Satoshi Miki is best known as a director of comedy, including episodes of the 2006-07 cult hit “Jiko Keisatsu (Time Limit Investigator)” series for TV Asahi and seven feature films. But when I programmed a special Miki section for the Udine Far East Film Festival in 2008, I realized anew how, film by film, his aims had grown beyond extracting laughs with his trademark absurdist gags, as popcorn-spewingly funny as they might be. In what many consider his best film to date, 2007′s “Tenten (Adrift in Tokyo),” Miki transformed an oddball road-movie setup — a middle-aged loan shark and his college student client/victim embark on a walk across Tokyo — into an offbeat, surprisingly moving ode to cross-generational friendship and the city itself.
His new film “Ore Ore (It’s Me, it’s Me),” which had its world premiere at Udine last month with Miki and star Kazuya Kamenashi in attendance, goes even further beyond cute quirk territory into the strange and nightmarish. There are gags aplenty, in the dry, understated style familiar from his other films, but there is also an unsettling surrealism that undermines both a conventional understanding of the story — and reality.
The film starts as an offbeat caper comedy. Hitoshi (Kamenashi), a failed photographer turned electronics-store clerk, uses the cellphone an obnoxious fellow customer leaves behind in a fast-food joint to call the customer’s mother and, impulsively posing as her son Daiki in a jam, persuades her to transfer ¥900,000 to his depleted bank account — an actual, often-used scam in Japan known as “ore ore.”
Soon after, however, he not only has a bizarre encounter with his victim, who calls him Daiki and treats him as her real-life, flesh-and-blood son, but runs into a stern-faced doppelganger who claims to be Hitoshi and calls him an imposter. Soon, to his bafflement and horror, yet another double, this one on the wild and crazy side and calling himself Nao, pops up, The three “triplets” eventually meet and form a sort of club, which makes bizarre sense since they have a lot in common.
The original Hitoshi (if he is indeed the “original”) gamely adapts to his new circumstances and even finds advantages in being one of triplets, but the strangeness escalates with the emergence of “defective” Hitoshi copies and the deterioration of everyday reality (or rather Hitoshi’s version of it) into a surreal nightmare.
Then the copies begin vanishing and people around the “original,” including a sexy, mysterious customer named Sayaka (Yuki Uchida) and Hitoshi’s weirdly self-involved boss, Tajima (Ryo Kase), become sucked into the mad vortex that is his world.
Based on a prize-winning novel by Tomoyuki Hoshino, “It’s Me, it’s Me” is reminiscent of “Being John Malkovich,” the 1999 Spike Jonze film about an unemployed puppeteer who discovers a portal into actor John Malkovich’s brain. When in the course of the story Malkovich himself enters the portal, he emerges into a world populated by other Malkoviches, who can only say “Malkovich.” In other words, the ultimate narcissistic hell.
But what is a minor motif in Jonze’s film is a major one is Miki’s. (The director, in fact, has claimed inspiration from various sources, from Monty Python to Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s 2002 film “Adaptation.”) Filmed with a cheerful disregard for grass-is-green logic, it may send the more emotionally fragile or rigidly rational hurtling toward the exit. There is a lot to process, like gazing into an infinite recession of mirrors in your local fun house.
But Miki, who also wrote the script, maintains the same fine, tight control over his mind-bending material as he did in “Adrift in Tokyo.” And as in the previous film, he weaves deeper themes, as well as a wealth of dryly funny sight gags, into his slight story, but with more abandon and ambition, as though he were trying to not only out-Jonze Jonze and out-Kaufman Kaufman, but also to out-Kafka Franz Kafka, who may have transformed his salesman hero Gregor Samsa into a giant bug in his novella “The Metamorphosis,” but at least did not clone the poor sod into infinity.
Fun fact: Best known for more serious roles, Ryo Kase also does obnoxious characters to black-comic perfection. Evidence: His slithery gang lieutenant in “Outrage Beyond” and his annoying store manager in “Ore Ore.”