Spike Jonze may have a monopoly on the tropes associated with neurotic loners in the throes of surreal existential crises, but Japanese director Miki Satoshi ("Adrift in Tokyo") does justice to Jonze's motif. The increasingly bizarre setup -- in which a man accidentally creates multiple versions of himself that populate the world beyond his control -- immediately calls to mind the identity issues of "Being John Malkovich." But where that movie at least adheres to its own internal logic, Miki's adaptation of Tomoyuki Hoshino's novel is ostensibly trapped in the turmoil of its leading man from start to finish, unfurling his confusing situation as if were a shaggy dog detective story akin to "The Big Lebowski." Like those precedents, Satoshi's curiously entertaining character study feels oddly familiar and unpredictable, often at the same time.
Kazuya Kamenashi (the frontman for the Japanese pop group Kat-tun) allegedly takes on 33 roles over the course of "It's Me, It's Me," although I lost count after the first five or so. At its core, the plot involves the off-kilter experiences of Hitoshi Nagano, a young aspiring photographer wasting his days in a deadbeat job as an electronics salesman. On a whim, he nabs another man's cell phone at the cafeteria and calls the owner's mother, concocting a cheap scam by begging her to transfer money to his account by pretending to be her son. The scheme works, but Hitoshi feels guilty and attempts to return the money to the woman at her address. So far, so straightforward.
Then comes the first Kafkaesque twist, which is easy enough to follow even if it's harder to explain: At her home, Hitoshi is welcomed as if he's the son whose identity he initially assumed; then, he runs into another version of himself (also played by Kazuya, of course) at the same location later on…and then another. The trio of Hitoshis, whose personalities vary even as they maintain the same appearance, decide to join forces and hole up in the apartment, which they nickname "Me Island."
And that's when things start to get really weird. Variations on Hitoshi start sprouting up all over the place, over-populating his residence and causing all kind of practical issues. "The me percentage is high in this room!" Hitoshi whines at one point, in one of many instances where Satoshi's screenplay plays up its all-too-obvious but utterly infectious theme of identity crisis.
The psychoanalytic asides come hard and fast: "I can accept parts of me, but not all of me," Hitoshi later admits. That peculiar conundrum can only carry things so far; Miki eventually complicates the proceedings with a murky plot involving a femme fatale who hires Hitoshi to spy on her husband, but like the rest of the narrative, that scenario eventually folds in on itself with confounding results. As the duplications of Hitoshi continue to run wild under increasingly bizarre circumstances, "It's Me, It's Me" eventually turns into a puzzling survival story in which Hitoshi and his self-made brethren evade a nationwide attempt to "delete" all the copies running around. It's a messy but still compelling to follow these developments: Is this a parable for individual repression, self-doubt or social phobias? Why not all of them?
It's exhausting to keep up with each labyrinthine twist, especially since there's next to no payoff beyond the philosophical ramifications evident fairly early on. Yet the director manages to evade any sort of complex stylistic trickery -- outside of the obvious way he places more than one version of his main character in the same frame -- and gives "It's Me, It's Me" the feeling of a rather straightforward tale involving one man reckoning with himself. As a literal take on an abstract concept, "It's Me, It's Me" is satisfyingly in tune with the other movies it calls to mind. Just strange enough to get inside your head, it's ultimately less committed to the meaning behind its events than the lucid means by which they take place. While hardly realistic, "It's Me, It's Me" takes place in a world more familiar than meets the eye, which makes it just poignant enough to make its loopy premise count for something.
Criticwire Grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Pictures Dept. opens "It's Me, It's Me" at Cinema Village in New York this Friday at the same time that the movie hits DVD in Japan. The company may release the movie in other Japan-friendly markets in the coming weeks, though it's most likely to find most of its audience when hits home entertainment markets next year.