It’s Me, It’s Me (Japan, 2013)

Satoshi Miki’s bizarre dark comedy It’s Me, It’s Me opens with images of ordinariness from which it will soon depart as the director surveys the mundane residential development where underachiever Hitoshi (Kazuya Kamenashi) is visiting his mother (Kimura Midoriko). She wants to know when her son is going to resume his photography career, but Hitoshi insists that he is happy enough with his current job, which turns out to be a shop-floor position in a consumer electronics store. Hitoshi is the easy-going type who gets along with his co-workers, even if he occasionally clashes with his domineering boss, although his generally pleasant nature does not mean that he is above making bad decisions. When a salaryman’s cellphone comes into his possession while eating at a fast food outlet, Hitoshi absconds with the device and uses it to commit the ‘ore-ore sagi’ (‘it’s me, it’s me’) scam which involves assuming the owner’s identity in order to make contact with their friends or relatives to ask for financial assistance due to an imagined emergency of some sort. After withdrawing the cash that has been deposited into his otherwise depleted account by his victim’s mother, Hitoshi tries to cover his tracks by disposing of the cellphone, but then his life takes a very strange turn: the ripped-off mother (Takahashi Keiko) appears at his apartment believing Hitoshi to be her son, while his own mother no longer recognizes him, insisting that a physically identical young man named Daiki is, in fact, her son. This doppelgänger then introduces Hitoshi to a third incarnation, Nao, and they regularly meet up for food and drinks at an apartment that they appropriately name ‘Me Island’.

Although it follows his earlier work in terms of putting an aimless protagonist through a haphazard plot that is rife with absurdities – Turtles are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers (2005) focused on a bored housewife who responds to a recruitment advert for spies, while Instant Swamp (2009) had a laid-off magazine editor discovering that her father is an eccentric antiques shop proprietor – It’s Me, It’s Me is arguably Miki’s most esoteric, if least tonally cohesive, film to date. Not feeling any need to fully explain what is going on, the director runs with his concept with the digitally-assisted Kamenashi essaying numerous versions of his character, all of whom exhibit noticeable variations in their attitudes to work, relationships, and the possibilities offered by multiplicity. In its first half, as the situation seems to be working to Hitoshi’s benefit, the film offers a highly amusing offbeat commentary on the need for companionship in a contemporary Japanese society that is often defined, at least cinematically, by alienation. Hitoshi is happy to have found two people that are similar enough to him that he feels comfortable in their presence, but sufficiently different that such company provides a welcome escape from daily routine: Daiki is formal, Nao is more childlike, and Hitoshi’s personality falls somewhere in-between, with Kamenashi making it possible to distinguish each version through different body language. They have some fun swapping jobs, but complications soon ensue as Miki segues into nightmare thriller territory: Hitoshi has been attracting the advances of married customer Sayaka (Yuki Uchida), whose husband is a brutish gangster with a crew of henchmen on the payroll, while an increasing number of doppelgängers are turning up around the city, only to be mysteriously ‘deleted’.

It’s Me, It’s Me often recalls the lo-fi everyday weirdness that Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry realized when working from Charlie Kaufman screenplays, particularly once Hitoshi starts seeing himself at every corner with nondescript urban spaces becoming the stage for an identity crisis. While the title refers to the aforementioned cellphone scam, it also suggests a critique of the selfish ‘me generation’ that positions individual wants and needs above all else, or a desperate cry to be recognized as a unique person in an increasingly digitized landscape that gives rise to contradictory feelings regarding the self. As much as Hitoshi likes Daiki and Nao, he becomes unsettled with the idea of too many versions being out there, and ends up trying to take his identity back by any means necessary, even if it means double crossing himself. At times, its cluttered and confusing as Miki refuses to settle into a rhythm. In the third act, the director’s trademark deadpan existential humor gives way to surreal suspense as Hitoshi goes on the run from the law and himself, with Miki throwing in a series of twists that are so suddenly executed that the film’s already flimsy logic is stretched to breaking point. This development causes the director to swap satire for an insidious creepiness that doesn’t quite suit him as the handling of the ‘deletions’ often plays like an imitation of Hideo Nakata. Despite this uncharacteristic fumbling of the punchline, Miki remains one of the most distinctive comedic voices in current Japanese cinema, and the sheer abundance of ideas in It’s Me, It’s Me at least makes it a messily adventurous addition to his oeuvre.