Today, I finally watched my most highly anticipated Japan Cuts screening of 2020: Special Actors, a zany comedy about a guerrilla theater troupe that specializes in “acting in daily life.” A client might employ members of the group to, for example, scare a gambling addict straight, masquerade as a jealous new lover to intimidate an abusive ex, or pretend to be a purse snatcher in order to facilitate a staged feat of heroism (the existence of such a service isn’t totally implausible in Japan, where it is possible to temporarily “rent” a fake family; see also: Sion Sono’s Noriko’s Dinner Table, Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC). One day, a desperate innkeeper hires the company to infiltrate a nefarious cult (clearly inspired by Happy Science and the Church of Scientology, with some Masonic iconography and the corporate structure of McDonald's thrown in for good measure) that has indoctrinated her gullible older sister. Unfortunately, the team's most recent recruit suffers from a medical condition that causes him to faint during moments of extreme stress; will our protagonists be able to expose the villains’ fraudulent activities before their fragile illusion unravels completely?
Tonally, stylistically, and structurally, Special Actors represents a bit of a departure from director Shinichiro Ueda’s previous effort, One Cut of the Dead (which was an outright metafictional found footage splatter-fest); thematically, however, the two films share quite a bit of DNA in common, featuring plots that revolve around deception, misdirection, and the contradictory relationship between truth and facade. Consequently, it is nearly impossible to discuss the story in detail without delving into major spoilers. Suffice it to say that I was thoroughly charmed by this heartwarming tale of perseverance, self-actualization, and brotherly love; it’s a feel-good movie in the purest sense of the term.