Modern Japanese cinema seems to have a special place in its heart for the misfit, the outcast, the square peg that can’t seem to fit in what is otherwise a highly ordered society. We see it in Shoplifters, we see it in director Shinichiro Ueda’s previous, highly acclaimed film One Cut of the Dead, and we see it here. In Special Actors, Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa) more than anything else dreams of being brave, like his childhood hero, Rescueman. There’s just one problem: he has such a bad case of anxiety that whenever anyone (especially a man) raises their voice at him, he faints.

Pretty inconvenient, right? Not exactly a recipe for success, or the ideal way to hold down even a regular job, let alone the acting gigs he pursues that frequently involve a lot of critical feedback. Luckily, Kazuto finds a new opportunity when his estranged brother Hiroki (Hiroki Kono) introduces him to Special Actors, a company that specializes in “acting” for everyday scenarios. Here, a CEO who wanted to look more important could hire fake mourners to weep at his funeral, a studio could hire audience members to laugh hysterically through their films, or a restaurant could test their employees with planted problem customers. The possibilities are endless. The hope is that Kazuto can learn to stretch his limitations in a safe, controlled environment. But when Special Actors is hired to infiltrate a cult to rescue a client’s brainwashed sister, Kazuto may be in way over his head.

In terms of story, Special Actors is not especially complex. It follows the traditional beats of a con artist film, with each orchestrated scenario growing bigger and more outlandish. But the big trick of films like this is that it’s a constant balancing act: the con needs to be good enough to believably fool the characters but not so convoluted that you lose the audience. A lot of times you’ll see movies that start strong but lose steam in the final third for this very reason: sticking the landing of a good cinematic con is the hardest part. In that regard, Special Actors is one of the best since The Sting.

Their grand infiltration of the cult maintains its energy throughout, with clever and entertaining twists that give the film such a consistent pacing. Even if you, a seasoned film fan sitting at home on your couch, manage to find yourself a step ahead of the characters being conned, that knowledge takes nothing away from the experience. Special Actors is so charmingly constructed that the end result is entirely satisfying, regardless of whether or not you saw a turn coming ahead of time. Most of the time, in fact, the film lets the audience in on the joke, so the clever development of the scheme is valued more highly than any element of surprise.

The structure of Special Actors is well put together indeed, but the likeability of the film hinges on Kazuto Osawa’s performance. Everyone likes an underdog, and his constant, desperate efforts to overcome his anxiety issues are both endearing and genuinely moving. His plight is handled with surprising empathy, especially considering the stigma against mental illness in many East Asian cultures, even if his quest for a “cure” as depicted in the film may be overly simplistic.

But look, there are movies that make you think, and there are movies that make you smile, and Special Actors definitely falls into the latter category. It’s almost impossible not to be charmed by the ragtag group of misfits and con artists, and the steady undercurrent of warm, genuine fraternal love between Kazuto and Hiroki gives the film a tremendous amount of heart.

After director Shinichiro Ueda came out with the clever, innovative One Cut of the Dead, a film that somehow managed to feel fresh and ground-breaking even in the well-worn zombie genre, it was difficult to see how he was going to be able to top it. And perhaps the only real solution was not to try, but to make something entirely different. Despite the probably unfairly high expectations Ueda fans had coming into his follow-up film, Special Actors stands up as its own unique entity, one that is both charming and well-crafted.

Rating: ★★★★

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