Seizo Fukumoto’s film career is unique – the martial arts specialist has supposedly died 50,000 times as a kirareyaku, a swordsman whose one and only job is to die dramatically on camera. But now the 71-year-old actor has starred as the leading man.

Seizo Fukumoto and Tom CruiseSeizo Fukumoto and Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai

Fukumoto won the award for his turn in “Uzumasa Limelight,” a autobiographical-yet-not-autobiographical movie in which he plays an aging samurai stuntman. “I think there has been a mistake,” he said after the his win. "I still can't believe this. I do not feel like myself. I still feel like I'm being deceived."

A spokesman at Toei Studios Kyoto - where some of the film was shot - said Mr. Fukumoto was so humbled when he heard the news that he seriously considered politely declining the award. What’s more, he tried to talk his way out of the role having only played background roles – that always included dying – in his entire career. 

“I kept refusing the offer initially, telling them I couldn’t do it. It was a crazy idea,” Mr. Fukumoto told The Wall Street Journal about his role earlier this year. “I was nervous once the filming started as well. I’d never had so many cameras set up right in front of me and focusing only on me.”

Fukumoto became known to Western audiences in 2003 when he starred in the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai, in which he played the Silent Samurai. The humble actor says his on-screen death toll of 50,000 is higher than the real number, but industry lore dictates otherwise.

The Japanese fight choreographer Mitsuhiko Seike explained why Fukumoto was a joy to work with an interview with America's National Public Radio (NPR) in 2012. "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."