Special Actors (Fantasia Fest 2020)

poster of Special Actors

When Shin’ichirô Ueda’s debut One Cut of the Dead came out last year, it quickly became the name on everyone’s lips. Managing to combine comedy, action and horror in a package that kept you guessing all the way until the end, it quickly found an audience, but could Ueda pull it off again?

Well, Ueda clearly hates reviewers, because his sophomore effort Special Actors has the same sort of spoiler minefield.

When we’re first introduced to Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa), he’s auditioning for a role – and collapses the minute the director confronts him. We laugh in the moment, but quickly learn that this is no joke. Kazuto has an emotional issue that is impacting his life in a major way. Not only is it preventing him from pursuing his dreams as an actor, it’s intruding on his day-to-day; he is having trouble holding down a job because of this fear of confrontation.

Depressed and running out of options, he runs into his brother Hiroki (Hiroki Kono) after years apart and is introduced to the Special Actors talent agency; a group of actors who aren’t in movies, or television or on the stage. Rather, they act in real life. Need someone to pretend to be your boyfriend and scare off an ex? Call the Special Actors. Want to thwart a fake mugging so your wife is impressed? The Special Actors have got your back.

Hiroki wants Kazuto to join in an effort to help his disorder. Kazuto has to join in order to pay the bills. Seems like a simple enough premise with plenty of room for comedy, right? But of course, Ueda isn’t content to leave things there. I won’t say anything more about the plot, but suffice it to say, it continues to escalate in a way that is frankly impressive, much as its predecessor did.

The performances are incredibly naturalistic, with the standout being Hiroki Kono as the younger, confident brother pushing Kazuto along. I genuinely wanted to hang out with this guy. The pacing is also wonderful, with plenty of time spent getting to know our protagonist, but it never feels like it’s lingering. It’s also a fun story, with the aforementioned twists and turns in service of an accessible self-actualization story.

Comedy is hard. Twists are hard. Putting them together in a way that only enhances both as aspects of technically solid filmmaking? That’s Shin’ichirô Ueda.