Fans of Yellow Dragon’s Village (2021) will be glad to learn that Yugo Sakamoto is making rounds at international film festivals with another film, Baby Assassins or Baby Walkure (2021). Can Sakamoto deliver another punch in the gut?
One day, Mahiro Fukugawa (Saori Izawa) is in the backroom with the manager of happiness mart to apply for a parttime job. When she tells him that her main work is live streaming, he does not hesitate to scold her, telling her that she can’t keep playing around and that she must take care of her parents. Not long after his preaching, Mahiro’s mind wanders off from the job-interview and fantasizes about putting a bullet through his head and wipe out all his workers.
Yet, her daydreaming is not as innocent as it seems. Mahiro is, in fact, a super skilled assassin, who has, just like her fellow assassin Chisato (Akari Takaishi), been ordered by upper management to find a part-time job to allay suspicions about her true profession and share an apartment with her co-assassin. Unbeknownst to both, one of their latest murders, a drug trafficker, compels the yakuza to search and eliminate those responsible for their minor set-back.
Baby Assassins is a comedy narrative that offers a fresh mix between the action genre and the buddy film. Yet, rather than offering the spectator a story about an already established friendship that, due to certain events, is able to deepen somewhat, Sakamoto delivers a tale about what is necessary to raise a bond to a true amical status.
In Sakamoto’s narrative, Mahiro and Chisato are both faced with multiple struggles. The first struggle our young assassins are faced with is the very problem of fluidly integrating oneself in the mundane world. This struggle is not only evident in Mahiro’s failure to successfully complete her job-interviews, but also in the clumsiness and insecurity that Chisato displays at her part-time jobs.
It is, in fact, the tension between their skillful precision as assassins and the awkwardness they display during ‘mundane’ tasks that forms one of the main sources of lightheartedness in Baby Assassins. Yet, spectators will also quickly notice that this same tension is also the main cause of a variety of violent outbursts, be it fantasized or possibly enacted on the spot. These violent eruptions of truth that ripple their fragile mundane fiction are nothing other than violent abreactions to discharge their accumulated frustration.
The second struggle Chisato and Mahiro are faced with is the difficulty of juggling the demands of their mundane life and the duties they have as assassins. The need to actively support a façade of mundanity to hide the truth from others in society often interferes with their work as hitmen. For example, one time, during her work as assassin, Chisato is called by her manager to ask if she can immediately fill in for a co-worker. Chisato accepts, much to Mahiro’s frustration.
Yet, it is not only the demands of the mundane world that puts a strain on their relation, but also the very fact that they are forced to live together. What causes many of their relational frictions is the very fact that they are forcefully confronted with each other as subject – i.e. clashing of radical different subjectivities.
Of course, our girls avoid many relational conflicts by simply ignoring the other (as subject), but how do they attempt to appease a blossomed conflict? In some cases, by haphazardly apologizing and, in other cases by making implicit deals – e.g. Because you let me go to my mundane job, I’ll buy you something nice for dinner. Yet, these apologies and deals often do little to ease the bursts of relational frustration between them (Narra-note 1). The failure of these indirect promises and apologies is simply because neither Mahiro nor Chisato are fully considerate of the other’s subject Otherness – they live, in fact, more next to each other than with each other. Yet, a personal crisis or a situation of mortal danger could force one of our girls to address the other with their subject and provide the main condition to turn their bond truly amical.
What stands out in the composition of Baby Assassins is his pleasant framing of the myriad of action-moments. Sakamoto’s cinematographically approach to action-sequences does not only strengthen the impact of the punches and kicks that also allows the beauty of the well-choreographed fighting to shine and thrill the spectator. The vicious nature of the fighting is, in this respect, accentuated by pleasing sound-effects (e.g. the swishing sound of knifes, the sound of a knife gashing into a soft body, the shots of a gun, … etc.) as well as subtle but effective use of SFX blood-splatter or ‘real’ blood. And the tension of these violent moments is, in many cases, sensibly heightened by fitting dynamic musical accompaniment (Music-note 1, Music-note 2, Cine-note 1).
Sakamoto’s thoughtful colour and lightning design plays an important role in making Baby Assassins so visually pleasing. The visual pleasure is not, as one might think, due to the mere use of colours or the rare application of hues (e.g. greenish, …) to tinge some scenes. While such play with colours and hues gives certain visual moments a distinctive flair, the visual pleasure of Baby Assassins finds its true origin in Sakamoto’s thoughtful play with contrast that gives the visuals depth and texture.
What also ensures that Baby Assassins can engage and satisfy the spectator are the acting performances. Both actresses ensure in their own way – Akari Takaishi with her childish bubbliness and Saori Izawa with her dry aloofness, that Sakamoto’s Baby Assassins has a stylish flavour and an enticing lightheartedness (Acting-note 1). The pleasing chemistry between our two leads, for that matter, is instrumental in keeping the spectator engaged throughout the narrative.
Baby Assassins is an amazing narrative that far outstrips its low budget nature. Sakamoto does not only breathe a fresh air in both the action and buddy genre, but the pitch-perfect performances, enticing action-choreographies, and an effective composition allows him to deliver not only one very heartwarming buddy film – exploring the establishing of amical bonds – but also one of the most satisfying Japanese action films of this year.
Narra-note 1: Chisato’s promise to buy something nice for dinner – a promise to thank Mahiro for letting her go to her mundane job – radically fails to soothe Mahiro’s frustration. When Chisato, sacked from her job, arrives home at night, Mahiro does not hesitate to reveal her continued frustration by expressing her delight in Chisato’s misfortune.
Music-note 1: In some non-action moments, subtle tensive musical accompaniment is utilized to keep the spectator in suspense and prepare him for a violent confrontation that might or not happen.
Music-note 2: Attentive spectators will notice that Wagner’s The Ride of The Valkyries function as a musical motif in the film. Valkyries are, in short, Norse mythological female figures who are tasked with choosing who may die in battle and those who may live. This little piece of information foreshadows what will affirm their amical bond.
Cine-note 1: To keep the spectator in suspense, Sakamoto does not only rely on subtle musical accompaniment, but also utilizes floaty shaky framing. This visual decoration might be subtle, but it plays an important role in keeping the tension lingering in the non-action moments of the action set-piece.
Acting-note 1: The rivalry between yakuza siblings Himari and Kazuki is equally lighthearted due to fitting acting-performances that brings their conflictual personalities to life. Mone Akitani delivers ‘papakatsu’ Himari’s sprightly impoliteness with gusto and Satoshi Uekiya convinces us with his interpretation of a thick-headed sexist with a thirst for violence.