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Japanese Actor Who Specializes in Getting Killed by Samurai Has Died More Than 50,000 Times on Screen

If you’re a Japanese samurai movie buff, you know that there’s always at least one guy who dies in the most peculiar manner. He’s stabbed, or slashed, or sliced with a Samurai sword, and then he twists into weird shapes before he keels over and dies. Well, now you get to know the man himself – Seizo Fukumoto. He’s been dying in Japanese cinema for over 50 years now, and he’s one of the top ‘kirareyaku’ actors – stuntmen who specialize in being killed by the hero samurai.

Being the bad guy who always gets might not sound like much, but Fukumoto says that it’s a crucial part in the movie. “The way my characters die has a huge impact on the impression the lead character gives in a film.” The more ‘cringe-worthy’ the death, the better the hero looks. According to the 71-year-old thespian, a true kirareyaku is “the one who can make them ask, ‘Is he okay?’”

He deliberately adds an awkward grotesqueness to his movements while dying; this is called ‘buzama’ in Japanese. “Whenever we die, we have to do it in a way that is unsightly or clumsy, not graceful,” he explained. “In this buzama, we find beauty. To die in an uncool way is the coolest.”

Seizo-Fukumoto

Photo: Toei Kyoto Studio Park

Fukumoto is one of the more creative kirareyakus. He actually spends a long time devising flashier ways to drop dead during a sword fight. One of his best moves is the ‘ebi-zori’ or ‘prawn bend’. In this move, after being struck, he arches his body back like a prawn, and then twitches and convulses before finally dying. It’s the perfect way to go, says Fukumoto, because the camera remains focused on the hero, but he also gets screen time by turning his face towards the audience before falling dead.

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Photo: Ottaka Blog

Although he has appeared over 50,000 times on screen (all dying scenes), Fukumoto has never had to opportunity to play a lead role, until now. His biggest part so far was in the 2003 Tom Cruise film, The Last Samurai, where he played a taciturn swordsman. Fukumoto’s first movie as a lead actor is all set to release in Japan this July; it’s called Uzumasa Limelight. “I kept refusing the offer initially, telling them I couldn’t do it. It was a crazy idea,” he said.

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Photo: Jinsan1234

“I was nervous once the filming started as well,” he added. “I’d never had so many cameras set up right in front of me and focusing only on me. This time around I had lots of my own lines, which I’d blow so often and cause trouble for my co-stars.” The film is somewhat autobiographical – Fukumoto plays a retiring kirareyaku, who befriends and mentors a young actress aspiring to become a samurai movie star.

Fukumoto began his illustrious career when he was only 15 years old, and he soon became interested in playing the antagonist. He taught himself the art of falling by observing Charlie Chaplin, and discovered various ways to get killed. Sometimes he would roll his eyes, fall on his knees and die in silence. In other scenes, he’d choose to scream as the blood gushed out of his wounds.

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Photo: Toei Kyoto Studio Park

At 5 foot 8 inches tall and 110 pounds, he says that dying is a creative process that doesn’t require any workout routines or extensive practice sessions. All that is required is to pay careful attention to details. “I watched Chaplin movies, searching for tips on how to fall and die,” he said. “Comedians back then were amazing. Not using a stuntman, they themselves fell down.”

“In the scene I saw, Chaplin fell down very hard. It was a simple scene. But I was moved. I wondered why I laughed at the scene. Then I thought, ‘Oh yes, I get it. I should do the same when I’m sliced. I must fall hard enough for myself to feel the pain.’ Or else, I would not be able to give a similar impact that I felt to the audience. This was my starting point.”

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Photo: phantomfherlock

During practice Fukumoto uses wooden swords, but the weapons used during filming are blunt replicas of real Japanese swords. They might not have razor-sharp edges, but they can still inflict some serious pain. But Fukumoto says that it’s all part of the job. “You can’t act pain if you hesitate. You just have to dive in and get cut up with a sword, without fearing injury.”

Fukumoto is highly respected among his colleagues, and they all vouch for his exemplary performance as a kirerayaku. According to veteran fight choreographer Mitsuhiko Sieke, Fukumoto never fails to deliver. “As a fight choreographer, I always turn to Fukumoto to act in crucial scenes,” he said. “It’s not just his technique, but his expressiveness. He always adds value to my choreography.”

Unfortunately, kirerayaku is a dying art form, with the popularity of samurai movies waning in recent times. Contemporary dramas rule the Japanese entertainment industry now. “Even my wife prefers to watch ‘24’ over the samurai programs I get killed on,” Fukumoto admitted. So there’s very little chance for him to pass on his skills to the current generation of young actors.

When asked about his most memorable role, Fukumoto said that it would be very hard to pick one. “It didn’t matter whether I was dying on the edge of the screen, or which character was killing me, or if it was a big-budget movie,” he said. “I’ve always given every death my 100 percent, hoping that someone, somewhere will take notice of what I do. I guess someone did – and fortunately, they decided to let me play the lead role this time.”

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, NPR

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