‘Special Actors’ Review: Mildly Amusing Japanese Comedy No Match for Director’s ‘One Cut of the Dead’

An unusual artist management agency takes down a bogus religious cult in an ensemble comedy that throws silly gags, cunning twists and campy mugging into the mix.

Special Actors

Want to impress your date by fighting off her molestor? Wish your stand-up comedy act would bring the house down? Or looking to pack your grumpy grandpa’s funeral with keening mourners? Call “Special Actors,” an agency that supplies performers to help you keep up with the Suzukis — or out-scam your scammers.

The third feature by Shinichiro Ueda, director of Japanese cult zombie comedy “One Cut of the Dead,” is a daffy ensemble trickster comedy with a few “gotcha” twists. Although a year-end 2019 theatrical release in Asia achieved only average gains, festivals that saw roaring crowds at midnight screenings for “One Cut” can still expect return audiences.

“Special Actors” would qualify as thoroughly enjoyable fare were it not such an anticipated follow-up to Ueda’s history-making sleeper, which grossed $31.1 million worldwide, recouping its $25,000 budget more than a thousandfold. But considering the expectations, it doesn’t up the ante of Ueda’s debut hit, whose inventive brilliance is an unduly tough act to follow. Nevertheless, it sports a similar meta-narrative that playfully blurs the line between the cast of acting-workshop amateurs, and the ham actors they portray. Compared with “Aesop’s Game” (2019), which Ueda co-directed with Naoya Asumnuma and Yuya Nakaizumi, this is a less coldly calculated exercise.

Like a Victorian lady, Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa) is acutely bashful and prone to fainting spells whenever he’s nervous. Instead of carrying smelling salts, he believes that fondling a woman’s breasts is a calming remedy. Since that’s currently out of his reach, he squeezes a rubber ball as a substitute. His therapist thinks the condition is psychosomatic but it’s enough to put a damper on his thespian dreams, although his lack of acting chops is probably a bigger career hurdle.

On the day Kazuko loses his job as a security guard, he runs into his estranged brother Hiroki (Hiroki Kawano). Despite earlier ambitions of becoming an entrepreneur, Hiroki announces that he’s now an actor — of sorts. Thus, the protagonist is recruited into Special Actors, an agency that uses acting to help clients achieve whatever ends desired.

While the curious rent-a-family business has been amply explored on Japanese screens — in projects as diverse Sion Sono’s “Noriko’s Dining Table,” Shunji Iwai’s “The Bride of Rip van Winkle” and Werner Herzog’s “Family Romance, LLC” — the operation in this story takes Japanese customer service to a hilarious extreme, deploying a scriptwriter (Yosuke Ueda) and acting coach (Kitaura Ai) to hold proper rehearsals with screenplays and storyboards. Kazuto’s induction gives rise to some zany role-play situations, like complaining at a restaurant to test waiters’ patience, or boosting a fortune-teller’s credibility. The loosey-goosey structure of these gags recalls Naoki Murahashi’s “Extro,” a mockumentary depicting movie extras going above and beyond on shoots.

Thankfully, Ueda’s screenplay reveals its plot-driven, brainier designs with the appearance of high school girl Miyu (Yumi Ogawa). Her sister Rina (Rina Tsugami) has joined Musubiru, a religious cult, and Miyu wants the agency to stop Rina from being brainwashed into donating their traditional family-run inn to the group. As the actors infiltrate the organization, whose sacred emblem is a “musubi” (rice ball), that’s the cue for a bevy of rice ball puns and jokes that nails the ludicrous dogma and lucrative holy charms peddled by many real Japanese cults, and how deadly serious their gullible disciples take them.

Ueda’s skill in contriving elaborate plot turns and domino-effect action sequences is evident in the cult leaders’ nefarious schemes, and the agency’s even craftier ruse to take down the cult. Since the two sides are equally matched in wits, but also in their blunders, that raises the stakes and bumps up the tension: Kazuto could have a seizure during the operations, but Musubiri’s “Messiah” Tamaru (Tanri) is just as likely to blow his cover due to his superstitious streak. 

While “One Cut” boasts a clear two-act structure which turns the first section of the film on its head, pretzel-like twists are more casually mashed with slapstick and farce here. The final reveal is also less of a stunner, having been lifted straight from a certain David Fincher film. 

As the sole emotional anchor of the film, Kazuto’s scaredy-cat personality elicits sympathy, especially in Japan where people are so terrified of putting a foot wrong. Unfortunately, actor Osawa’s range of facial expressions is painfully limited, and his ball-squeezing routine gets tedious soon. The rest of the cast members just about pull off their complicated disguises.

Production design, largely limited to indoor sets, makes no effort to cover up the cheap budget, whereas technical credits are also on the low end.

‘Special Actors’ Review: Mildly Amusing Japanese Comedy No Match for Director’s ‘One Cut of the Dead’

Reviewed at Xin-yi Vieshow Cinema, Taipei, Dec 6, 2019. (In Japan Cuts, Fantasia film festivals.) Running time: 109 MIN. (Original title: “Supesharu Akutaazu”)

  • Production: (Japan) A Shochiku Co. release of a Shochiku Broadcasting Co. production. Producers: Masa Osumi, Hiroshi Ida, Seigo Fukada, Satoshi Hashidate, Hitoshi Ono.
  • Crew: Director, writer, editor: Shinichiro Ueda. Camera: Takeshi Sone. Music: Nobuhiro Suzuki, Shoma Ito.
  • With: Kazuto Osawa, Hiroki Kawano, Takuya Fuji, Tanri, Sangetsu Tatsuya, Rina Tsugami, Yumi Ogawa.