It's a 126-minute movie about a twat.
The interesting bit is that the guy was real. He was an actor called Taiji Tonoyama (1915-1989), who played supporting parts in a ton of Japanese films. The imdb gives him 185 credits. The title of this movie might just as easily be translated as "Bit Player" or "Character Actor". Furthermore its writer-director, Kaneto Shindo, was born in 1912 and worked alongside Tonoyama on fifty of those titles. He wrote a book about him, then adapted it into this movie.
If you do the maths, you'll see that Shindo was eighty-eight when he did this. Awesome. He even kept working for another ten years after that, having written and directed One Postcard only last year. (He's said that will be his final film. At ninety-eight, this seems likely.)
So, what does Taiji Tonoyama appear to have been like? Answer: he had two 'wives' and fooled about a bit with other women as well, although he never legally married any of them. He nearly killed himself with alcohol. He was capable of catching a cab in the middle of shooting a film and disappearing off to a completely different part of Japan. This actually makes him sound more interesting than he comes across as here and it's possible that the real Tonoyama was an irresistible rogue, but personally I had no patience with him. He's just an idiot. My favourite parts of the film were the ones where he's simply doing his job and so we're getting a whistle-stop tour of old Japanese movies.
Then there's Naoto Takenaka, who plays him. Long ago the two had actually worked together, or at least had appeared in the same film. It's Location (1984). Given this and of course the presence of Shindo, I have to presume that Takenaka's portrayal is accurate... but wow, it's not particularly friendly on the audience. Every line of dialogue sounds the same. He has an accent and a nasal, cat-like delivery that's between a snarl and a purr. I normally like Takenaka, who's got an memorable face and no inhibitions about going over the top, but here he's giving a surface performance that's making Tonoyama look flatter and less complicated than I'm sure he was. I quite liked him when he was portraying Tonoyama as an old man, but then Shindo makes the mistake of casting actual old people as directors, bar staff and so on, every last one of whom blows Takenaka off the screen. They're amazing, actually. Some of them really knew Tonoyama. One of them was his 'wife'. If you want to see truth and clarity in acting, watch this film and skip the first hundred minutes.
I didn't like Keiko Oginome as his wife either, although she too does an impressive job of being old. I love what she does with her voice. Another plus is that earlier in the film she's often naked. However Oginome's hammiest moments are even worse than Takenaka's, which for me torpedoed the subtler work they were doing elsewhere. Note also the scene at the end in which she phones her husband's other wife, which should have been annihilating, but in fact is just meh.
The silliest bit though is at the beginning. Takenaka (aged 44) and Oginome (aged 36) play the same characters right from their teenage years through to old age. They're about as convincingly the former as I am a Chinaman.
The criss-crossing cast list is interesting, given the way any given actor, character or both might be a real figure from Tonoyama's life. The woman being played by Oginome appears often as a talking head, speaking to camera against a black background. Occasionally she'll appear to have a conversation with Takenaka. Oh, and Rinko Kikuchi is also in this film, although she was only nineteen at this point and it's not a big role.
In summary: oh dear. Ten minutes into this film, I wanted to stop watching. The only reason I didn't was bloody-mindedness. However it never gets so annoying as to be painful, it improves later on and towards the end it even gets quite good. I liked the film once everyone got old. There are some nice scenes and of course you've got real old people popping up occasionally. The film's also something of a retrospective on Shindo himself, taking in some of his most famous films like Naked Island and Onibaba (which I've seen). It's certainly piqued my interest in this impossibly long-lasting writer/director and I might well hunt down more of his work. However Tonoyama, the person we're supposed to be interested in? Not so much.