Special Actors, director Shinichiro Ueda’s follow-up to the surprise smash hit, One Cut of the Dead, channels that film’s energy and spirit of joie de vivre while being something else entirely. Those expecting a repeat of One Cut‘s halfway flip might be disappointed, but thankfully, Ueda’s not interested in turning himself into an M. Night Shyamalan, reliant on recreating his early successes through increasingly-convoluted surprises.

Hopefully. I’ll explain why in a minute.

“Kazuto is not a typical actor…actually, he’s not an actor at all! He’s just a timid young guy who regularly faints from stress, hopelessly impressed with the psychic strength of the RESCUEMAN B-movie hero. Or perhaps Kazuto is actually….

Somehow Kazuto ends up being a key ‘player’ in a real life drama in which a young woman, Rina, is brainwashed and stops talking. She is about to transfer the family inn to the heartless “Rice Ball” cult!
Her sister, Yumi, desperately asks the SPECIAL ACTORS to help. A complex plan is devised, and everything depends upon…Kazuto!?

Various aspiring actors gives it their all as they play their roles on the ultimate stage of everyday life. Just when you think you understand who is who and what is what, an unbelievable twist!”

Like I said: “hopefully.” The plot is that Kazuto keeps fainting from stress, so he can’t get an acting gig and is going to lose his job as a security guard. He’s late on his rent, and all he has to keep himself happy is the terrible action film, Rescueman. A chance encounter with his long-lost brother, Hiroki, leads him to Special Actors, a vast acting troupe who do everything from regular gigs to helping folks impress potential significant others, test their employees, or simply hype up a new film by laughing uproariously in the audience.

The whole thing is mined for the laughs obviously inherent in both the Special Actors component, as well as the possibilities offered by an obviously-crooked cult, but what I really appreciate about Special Actors is that it’s gleefully free of cruelty and cynicism. There are obvious villains, yes, but it’s not a film which ever feels mean. What it definitely does share in common with One Cut of the Dead is that sense of group positivity, and the same “we can do this attitude!” imbues all of Special Actors. While it might not be as visually-striking, as it looks an awful lot like a very well-done sitcom episode – and feels like one, too, thanks to an almost hilarious repetition of the same three or four musical cues throughout – watching this film left me feeling more emotionally lifted than I’d felt in weeks.

The appeal of Special Actors is that charge you can get watching people who are good at what they do, in the midst of doing their job. For all the absurdity and goofiness in the Special Actors crew, with everyone having their own little quirks and peculiarities, with certain folks occasionally going just a little bit overboard in their enthusiastic inhabiting of a role, or a “boss” who doesn’t like to be called “sir,” these are talented people who can take any situation, no matter how outre, and turn it into something magical.

Another aspect of One Cut of the Dead shared by Special Actors is that Ueda once again uses mostly-unknown actors. Given that I’m not up to date on the latest developments in Japanese cinema, that doesn’t really affect my perception of the film, but much like that hit, using so many less-experienced actors means the performances are unfiltered. Nobody here is “acting.” Kazuto feels like a real person, despite the whole absurdity of him just repeatedly fainting falling down.

That gag never gets old, by the way. The way Ueda repeatedly builds tension throughout the film with a “will he or won’t he?” question floating over a slew of potentially stressful situations is masterful in its playing with the emotions of the audience. It’s been such really long while since I’ve laughed with joy, rather than rueful acceptance or sarcastic acknowledgment that actually being made happy by a film feels brand new.

Granted, the plot isn’t anything spectacular – people pretending to be one thing, but actually being another, and seeing behind the curtain is the plot of every single spy film ever. The Special Actors crew in Special Actors are also just positive and upbeat versions of the characters in shows like Leverage or the Norm MacDonald movie, Dirty Work. It’s nothing new, but neither was One Cut of the Dead. Lord knows, we’ve all seen enough zombie movies, at this point. The reason Shinichiro Ueda makes such utterly watchable films is because he takes the standard tropes, plots, and ideas, and does something unique. They’re fun, joyous entertainment, and the enthusiasm comes off the screen and into your heart.

The final minutes of Special Actors could, depending on your viewpoint, either undermine the entire film or reinforce everything which came before. I think, if you’re cynical, it might have the potential to ruin the film, because it feels ever-so-slightly gimmicky in terms of its revelations. There’s certainly enough of a Usual Suspects aspect to cause you to question the previous hour and a half. However, the ultimate message inherent in Ueda’s film – that Kazuto could never believe in himself, because he’s never had someone else who believed in him – is still intact. He did have someone who believed in him. A lot, actually. Just not in the way he expected.

Fantasia does a superb job of bringing in new work from people we love, and as our curtain-raiser made apparent, this was one of the films to which I was most looking forward. It’s been a rough couple of months, and after watching Special Actors, I feel like I’m in a weirdly positive space for the first time in ages. Watch this.

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