“We’re multiplying,” says Hitoshi Nagano, a put-upon camera salesman in a giant Tokyo electronics store, and one of the many protagonists in Japanese writer-director Satoshi Miki’s “Its Me, “It’s Me.” Having played a modest run ($1.9 million) at the local box office this spring, this surreal black comedy about the ambiguity of identity opens in limited U.S. release this weekend.
Weirdness is set in motion when Nagano (played by JPop and television idol Kazuya Kamenashi) steals an identity. Before long, he begins encountering duplicates of himself all over Tokyo. Apparently some power or other (never specified) has stolen his identity in an all-too-literal sense, and is making copies of it. But what does ID even mean when everybody is identical? “Are you me or am I you?” Nagano asks one of the copies. Neither of them knows the answer.
Nagano stumbles into this infinite regression loop when he accidentally leaves a fast-food restaurant with a stranger’s cell phone. Hard up for cash, he tries out a popular form of phone scam, calling the theft victim’s mom from his list of contacts, saying “Ore ore” (the equivalent of “Hi, it’s me,” as well as the pic’s Japanese-language title), and trying to talk her out of some cash. Within hours, Nagano finds himself 900,000 yen ($10,000) richer.
But then, a nightmare twist: The woman Nagano has scammed turns up at his apartment, calling him Daike and insisting that she really is his mother. And when Nagano tracks her to her apartment and sneaks a peek at some of her family photos, he finds his own face looking out at him. In short order, Nagano meets the disturbingly identical Daike and makes common cause with him, and together they recruit a third multiple, Nao, creating an impromptu beer-drinking support group that uses Nagano’s small apartment as its smoke-filled clubhouse. (He’s a good host because he always knows what the others will want to eat.)
Nao is a fine addition to the Me Squad, a good-hearted, somewhat hyper dude who is more than happy to stand in for Nagano at the electronics store, an inadvisable offer too tempting to resist. But allowing the copies, or multiples, to interact with ordinary folks has twisted complications. For example, if the jealous mobster boyfriend of the married woman you’ve been seeing turns up one evening with his goons, which of you are they going to beat up? Why not all three?
According to the end credits, Kamenashi plays 33 versions of “me” here — some young, some old, a couple even female. Don’t expect a shape-shifting actor’s tour de force like the multiple-role classics of Peter Sellers or Alec Guinness — or, for that matter, Tatiana Maslany, playing seven clones on the TV series “Orphan Black.” Most of these portrayals are brief walk-ons, with one or two distinguishing traits brushed in. Seamless digital special effects allow director Miki’s handheld cameras to circulate seemingly at will among the copies.
With the exception of some heavy-handed slapstick at the electronics store, where a grimacing boss keeps slapping Nagano upside the head, most of the comedy in “It’s Me, It’s Me” is behavioral, playing off the plausible notion that meeting exact copies of yourself would not be terrifying so much as socially awkward. These guys are not, after all, flesh-eating zombies or clones or robot duplicates; they’re simply you. And now they’re looking at you expectantly, waiting for you to say something.