The Actor (Japan, 2016) [Japan Foundation Film Tour 2020]

It is fair to say that most people go into acting with the expectation that they will be cast in a leading role at some point. However, not everyone can be center stage and some are relegated to a career of supporting roles. In a profession where most pursue the limelight, how does one escape the shadows? This is a question that the titular actor faces when a mid-career crisis meets an existential crisis as he takes stock of his life in this melancholy comedy, or should that be melancomedy?

Takuji Kameoka (Ken Yasuda) is a lonely thirty-something bachelor who plays bit-parts in movies and dramas. His only interest outside of cinema is drinking. One day, on a shoot in snowy Nagano, he gets drunk and sadder than usual at an izakaya where a woman named Azumi (Kumiko Aso) runs the bar in her father’s stead. Takuji and Azumi talk while sharing saké. He quietly falls in love with her and it happens just at the point he begins to wonder if he will ever be the leading man in his own life or the acting profession.

Based on a novel by Akito Inui, the film stars a whole host of actors regularly seen in supporting roles and it is adapted with grace by Satoko Yokohama. It is her second feature film and she and her cast achieve a familiar intimacy as we get involved in Kameoka’s acting life. The first third segues between life on set and the drudgery around his shoots before the story enters his search for meaning in his life and career. In reality, he is a small figure. His voice drops to a whisper when talking to others and he awkwardly moves around trying not to cause a fuss. Despite this, he is skilled at acting small parts. He can transform into any character, carry scenes and is considered to be a reliable performer by the people who hire him, including a theatre director who sees hints of his talent. However, the stage is totally different and he has to dig deep inside himself, as demanded by the tough but fair director of the play he signs up for.

Whether he can unearth major talent or not forms the film’s tension. A meandering middle unfurls as Kameoka cautiously experiments with method acting and takes on the stage role to evolve. His actor’s journey is tracked steadily, on and off stage, and all of the details come together during a boozy night out with a fellow player (portrayed by another experienced character actor, Shohei Uno). Here, Yokohama intercuts between different temporal and spatial moments which allows her to compare and contrast the techniques involved in film and theatre. This breaking of spatial boundaries also allows Kameoka’s dreams and reality to mix together as he begins to test his capacities as a thespian and dives into his love for film. It culminates in a moment when he comes to realize his need to confess his feelings to Azumi in a romance he imagines like a musical.

Yokohama’s smart adaptation and the fluid editing allows viewers an intimate look into Kameoka’s life while her choice of the wide shots used and placement of actors, allows us to enjoy the minutiae of the scenes. The theatricality of cinema is highlighted with a myriad of techniques used to suggest Kameoka’s movie-inspired imagination, like non-diegetic music, canned sound effects, a sudden rain shower pouring over him, spotlights shining upon him, shadow plays enacting what he imagines and rear projection for an epic journey. All this movie magic spices up his staid reality.

The details of day-to-day work and life are also shown: the way cast and crew members move during a jidaigeki or yakuza film shoot, the tape on the ground indicating the marks Kameoka has to hit, Kameoka sitting on set between takes alone smoking a cigarette, riding a train alone and drinking beer alone. We notice the lonely lifestyle especially as Kameoka is often relegated to one corner of the screen away from other actors where he radiates a certain melancholy. We sympathize with him while also recognizing Kameoka’s skill as an actor by seeing how he sheds his melancholy self to transform into different characters. At points, stage and screen skills intersect and diverge while there is comedy as he tries to make scenes work, sometimes failing but sometimes succeeding. He may overact and certain method acting strategies prove catastrophic but we root for him and are aware of his progress and also hope his romance works out.

The film may focus on the craft of acting but it carries a universal message about finding one’s place in the world. Kameoka’s journey shows there is satisfaction in learning a craft and doing it to the best of your ability. Very few people get work doing what they like, so if they can, they should count their blessings, much like Kameoka does.

The Actor is part of the Japan Foundation Film Touring Programme 2020, which is showing at selected UK venues from January 31 to March 29.