One of those “actors are real people, too” romantic comedies, a la “Lost in Translation” or “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton,” in which a jaded showbiz type mellows after falling for a genuine down-to-earth gal, Satoko Yokohama’s “The Actor” puts a Japanese twist on a relatively common Western plot, while giving local thesp Ken Yasuda the juiciest role of either his or his onscreen persona’s career. Crafted according to local commercial customs, yet remarkably playful in its own right, the film blurs the lines between its protagonist’s best-known roles — a mix of samurai, gangsters and so forth — and the off-script personal life he’s trying to cobble together offscreen. The result proves clever enough for the Japanese market, and yet a wee bit tricky for foreigners to follow.
Though reasonably well respected for his ability to improvise in character, Takuji Kameoka (Yasuda) seems to have forgotten who he really is, spending most of his free time in a state of partial inebriation — something his agent has the uncanny ability to sense even over the phone, which tells you a thing or two about how Kameoka’s drinking habits may have affected his career to date. His is not what one would consider a glamorous life, and though perfect strangers have been known to recognize his face from the big screen, it’s usually as “that guy” rather than by his actual name.
Casting is everything in a part like this, and “Bare Essence of Life” director Yokohama made an inspired choice with Yasuda (not to be confused with the hulking Japanese bodybuilder who shares his name). Virtually unknown outside his home country, where he works regularly on TV as well as voice acting in Studio Ghibli films, Yasuda has the personal experience to match the part and presumably just as much to prove as his character. Yasuda also possesses a wonderfully expressive face, including an oddly shaped mouth he can (and does) contort into any number of complex emotions, the best being the almost incredulous way he finds himself falling for Azumi Murota (Kumiko Aso), the woman who tends bar in the remote town where he’s shooting.
It’s a little confusing what he’s doing there, since the film makes it sound as if auditions are drying up for Kameoka, who must resort to accepting a semi-humiliating stage role, and yet, he’s almost never not working — constantly acting for one director or another in a series of cameos by better-known Japanese stars. During those rare moments of down time, he’s either trying to get a part (like that of a soldier in the ambitious new epic from a respected Spanish auteur, whose Venice-selected “Remo El Cojo” we see cheekily reenacted with Kameoka in the lead) or boozing it up after a day of shooting (paired with an inexperienced young Filipino actress in one scene, he insists on drinking real alcohol on set, with bemusing results).
Still, there’s something not entirely clear about the chronology in Yokohama’s script, which she adapted herself from a novel by one of Japan’s most celebrated writers, Akito Inui, a five-time bridesmaid for the country’s Akutagawa Prize. In her hands, the material doesn’t feel especially literary, though that’s a plus, with Kameoka’s existential crisis handled with charm (and a mind-boggling mix of musical styles, including a folk-disco throwback in the style of vintage television’s “Three’s Company” theme), rather than the sort of “Leaving Las Vegas”-like angst a more statue-grabby actor might have brought to the part.
Along the way, Yasuda has more than ample opportunity to demonstrate his chops, whether auditioning for the aforementioned Spanish movie or replaying a Tarantino-esque crime scene multiple times, each time essaying a different one of the key roles. As a sampler of the actor’s abilities, it’s not quite as avant garde an amuse bouche as “Holy Motors” was for Denis Levant, though there’s a clearer throughline thanks to the romantic subplot with Aso’s radiant Azumi, which pays off with one of the more declarations of love, as the actor takes a page from disgraced astronaut Lisa Nowak and drives cross-country (a feat accomplished via rear-projection) in adult diapers to plead his case — which just goes to show, the basic plot may be familiar, but Inui and Yokohama’s take is anything but conventional.