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Seizo Fukumoto has died 20,000 agonizing deaths. He’s been gored by samurai and gunned down by gangsters. His bloodied body has slammed into trees, tumbled down stairs and crashed through sliding paper-and-wood doors.
As Japan’s top “kirareyaku,” which translates into “sliced-up actor,” Fukumoto dies for a living. When Japanese directors need somebody to kill, he’s the man they call.
“My job is to make the good guy shine,” Fukumoto said in an interview. “The more spectacular my on-screen death, the better he looks.”
It’s a specialty that doesn’t bring stardom.
Though he’s highly respected by his fellow actors, and widely acknowledged by his peers as the best in the business, Fukumoto is virtually unknown to the public. At 61, he has no agent or publicist, and his bit parts in films frequently fail to even make the credits.
Still, Fukumoto is all over the screen — literally, at times.
A dying artFor decades, the Japanese movie industry has been dominated by two genres: samurai period pieces and gangster movies. Both have lots of violence, bloody fights and high-profile killing, and that kept actors in Fukumoto’s line of work busy.
But with film studios and TV networks opting increasingly for low-budget, modern dramas over feudal and gangster scripts, Fukumoto has found himself the practitioner of, well, a dying art.
“There are only a few other full-time actors like me left at Toei studios. When I joined, there were hundreds,” he said.
Fukumoto got started when he was still a teenager. At 15, he left his rural home for a job in Kyoto at his uncle’s rice shop, which he later quit when another relative found him a job as an extra at Toei, one of Japan’s largest studios.
Within a year, he had a part in the 1959 film “Kurama Tengu” (The Kurama Devil). But he mostly got stuck doing corpses in ponds or village commoners. Eager to be in fight scenes, he learned swordplay and waited for his chance.
His first fight scene came in 1963, but it didn’t go smoothly. As the camera rolled and the star actor bore down on him with a 3-foot-long blade, Fukumoto froze — and botched his part.
“I was terrified,” he recalled.
It took some time to learn that swordplay was like playing music, he said. Fight choreographers assigned actors their parts but the actors set the pace.
“Every star actor has his own tempo and every scene has a different rhythm. The other actors know instinctively how to match it,” Fukumoto said.
Eventually, he became a regular in dozens of samurai films and TV shows, playing villains because his high cheekbones, arched eyebrows and heavy eye shadow made him appear sinister.
In one movie after another, he met his maker.
Overdue few minutes of fameFukumoto reckons he’s been killed more than 20,000 times — fans say it’s at least twice that — in thousands of TV appearances and nearly 100 movies over his 45-year career. But he can’t say for sure. Scripts often crammed in several killing scenes, which meant Fukumoto would die as one character and reappear later as another to get slain again.
After being scouted by a casting director, he appeared last year in the big-budget Hollywood movie “The Last Samurai” as the Silent Samurai, a taciturn warrior who shadows the former American Civil War captain, Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise.
Toward the end of the film, he sacrifices his own life to protect Algren — by throwing himself in front of a bullet.
Other actors say Fukumoto’s few minutes of fame was long overdue.
Hiroyuki Sanada, who stars as Ujio, the samurai army’s second-in-command in “The Last Samurai,” said Fukumoto was already renowned in the business by the time they met on the set of Sanada’s first feudal film 27 years ago.
“His presence — a mixture of traditional technique, individual style and showmanship — is extraordinary,” Sanada said.
In his 2001 autobiography, which has sold 80,000 copies, Fukumoto said he learned by studying stuntmen. But his hero was Charlie Chaplin, whose over-the-top antics were a useful model because Japanese death scenes are stylized, featuring actors who shudder violently and flop to the ground when killed.
Being around so much bloodshed — albeit staged — hasn’t made Fukumoto immune to the prospect of his own end.
“I stage death for a profession. But, like anyone else, I’m afraid of death,” he said.
Although others in the profession have died or suffered career-ending injuries on the set, Fukomoto has rarely been seriously hurt.
He got slashed in the face once, and has limped away after stunts. In one airborne samurai fight scene, he crashed into the camera crew. In another, he mistimed a trampoline jump, bounced off a rooftop and landed on his head.
The abuse, he admits, has taken a toll.
“There have been times recently when I’ve fainted during a fight scene,” said Fukumoto, who formally retired from Toei last year. “But I plan to keep working as long as directors keep casting me.”