.

Extro opens with legendary director Nobuhiko Obayashi (one of his last film appearances before his death) in the interviewee’s seat, commenting on the importance of extras in the making of films. The mockumentary then proceeds to detail the lives of several film and TV extras managed by the “Lark” Extra Temp Agency, a local office that supplies volunteer (largely unpaid) extras to the local production company. First is Mr. Kozo Haginoya, a retired dental technician who’s dream is to play the role of a fireman in a movie production. Mrs. Yuko Nagamine, the agency’s PR manager, was also a former extra who even managed to get a line in an unreleased monster movie. Despite a very brief career in the industry, she is the pride and joy of her co-workers. Then we move to Shota Tsujikawa and Satoshi Ishigaki, two undercover cops seeking to arrest a drug dealer disguised as an extra in the agency. In their quest for perfection, they take their acting jobs too seriously, even though they might not have the talent for it. All ends well, however, and with the help of famous actress Yuki Saito, the two cops apprehend their criminal. Towards the end, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s appears once more to praise the role that extras play in the movie industry. “Extras are Maestros” he says and coins the portmanteau “extro,” at last revealing where the film’s title comes from.

The film ends with an interesting final title card that reads: “This film is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual people or organizations may or may not be coincidental.” It’s invariably true that every film labelled a “mockumentary” attempts to blur the lines between the real and the imaginary, but few of them achieve this effect as seamlessly as Extro does. The mix of known and unknown actors, all of which use their real names on-screen, ground not only the film’s setting within the film industry, but also the film’s themes and commentary into the film business at large. Indeed, the film’s strange brand of realism forms the anchor of its central ethos. Extras are perceived as little more than faceless silhouettes on screen, yet from their own perspective, their role in the film industry is far from meaningless. They give everything they got for little to no pay, all in the service of cinema.

While taking place in a relatively short time frame, the film’s plot is not exactly linear, but is rather presented through a picaresque story structure, jumping around as though in a word-association game. A minor element in one scene transitions into an entirely new subplot, seemingly unrelated to the rest of the film. The setting – the extras industry in the city of Tsukubamirai – is the only common factor among the meandering plotlines. Of course, everything comes full-circle in the end, bringing each character’s arc to a satisfying conclusion. This gives the story a remarkable fluidity that adds further to its intended naturalism. And much like the whims of fate during a movie production, so the lives of the characters in Extro can, at any point, change for the better or the worse.

Extro is both a love-letter and a parody of the film industry. In many respects, Extra treads along similar territory with Kinji Fukasaku’s Fall Guy (1982), since both films dive deep into aspects of the industry that don’t normally receive much attention. Murahashi takes a less cynical approach with his criticism, delivering a predominantly light-hearted take on the movie business. It’s a film whose subjects are motivated by nothing other than a love of cinema, and it’s likely to inspire the same feeling in its audience, however unrealistically idyllic such a perspective might be.

Extro is streaming as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film from July 17-30.