Be My Baby (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 138 minutes approx.
“Just when they think they have all the answers, I change the questions!”
Rowdy Roddy Piper’s famous ad lib from a March 1984 edition of his Piper’s Pit segment on WWF TV may appear an incongruous way to open a film review for a Japanese movie about relationships, but is entirely apposite for a film which challenges all preconceptions we in the west have about Japanese society.
Based on a stage play by Daisuke Miura and shot for a meagre budget of ¥1 million (£6,5000 approx.) Be My Baby is a jet black, savage satire on the lives of nine don-kyun – aimless twenty-somethings in dead end jobs who refuse to grow up and think mostly with their loins – whose lives intertwine leading to a self-perpetuating imbroglio after a well meaning get together.
The party is hosted at the small apartment of meek Tomoko (Naoko Wakai) and her demanding boyfriend Koji (Kenta Niikura), with the guests made up of Koji’s brother Naoki (Yuki Ueda) and his timorous girlfriend Satomi (Aya Kunitake), Koji’s old friend Yuta (Takumi Matsuzawa), his flatmate Takashi (Daisuke Sawamura), flirtatious Kaori (Chihiro Shibata) and perennial loser Osamu (Kenta Enya).
It transpires that the main purpose of this gathering is to set Osamu up with a work colleague of Tomoko’s, Yuko (Yumi Goto), whom she describes as looking like former pop idol Mariko Shinoda. Suffice to say Yuko is not even in the same galaxy as Shinoda in terms of looks, earning her the unpleasant nickname “the dog” from the guys, Osamu included. When the party is over however, Osamu takes Yuko home and they sleep together, putting the gawky lad on cloud nine.
Meanwhile Takashi has fallen for Kaori and is stunned when she calls up asking to stay the night after missing the last train home, rewarding him with a kiss, which he astoundingly takes as a sign that they are a couple. Back at the hosts’ flat, Koji chews Tomoko out for not making Satomi feel more included in the activities, driving her to tears, while Satomi is upset with Naoki for not paying her enough attention, which he smoothes over with his charming patter.
At this point it sounds like the plot for every angsty teen comedy from Hollywood and to be fair it does play out that way, but this runs so much deeper and holds a mirror up to the flaws of this aimless generation and the appalling attitudes they have developed. Japanese cinema has never shied away from putting on screen what most other filmmakers wouldn’t dare dream of, but here we have something which is typically Japanese whilst being very atypical of their cinematic output.
Gone are the honorifics, the bows and the congenial manners, instead replaced by coarse language, personal insults, fragile egos and reprehensible behaviour from both camps. For 138 minutes director Hitoshi Ohne, whose previous film was the exuberant romantic comedy Moteki, has us rooted to our seats but watching through our fingers as a tangled web of deceit, bullying, delusion, subservience and the gradual erosion of self esteem unfolds before our disbelieving eyes.
The birth of this film is as interesting as the sprawling plot; in Japan they have what they call Workshop Projects, in this case supported by Cinema Impact, who give up and coming actors and writers the chance to work with a noted director on a small budget film, often paying for the privilege but the rewards are usually self-evident. Shot over four days on four small sets with a cast of just ten first time actors, the modest production values reveal themselves from the opening frame, but this is not to the detriment of the impact or enjoyment factor – if anything it enhances the authenticity of the situation.
Equally remarkable is how barely any of the characters are particularly likeable, some severely lacking in any redeeming features whatsoever. We find ourselves wanting to root for the more aggrieved parties but their flawed but tragically human personalities and concomitant actions instead encourage us to want to slap them, for different reasons of course.
Koji deserves it for being a manipulating bully towards Tomoko; Tomoko for being feebly servile to Koji (“My goal in life is to make you like me”) and apologising for being born; Naoki for cheating on Satomi while living off her wages and assuring her he loves her; Satomi for being so gullible; Takashi for being such a deluded twerp after one kiss; Kaori for her promiscuity; Yuta for being a duplicitous pothead; Osamu for his pathetically selfish and protean treatment of Yuko and Yuko for her desperation to be loved.
Don’t think for one second the above rant contains any spoilers because it doesn’t even cover the half of what transpires. The script cleverly plays with what is a conventional formula and beautifully subverts it in the name of exposing basic human weaknesses that blight us all. But Daisuke Miura’s garrulous yet astute dialogue can only claim part of the victory of the film’s success; the cast of young unknowns each make an astounding account of themselves in their pitch perfect essaying of this amoral bunch.
One can’t be singled out over the so other so a collective kudos is warranted to these bright young stars for their natural and verisimilitudinous ion screen presence, in what are deceptively demanding and revealing roles. Director Ohne is aware of his budget limitations and works within them, leaving it to the cast to distract our attention away from the pecuniary setbacks.
This isn’t a Japan we are used to seeing and while it may come as a shock to many to see this side of the world’s most polite nation, Be My Baby is a fascinating insight into a side of their unique culture. While arguments can be made for a leaner run time, the viewer is never less than captivated for the duration.
Provocative and trenchant Indie cinema as it should be.
Interview with Producer Yasashi Yamamoto
Rating – ****
Man In Black