Shin’ichirô Ueda’s work is a great challenge for any critic. He creates films that cannot be written about with any specificity, without ruining their great surprises. Where 2017’s One Cut of the Dead presented a metatextual film about directing, Special Actors presents a metatextual film about acting. By his sophomore effort, the director already understands that he is directing the audience, that he holds the cards, and that the sleight of hand is his most valuable asset. He disproves any idea that his first film would be a one-hit-wonder and makes a compelling case for expanding his filmography even further in this direction. As Special Actors plays out, we think, Ueda has played it straight. There is a third act reveal and we think, there is his usual cleverness! After that, the movie ends on a high-note which once again reassesses the entire context of what we have seen.
Young Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa, a special actor) is having a rough go of it. The daydreaming youth so desperately wishes to become an actor. “Please cure me,” he so often mutters, a common refrain, as he suffers a medical condition wherein his uncontainable anxiety causes fainting spells whenever he is confronted. It makes for a tough condition when all of his casting calls are challenged over his amateur line readings. Fruitfully, a chance encounter with his brother Hiroki (Hiroki Kono, a fine actor) leads the two to enlist in an agency called Special Actors, where performers are paid to put their trade to practical use in a variety of real-life situations. They are contacted by a client who operates an Inn that is soon to be taken over by a cult, where the quirks of their profession can be made useful in a high-stakes scenario. There is hardly more that could be said of the plot, without saying everything.
Slightly less mileage is found in dramatic comedy, compared to a zombie horror film that is deconstructive and interested in its own creation. Here, the film staggers and nearly drops out by its second act, before then being wholly redeemed by the ending. We see then the absolute necessity of what transpired. It is not only a film that would simply benefit from a second viewing but one that would deeply reward a rewatch, enriched by knowing its trick.
There is a stark visual flatness here. Like the cheesy live action Rescueman superhero VHS tapes that Kazuto idolizes and models himself after, there is little window dressing, despite an increased budget. Compared to the debut, the follow-up takes another step, conceptually, and has afforded the director an interesting space, the aforementioned spa invaded by a cult, with a lot of extras and good character actors, but the film truly only presents and then entirely relies on the category of its acting. There is little flair to any image, the framing imprecise, and yet, less cinéma vérité than aesthetically unrealized. It does not create its own visual language, leaning so heavily on the twist to carry all the weight of what came before, as to suggest the other factors of its creation were less important than the formal exercise of continuing the brand.
What emerges is a pure, great concept. Special Actors is a special film. There are few others doing exactly what Ueda is doing, certainly not with the same character and spirit the director instills in his work. While it rarely exceeds the higher concept of the first picture, Special Actors feels like a declaration: Ueda has a lot to say about the process of filmmaking, and is here to stay.