Since its international premiere at Fantastic Fest 2021, writer/director Yûgo Sakamoto’s Baby Assassins hasn’t been far from mind. I discussed it on two Cine-Men episodes, gave it a highlight mention in the 2021 Sticky List, and made sure to include it in the recommendation list of films to check out during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival. That the film is receiving a wider release via streaming service Hi-YAH! starting July 22nd, followed by a physical release on August 16th from Well Go USA, merely fans the flames of excitement as it means that (hopefully) others will come to learn of the joy that is Baby Assassins. It’s dark and violent, while sweet and charming, achieving a balance between the physical and emotional that delivers on just about every need someone could want from an action comedy. If there is a proper complaint to be had, it’s that the upcoming home release doesn’t include any bonus materials. However, being able to watch assassins Chisato (Akari Takaishi) and Mahiro (Saori Izawa) whenever I want is a delightful consolation.
If you’d like to learn about Baby Assassins without spoilers, head to over to the initial Fantastic Fest 2021 spoiler-free review. Moving forward, this home release review will get into specific details as we extoll the virtues of the film.
Upon graduation from high school, working assassins Chisato and Mahiro are instructed that they need to get part-time jobs to help provide cover for their wet work, as well as move in together to help manage appearances. Neither look forward to the first part, but the second takes a bit of getting used to as neither expected to live with anyone. As these two try to balance their public facing personas and cohabitation, these deadly killers accidentally stumbled into a battle with local yakuza that will require the two working together to survive.
Baby Assassins’s memorability comes from the way the action and interpersonal drama are devised and executed. YA stories, let alone YA assassins, aren’t exactly new (explorations of personal responsibility, the transition from youth to adulthood, the friends we make along the way), yet what makes someone return to Baby Assassins is that the film never talks down to the central characters, even when pointing out their flaws. Both Chisato and Mahiro are gifted killers, sociopathic in their ability to take down their targets, able to dissociate with incredibly ease as they dispatch someone as reflexively as an office worker might file a TPS report. Don’t mistake that last part for apathy, they really love what they do. The thing is that it comes easily, while engaging with others and keeping down a part-time job is harder. This is where most of the comedy comes from, and where the opportunity for the unexpected occurs again and again. Consider that Chisato and Mahiro’s only fight in the film comes from a growing sense of resentment as roommates. Chistao asks for Mahiro’s help early on with a hit only to leave Mahiro to finish the job entirely herself because Chistao is called in to work an emergency shift at her restaurant gig. That Chistao ends up losing her job during the shift is played for laughs, but that’s the first moment when Mahiro starts to shift away from Chistao as Mahiro has zero interest in other people due to crippling social anxiety. When Mahiro not only excels as a server at a maid café, but she makes easy friends with her co-workers while all Mahiro can do is stand there, is the final straw. The interpersonal conflict isn’t some made up, manufactured, or overly dramatic thing that a lesser film would solve by placing one or the other in terrible danger, it’s a totally understandable issue between two roommates where one feels lesser than the other. Thankfully the two are able to work out their differences just in time, as Chistao desperately needs help wrapping up the other thread of the film: the yakuza who want her dead.
