Bursting onto the scene after having made short films and low budget movies during college and one earlier feature film (The Janitor), director Hugo Sakamoto is here to take the action world and the film festival circuit by storm with his follow up feature film Baby Assassins.
While, arguably, the action scenes are quite few and far between, they are not only worth waiting for, but that wait itself is actually something quite special. Baby Assassins is a precious youth comedy/drama revolving around two teen girl assassins moving in together, trying to get part time jobs and to just blend into society.
Director Hugo Sakamoto has a great sense of timing and doesn’t overstate things, music is used sparingly, scenes are allowed to breathe and he trusts his actors. He balances the different tonalities, doesn’t bail out with crass melodrama, simplistic characterization or sentimentality. And also: it’s fun!
Full of small, funny moments; slacking around, awkward situations and some dry witted sketch-like scenes that feel improvised, Baby Assassins has a relaxed pace and a dry offbeat absurdness, where every actor/actress showing up delivers honest, heartfelt performances, with little odd quirks, however small the part. Lots of time is spent on the sofa, flipping with their phones and they discuss things like insurance and rent with their handler from the Assassins Bureau. The oddness lends it both a cartoonish exaggeration and a more human authenticity than would a more conventional approach.
When a majority of the rest of the world seems to look at everything as filler ‘til someone gets punched, Baby Assassins is whimsical; it playfully hangs around with its protagonists and when finally getting around to the end hopefully have its audience actually invested and caring about the outcome.
Both actresses are naturals in their deadpan delivery. Akari Takaishi, in her stylized mannerism is reminiscent of some of Stephen Chow’s characters, but for the action fan the main draw here is stunt/mocap-person Saori Izawa. The action fan might have noticed her before as she has recently done stunt work on Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning (Keishi Ōtomo, 2021) as well as on Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (Robert Schwentke, 2021). Remember her name, because she’s here to kick ass (hopefully more projects are coming her way, she excels in the fights scenes and carries herself in between with ease). While you are at it, the guys from Hydra (2019), who should also be etched onto your mind, are onboard here, both actor Masanori Mimoto and Director/Fight Coordinator Kensuke Sonomura show up for the action beats.
And the action means business! (There is some weak CGI blood but it doesn’t detract too much). It is fluid, yet detailed; every move matters and has urgency but still manages to feel loose and a bit wonky. They leave some sloppiness in there, that only adds to the excitement. This is a style with some connection to the close combat techniques in Re:Born (Yûji Shimomura, 2016), it flows but struggles. Exciting and visceral. They make it look easy and it flows organically. And the choreography aims for very tight close combat, everyone tries to minimize any space between bodies involved and constantly reconfigure and shuffle to move in. It feels refreshing and tense.
Between this and the aforementioned Hydra, Japan is really showing what can be done within the context of action cinema in between the shoot-outs and pummelings. While lacking Hydra’s lingering imagery of empty spaces, it shares a mellow, low-key humanism. But where Hydra was a marvel for 40 minutes and then unraveled a bit, Baby Assassins sticks its landing.
In Black Angel Vol. 1 (Takashi Ishii, 1998), one of the most beautiful assassins themed action movies, there is a moment where the protagonist and her friend believe they can take on the whole world and they dance. Baby Assassins extends this moment, this feeling of… yes the world, the city, and society are a void with little room to navigate and live, breathe and linger in, but we can take it on!
Knowing the crushing urban hellscapes some Japanese movies depict, there is always the tension that it can’t be done, that these characters will be brutally savaged and thrown to the side… but… maybe…
We thank director Hugo Sakamoto for providing us with a screener of the film.
Baby Assassins – No international release date (Japan: 31 July 2021)
Written and directed by Hugo Sakamoto
Chisato and Mahiro, a pair of high school girls who are assassins, have to become ‘members of society’ to disguise their true identities. One day, Chisato gets into trouble with a Yakuza at work. Will the pair prevail against the Yakuza?