It is never easy to follow a cult hit. But that is precisely the unenviable position Shin’ichirô Ueda finds himself in after the runaway success of his previous film One Cut of the Dead, a huge financial hit in his native Japan and one of the most critically acclaimed horror films of recent years. Now he brings his follow-up Special Actors to Fantasia 2020. Can he knock it out the park once again? Well, no, but that does not mean the movie is without its pleasures.
There is undoubtedly still some of the same spirit of ingenuity and narrative slipperiness going on here as there was in Ueda’s breakthrough. Plus, the initial set-up is full of intrigue as we are introduced to Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa), an aspiring young actor who faints whenever he is nervous or stressed. To overcome this, he is convinced by his brother Hiroki (Hiroki Kono) to sign up with an acting agency he works for. This agency is particularly unusual as the actors are employed to act in real-life situations such as laughing in a movie theatre or breaking up with someone’s boyfriend for them. Things quickly escalate though when someone hires the brothers and others in the agency to infiltrate and expose the malpractices of a cult.
All of this is merely the jumping-off point for the plot. To say any more would spoil its many twists and turns. Suffice to say we learn early on not to trust anything we are seeing, and one of the movie’s chief pleasures is trying to figure out who and what is ‘real’. While the ultimate destination may be eminently guessable, there are enough twists and turns to keep you on your toes and make it fun to get to that destination.
However, the drawback to all these narrative shifts is that the audience is so busy second-guessing the nature of most of the characters it is difficult to connect with them. Outside our lead and his brother, most of the other characters in the agency and the cult are very thinly sketched, defined generally by only one primary characteristic. Be it the head of the agency who obsesses over being called ‘Boss’, the sardonic script guy, or the swindling cult leader.
This element leads to most of the film being on Kazuto’s shoulders. Thankfully, he is a charmingly sad-sack hero who is extremely easy to root for. Plus, there are other strengths at play here. Namely, the various comedic set-pieces based around the agency concocting and enacting their multiple assignments. From pretending to be difficult customers in a restaurant, to attempting to fool the cult into thinking an inn is haunted. Each of these provides amiable laughs – with the finale involving a cult ceremony finale being a particular hoot – which are only slightly dampened by the somewhat annoying way the score is permanently set to wacky.
There are also some great quirky details such as the fake movie-within-a-movie “Rescueman”, a fun comic book B-movie parody with which Kazuto is obsessed. It is also one of the few moments of visual imagination present, as the rest of the film has a decidedly flat, made-for-TV look.
Special Actors may lack the inventiveness and verve of One Cut of the Dead. But it is still a sweet-natured comedy about tackling your anxieties that provides enough in the way of solid laughs and narrative twists to make it an enjoyable watch.
Screened as part of Fantasia Festival