DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's turn now to Japan. That country is home to Asia's oldest and largest motion picture industry with its own unique styles and traditions. While every film industry has stuntmen, only Japan has a class of actors whose main job is to be sliced and diced by samurai sword-wielding warriors. The decline of period dramas though means that this class of actors is, quite literally, a dying breed. In the cultural capital Kyoto, NPR's Anthony Kuhn meets one of the art form's most famous practitioners.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Japanese language spoken)
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: At the Toei Company's film studios, fight choreographers rehearse for an upcoming stage show. It's being performed by Kirareyaku, or chopped up actors. Their aim is to revive audience interest in period dramas. The most senior actor on stage is Seizo Fukumoto. Fight choreographer Mitsuhiko Seike respectfully refers to Fukumoto as his Sensei or teacher.
MITSUHIKO SEIKE: (Through Translator) As a fight choreographer, I always turn to Fukumoto to act in crucial scenes. It's not just his technique, but his expressiveness. He always adds value to my choreography.
KUHN: Fukumoto's career spans a half century, originating in the post-war heyday of Japanese cinema. Since then, he has gushed forth rivers of fake blood and been cut to ribbons that would stretch for miles. He has been killed on screen more than 50,000 times – more than once in some films.
Now 69, Fukumoto recalls landing his first job in the movies, as a stuntman and extra with Toei studios in 1959.
SEIZO FUKUMOTO: (Through Translator) When I was younger, our studio had some 400 stuntmen and extras. I wanted to stand out. I wanted to be on screen. The best way to do that was to become a chopped up actor and to fight with the stars.
KUHN: Fukumoto's art is known in Japanese as tate; a stylized sort of stage combat that combines elements of martial arts, dance and Kabuki Theater. Its use in Japanese film has influenced foreign cinematic styles, from Spaghetti Westerns to Hong Kong kung-fu flicks, but few Japanese actors practice it today.
In a trademark move, Fukumoto is dealt a fatal blow. Then he bends over backwards, seemingly suspended in mid-air for a moment of final agony before crumpling to the ground. He says his movements have an awkward grotesqueness to them called buzama in Japanese.
FUKUMOTO: (Through Translator) Whenever we die, we have to do it in a way that is unsightly or clumsy, not graceful. In this buzama, we find beauty. To die in an uncool way is the coolest.
KUHN: He's never been the leading man, but Fukumoto has still managed to attract a large and loyal international following. But despite this fame, his career as professional sword fodder is, almost by definition, self-effacing.
FUKUMOTO: (Through Translator) I'm not a great traditional artist or craftsman. It's just that I've been doing this for 50 years, and I want to pass on something of my chanbara technique to the younger generation.
KUHN: The Japanese word chanbara mimics the clash and clang of swords, and refers to the sword-fighting movie genre. Fukumoto says that the nastier his simulated death, the brighter the leading actor shines.
Capping a long and gory career, Fukumoto guards over Tom Cruise in the 2003 film "The Last Samurai." In the film, Cruise plays a post-civil war U.S. Army captain who travels to Japan, where he learns to wield a samurai sword – rather well, in Fukumoto's opinion. Cruise joins a band of samurai in their last futile charge against Japanese imperial soldiers equipped with modern firearms.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LAST SAMURA")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Charge.
KUHN: Although his art is facing a similar fate in the Internet age, Seizo Fukumoto seems content with what he's achieved in his obscure profession, and with the prospect of always being remembered for being dismembered.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "FROZEN MEMORIES")
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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "FROZEN MEMORIES")