A sex satire so sharp it cuts to the bone, Hitoshi One’s “Be My Baby” offers an unflattering micro-portrait of Japan’s don-kyun (DQN) tribe — lumpen twentysomethings with dead-end jobs and makeshift lovelives. Auds may need a flowchart to suss out the various liaisons and betrayals that take place among nine protags over the space of two weeks, but they’ll be hooked from the get-go by the film’s slyly observant characterizations, barbed dialogue and manipulative plot reversals. After opening at Shibuya Auditorium, a cinema located in Tokyo’s DQN heartland, the film has generated steamy domestic buzz despite its self-indulgent 138-minute running time; cropping about 15 minutes could help its circulation in fests and Asian markets.
Veteran TV helmer One’s sophomore film couldn’t be more different from his popular debut, the glossy, studio-funded screwball comedy “Moteki” (aka “Love Strikes!”). Scripted by Daisuke Miura from his own play and novel, and produced by independent shingle Cinema Impact, “Be My Baby” was put together in a few days on a shoestring budget, and it’s set exclusively in a few shabby apartments that epitomize the underbelly of Japan’s precarious economy. Don-kyun is a derogatory term for a low-education, low-income, usually country-born young demographic, and One manages to expose how easily his DQN characters use and turn against each other, as well as their odious misogyny — all without a trace of bourgeois sentimentality or gratuitous message-mongering,
It all begins one night when Koji (Kenta Niikura) and his live-in g.f. Tomoko (Naoko Wakai) invite their friends over for a potluck at their Tokyo apartment. Tomoko suggests setting up Koji’s friend Osamu (Kenta Enya) with her co-worker Yuko (Yumi Goto), whom she hypes up as a dead ringer of former pop idol Mariko Shinoda. The guys, who include Yuta (Takumi Matsuzawa), his flatmate Takashi (Daisuke Sawamura) and Koji’s cool-dude brother Naoki (Yuki Ueda), are revved up by the idea. But when Yuko arrives, they’re aghast at the fact that she’s not quite as hot as advertised.
The next day these slackers, idle from their irregular work hours, initiate a lurid series of flirtations with each other. Fresh-from-the-farm Takashi has fallen hard for coquettish babe Kaori (Chihiro Shibata), a co-worker of Tomoko and Yuko’s who was at the party. When she calls asking to stay the night because she missed the last train, he pounces on her, and she’s unexpectedly forthcoming. Osamu who joined his buddies in dissing Yuko mere hours before, brings her home and clumsily makes out with her. Elsewhere, relational tensions manifest themselves like open sores: Koji berates Tomoko for not making Naoki’s mousy g.f. Satomi (Aya Kunitake) feel at home, and her attempts to placate him becomes insufferably self-demeaning. Meanwhile, Satomi expresses nagging paranoia about Naoki’s infidelity.
The first half-hour of “Be My Baby” can be hard going for viewers trying to figure who’s who in the clique, given their identical henna tattos and slang-ridden dialogue exchanges, delivered at a rapid-fire pace. However, as Futa Takagi’s prying camera skips in and out of their apartments, one gradually gets a feel for their scrappy, incestuous existence. What they say behind each other’s backs, and who ends up on whose futon, never ceases to astonish, yet their behavior always remains in character, thanks to the sharply etched personalities and tartly improvised lines. Two slyly juxtaposed scenes of the girls and guys hanging out separately expose the underlying cross-gender hostility — it’s like “He Said, She Said” with an extra-venomous sting. Admittedly, the sexual musical chairs start to feel manufactured in the final stretch, and most audiences will see the final twist coming, but it still packs a mean punch.
A film like this lives and dies by its ensemble, and none of the actors let the director down. Although their characters are all depicted as bundles of insecurity, the actresses distinguish themselves, showing how desperation reveals itself in different forms, from Tomoko’s servility and Satomi’s whining to Yuko’s forced congeniality and Kaori’s nymphomania. Behind their macho blather, the men are just as spineless and needy. Niikura holds back nothing as douchebag Koji, reveling in the obvious kick he gets out of making Tomoko suffer. Enya delivers an even more volatile performance as Osamu, evincing noxious brutality when shouting abuse at Yuko, then regressing into infantile helplessness when begging for money, companionship or sexual favors. Handsome, smooth-talking Naoki seems to have got his act together, but Ueda infuses the role with a glib insincerity that cannily hints at his self-serving nature.
Competent tech credits belie the film’s minuscule budget; production designer Sakiko Usuda, in particular, has done a fabulous job decorating each protag’s room with personalized clutter, such as the sleazy pinups covering Osamu’s walls. Music is deployed only to transition between scenes, but when it’s used, its noisy and thumping.
Although there are almost no explicit sex scenes, the dialogue is coarse enough that certain Tokyo theaters have put on “ladies only” shows, so female audiences can watch the film in a “molester-free” environment. The Japanese title means “Whirlpool of Romance.”