Special Actors (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS 2020]

Shinichiro Ueda’s highly anticipated follow-up to One Cut of the Dead (2017) is finally here, and it looks nothing like its predecessor. The director’s latest project, Special Actors, is a quaint little comedy about a struggling actor overcoming his innermost fears. While entertaining in its own way, Special Actors fall short of expectations and fails to impress.

Special Actors revolves around Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa), an aspiring actor whose dream is thwarted by his debilitating and faint-inducing anxiety. Kazuto’s condition has forced him into relative poverty and isolation, with his only solace being a VHS copy of “Rescueman,” a low-budget superhero film that he watches every night. One day, after failing yet another audition, Kazuto meets his older brother, Hiroki (Hiroki Kono) whom he has not seen for some time. Hiroki introduces Kazuto to “Special Actors,” a lesser-known acting agency undertaking a rather unconventional line of work. These Special Actors play their roles in real life situations, fulfilling any request that their clients might have.

With his brother’s encouragement, Kazuto reluctantly joins the Special Actor agency, hoping this will improve his self esteem. Around the same time, a desperate young woman hires the agency to infiltrate a money-hungry cult and prevent them from stealing her family’s inn from her grieving sister. Caught in the middle of this, Kazuto has no choice but to buckle up, overcome his fears, and play his part in this elaborate scheme.

No matter how hard one tries, it’s impossible to divorce Special Actors from its time and place in Shinichiro Ueda’s career, considering the film that preceded it. Indeed, any film that had the misfortune of coming after the director’s universally lauded One Cut of the Dead (2017), would have to live up to an impossible standard, which Special Actors naturally does not meet. Even so, Special Actors is a deeply flawed film in more than one way.

Despite a fairly original premise, the film seems hopelessly stuck between its conventional nature and Ueda’s desire to always keep one step ahead of the audience. Special Actors has all the trappings of a straightforward comedy film, except for the occasional tugs that push it towards a forced quirkiness. Ueda’s script packs a handful of twists and turns into its plot that accomplish little except to add unnecessary complexity to an already disjointed plot. The characterization is insufficient, and as such, the twists feel empty and unearned. After the “gotcha” moment has passed, the film is left with nothing substantial to say.

In a similar vain, most characters in the film are reduced to forgettable archetypes that passively participate in the ensemble. Even Kazuto, with whom we spend most of the film’s runtime, is defined mostly by his debilitating mental-health issue. Otherwise we get to know very little of him. The acting is equally unsatisfying, with many of the actors giving over-the-top performances, as though to compensate for their weakly developed characters. Once again, the film focuses too much on building up “the big reveal,” without giving the characters ample time to develop. This is also evident in the film’s treatment of mental illness which, by all indications, was poorly researched. Both the doctor’s and Kazuto’s actions in the film are simply too ridiculous to believe in the context of the latter’s mental and emotional disability, robbing the film of much needed plausibility.

That’s not to say Special Actors does not have its moments of greatness. Stylistically, the most interesting aspect of the film is the superhero coating that hovers over the rather conventional plot. Sure, there are no “supers” here, only “specials”, but the difference between them is not as great as one might initially think. The Special Actors agency have a “secret” hideout and use their “special” acting powers to fight injustice and help the helpless, literally! There’s even a super villain organization – the cult – thrown in the mix. This superhero motif is present throughout the film and helps give an extra breath of life to the characters.

Ultimately, however, the film is not a keeper. I wish the only flaw of Special Actors was that it had to live under the shadow of its predecessor, but alas, the film’s sins are far greater. At best, Special Actors an average comedy with a few clever ideas and tons of unrealized potential. It’s entertaining at times, but the ever increasing number of Ueda fans better curb their expectations.

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