Ken Ochiai once again demonstrates his talent

by Martin Hafer

In 2015, I saw a short film that simply amazed, and was the standout entrant for me at the Orlando Film Festival. Sumo Road: The Musical was not only a very funny film that made folks laugh out loud, but was incredibly creative.  I can truly say that I’ve never seen another film like it.

It turns out that the same man who wrote and directed this brilliant short, Ken Ochiai, has recently begun making feature films as well…and his Uzumasa Limelight is a delight for anyone who loves samurai films or is a fan of Chaplin!  Yes, I know that is a very strange combination so I’ll need to digress just a bit.

In 1952, Charlie Chaplin came out with one of his greatest and most personal films, Limelight.  However, while I would rank this among the greatest films of the 1950s, audiences were left cold by the film…mostly because being a Chaplin everyone expected it to be a comedy.  Instead, it’s a bittersweet little drama about an aging and rather sad vaudevillian who has seen better days.  He befriends a young woman who ultimately becomes a big star and, because of her gratitude, she helps her beloved mentor to have one last shining moment in the sun.

Uzumasa Limelight
Directed by
Ken Ochiai
Seizô Fukumoto, Chihiro Yamamoto, Masashi Goda
Release Date
5 December 2014
Martin’s Grade: A+

Ochiai’s film is a homage to Chaplin’s film.  While there are many similarities and parallels between the two movies, Uzumasa Limelight is still its own film and offers an equally satisfying viewing experience.  He chose the title Uzumasa Limelight because Uzumasa is a suburb of Kyoto that is a bit like Japan’s Hollywood and many wonderful old samurai epics were filmed there…and I have seen and adored hundreds of these films.  Because of this, I would love to one day visit Uzumasa…and am very jealous of my daughter because she spent time at the studio a few months ago…but that’s another story.

Seiichi Kamiyama (wonderfully played by Seizô Fukumoto) is an artist, of sorts.  He’s created a real niche for himself in Japanese films and televisions.  But he’s not a star…in fact he’s a guy many might never even notice.  He plays villains in Japanese samurai productions and has had a steady job playing these sorts of parts for a television show for decades…sort of a sword and samurai version of Gunsmoke.  However, the series is being canceled and the directors and producers want new blood for their projects…and a 70 year-old actor who specializes in dying dramatically and artistically on camera just doesn’t seem to be needed any more.

Fortunately for Seiichi, he is able to find a sense of purpose when he meets a young actress.  She is going to be an extra in a new type of samurai television show but she has no idea how to make her scenes look realistic.  Seiichi is a very kind man and offers to coach her and eventually her skills are noticed.  In fact, she is able to quickly move from a stunt double to a star…thanks to Seiichi’s coaching.  Fortunately, she is the grateful sort and insists that Seiichi come out of retirement for one final last hurrah.

So why did I love this film so much?  I think it was because of the director more than anything else.  While Fukumoto was wonderful playing Seiichi and Hiroyuki Ono wrote a wonderful script, Uzumasa Limelight wouldn’t have worked as well had just any director made the film.  Ochiai injects a wonderful sense of nostalgia and love for the main character and the film looks more like a piece of art that slowly is unveiled to the viewer.  It is slow…but in a very satisfying and deliberate manner.  After all, considering Chaplin himself directed Limelight, Ochiai had big shoes to fill.  He did himself proud with this Japanese film, that’s for sure.