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.
Not coming to a theater near me, living in the boondocks, but opening recently in urban theaters is the long-awaited biopic about Ip Man, the Wing Chun master who was Bruce Lee’s Sifu, by illustrious Chinese director Wong Kar Wai renowned in the West for “Chungking Express” (1994) and “In the Mood for Love” (2000). Walter Addiego‘s review indicates that the version being released currently theatrically suffers from having been shortened by the great minds of Hollywood to suit the preferences of Western demos, but it will still be a must-see movie for hard-core cineastes and martial arts enthusiasts.
Wong… .focuses on Ip Man’s life roughly from the 1930s to the ’50s, and includes his role in helping sort out the rivalries among Northern and Southern Chinese kung fu schools, the effect on his life of the second Sino-Japanese war, and his later experiences teaching martial arts in Hong Kong.
As you would expect from this filmmaker, a master stylist capable of exquisite images, this isn’t an ordinary martial arts picture. (Ip Man has been the subject of other films, notably two starring Donnie Yen, but they inhabit another universe from Wong’s work.) The fight scenes are balletic, and there’s a lush, sometimes overripe, air about the whole movie. The otherworldly feeling is enhanced by Ip Man’s oracular utterances, thankfully leavened with occasional humor.
The film is at its best when Ip Man (Wong regular Tony Leung Chiu Wai) interacts with a fictional character, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), who, as the daughter of an aged martial arts master, cannot inherit his position because of her gender. But she is quite adept at the old man’s style, as evidenced in a remarkably choreographed fight with Ip and battles fought during a later revenge quest. While the first half of the film is Ip’s, Gong Er eventually comes to the fore and even eclipses him.
This is a Wong film, so there will be a major thread of romantic longing and unrequited love.
The martial arts set pieces are skillful enough to thrill even non-connoisseurs. The standouts include the long opening scene of nighttime combat in the rain, with Ip Man wearing his signature white fedora; an extended brawl in a stunningly designed brothel; and a remarkable one-on-one in which Gong Er shows her stuff next to a speeding train.
Wong has long since proved his ability to create a powerful, hallucinatory atmosphere, and he is working here with two charismatic actors – it’s hard to take your eyes off them. But he can’t overcome the film’s choppy feeling, which has nothing to do with its fractured chronology. Story strands feel truncated and characters who seem significant suddenly disappear, as if we’re seeing the choice bits of a longer movie.
In fact, the version that played at this year’s Berlinale was 130 minutes; the film being released by the Weinstein Co., and reviewed here, runs 108.
It turns out that, these days, all is not lost for exurbanites like myself. “The Grandmaster” is available from third party dealers via Amazon on DVD, and at derisory prices no less. I’ve already ordered mine.
A standard cultural artifact in Japan is the darumaoki, the weighted and self-righting tumbler doll painted as a comical caricature of Daruma, aka Bodhidharma, the Buddhist monk who brought Zen (aka Ch’an) Buddhism to China in the 5th century and who founded at the Shaolin Temple the entire tradition of Oriental martial arts.
The dolls are visible embodiments of the Japanese slogan “Nanakorobi Yaoki,” “Seven times down, eight times up,” an admonition encouraging persistence, resilience, and the determination to overcome adversity.
A disgruntled Daruma contemplates with visible dismay his own caricatured form as a darumaoki doll. 19th century ceramic, private collection.
Hip Hop artist Sky Blu of LMFAO claimed in 2010 that Mitt Romney applied “a Vulcan grip” to him during a territorial dispute over the rapper’s seat back on board a plane preparing to embark from Vancouver to Los Angeles. Air marshals removed Mr. Blu from the flight prior to departure.