Seizo Fukumoto carves his way through a wall of human flesh, dragging an unconscious chick behind him.
A kirareyaku is an actor who portrays the unfortunate victim of a samurai sword cut. The word means literally “acting cut.” Other translations include: “chopped up actor” and “the role of being slashed.”
Seizo Fukumoto has carved out, as it were, an impressive career as victim of the Japanese sword.
Fukumoto’s career spans a half century, originating in the postwar heyday of Japanese cinema. Since then, he has gushed forth rivers of fake blood and been cut to ribbons that would stretch for miles. He has been killed on screen more than 50,000 times â€” more than once in some films.
In the postwar era, period dramas, including samurai films, were an important form of thinly veiled criticism of modern society and institutions. But such obliqueness is no longer necessary.
Now 69, Fukumoto recalls landing his first job in the movies as a stuntman and extra with Toei studios in 1959.
“When I was younger, our studio had some 400 stuntmen and extras,” he remembers. “I wanted to stand out. I wanted to be on screen. The best way to do that was to become a ‘chopped-up actor’ and to fight with the stars.”
Fukumoto’s art is known in Japanese as tate, a stylized sort of stage combat that combines elements of martial arts, dance and kabuki theater. Its use in Japanese film has influenced foreign cinematic styles from “spaghetti Westerns” to Hong Kong kung fu flicks. But few Japanese actors practice it today.
In a trademark move, Fukumoto is dealt a fatal blow, then bends over backward, seemingly suspended in midair for a moment of final agony before crumpling to the ground. He says his movements have an awkward grotesqueness to them; it’s called buzama in Japanese.
“Whenever we die, we have to do it in a way that is unsightly or clumsy, not graceful,” Fukumoto explains. “In this buzama, we find beauty. To die in an uncool way is the coolest.”
He’s never been the leading man, but Fukumoto has still managed to attract a large and loyal international following. But despite his fame, his career as professional sword fodder is almost by definition self-effacing.
Fukumoto in one of the numerous period costume dramas he has acted in for the Toei Company’s film studios since he began work there in 1959.
“I’m not a great traditional artist or craftsman,” he insists modestly. “It’s just that I’ve been doing this for 50 years, and I want to pass on something of my chanbara technique to the younger generation.”
The Wall Street Journal reports that Fukumoto-san will soon be appearing in a starring role.
A true kirareyaku is one who can make viewers cringe in their seats, “the one that can make them ask, ‘Is he OK?’ ” Mr. Fukumoto said.
The 71-year-old thespian got into acting at age 15 and soon became fascinated with playing the antagonist on screen. At night, on his futon, he would ponder flashier ways to drop dead in a sword fight. One of his signature moves is the “ebi-zori,” or prawn bend, in which after being struck, he arches his body backward like a prawn, then goes into convulsions, twitching and grasping before dying.
“The way my characters die has a huge impact on the impression the lead character gives in a film,” Mr. Fukumoto wrote in a 2012 essay. Ebi-zori is the perfect way to go, in his opinion, because the camera can remain focused on the hero’s gallantry while the kirareyaku actor also gains screen time by turning his face toward the audience as he falls dead.
Now, after being cut up by swords thousands of times, Mr. Fukumoto is getting his chance for the spotlight in a movie that opens in Japan in July. “Uzumasa Limelight,” will be the first film in his career in which he plays the lead role.
“I kept refusing the offer initially, telling them I couldn’t do it. It was a crazy idea,” Mr. Fukumoto said. “I was nervous once the filming started as well. I’d never had so many cameras set up right in front of me and focusing only on me.”
Before his latest movie, one of Mr. Fukumoto’s biggest roles was appearing in the 2003 Tom Cruise film “The Last Samurai,” playing a taciturn swordsman.
“This time around I had lots of my own lines, which I’d blow so often and cause trouble for my co-stars,” Mr. Fukumoto said.
The quasi-autobiographical “Uzumasa Limelight,” directed by Ken Ochiai, is a story about a retiring kirareyaku who befriends a young actress played by Chihiro Yamamoto.
Mr. Fukumoto’s character mentors the aspiring actress, whose dream is to become a samurai movie star.
Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.