So, let’s talk about the stunt work and why its strategic use not only serves the narrative, but highlights the differences between Chisato and Mahiro that make them a great team. First, their respective introductions. Mahiro is our way in, on a job interview at a local market that’s actually a long con hit, but she lacks the patience to go through with the interview and fantasizes about battling the target’s employees. The fight is an excellent exhibit of Izawa’s talent, showcasing her speed and ingenuity against forces large in number and size. The reveal that it’s a fantasy is a slight disappointment because we don’t get to see Mahiro do her thing until the end of the film, but it’s absolutely worth the wait. The suggestion from this sequence is that all Mahiro wants is a challenging fight and a good nap. That’s it. By contrast, Chisato is willing to ditch her wet work to head off to work, implying a desire to be social, except she resorts to physical violence when pushed too far. What’s fascinating about this is (a) Takaishi plays Chisato physically as going from a public to private persona via a shift in facial performance as Chisato instinctually decides to murder a patron and her boss and (b) that we, the audience, aren’t entirely sure if she imagined the killings as Mahiro did or if she actually did it. These sequences largely set up how each respective character feels regarding their public versus private work while also giving the audience a sense of just how deadly they are. That, later, it’s due to Chisato’s desire to engage with others (specifically her preference for perfume) that gets the yakuza on her tail is an amusing turn-about for the very careful killers. More significantly, the fact that it’s Chisato who is confronted by them matters because Mahiro is the stronger of the two (resulting in a very different confrontation/resolution of the scene) and would never have the kind of personal affects that would garner attention. Having Chisato be the target allows the narrative to delay the satisfaction of seeing Mahiro really go to town on someone in a non-fantasy format and the final sequence absolutely delivers on that growing desire.
Even if the narrative weren’t sweet and the performances from Takaishi and Izawa charming, the relative few action sequences make Baby Assassins worth the watch. While Kensuke Sonomura’s HYDRA is certainly lacking regarding narrative, the stuntwork in that film are some of the best you’ll see in any 2021 release of that year, and you can feel his touch on Baby Assassins where the stuntwork is visceral, focused, and aimed at death. Izawa herself is a stuntwoman whose work includes Kingdom (2019) two Rurouni Kenshin films (2021), and Snake Eyes (2021), which Sonomura takes advantage of when designing her scenework. If you dig the opening showcase fantasy sequence, the attack on the yakuza trumps it handily. It’s not just the way that Izawa moves, using terrain and corpses for cover, it’s how she approaches her opponent, Masanori Mimoto’s Watabe, to take him out. Like her, the whole movie he’s been looking for a real challenge, having already knocked out Chisato with one punch earlier in the film. So the scene of him against Mahiro feels like a title fight and everything about it plays like one.
In terms of the home release itself, the options are fairly limited but not disappointing. You can stream from Hi-YAH!, enjoy the film in 1080p High-Definition on Blu-ray, or Standard Definition on DVD. The review copy sent by Well Go is the Blu-ray edition which includes the lone disc, previews for other Well Go releases, trailers for Baby Assassins, and audio selection options for either Japanese DTS-HDMA 5.1 or Japanese Stereo with or without English subtitles. My initial watch in 2021 was off a stream and the Blu-ray is just a little crisper in clarity and the sound is far superior. Do keep in mind that while my initial viewing quality was strong, being that this viewing was off a physical format, there’s going to be greater quality in video and sound due to the lack of compression. Given the lo-fi nature of the film, I suspect that even the SD edition on the DVD would look and sound great, should you prefer that format over the HD edition.
If there’s a bummer about the home release at all, it’s that the only behind the scenes look we get is the brief portion shown after the film-proper ends. There’s no exploration of how Izawa prepped or developed the stunts with Sonomura, no sense of how Takaishi approached her gun play, no presentation of how Sakamoto conceived of or executed his vision. There’s such an interesting approach to this underbelly action comedy that it’s clear Sakamoto considered a lot of little details that make Chisato and Mahiro’s employers far more grounded and easier to understand than say the hyper-violent and increasingly large reach of the High Table in the John Wick series. Again, just being able to revisit Baby Assassins at my discretion is reason enough to snag this title, but one can’t help but be a little sad that there’s nothing else accompanying it.
There’s no greater feeling than when one revisits a film and it lives up to memory. We can, through excitement or recency bias, color our perception of an experience, leaving any return feeling somehow diminished. Not only is this not the case, rewatches allow the audience to discover new things they like and to better see how the film overall connects its threads emotionally and narratively. It also allows the audience to develop a greater appreciation for the ingenious stuntwork, a portion of storytelling which so often goes underappreciated despite the skills required to make the difficult look incredibly easy. Sure, it also highlights a few weaknesses (like how does the yakuza get the bodies back after Chisato’s second bad day at work), but those are forgivable given all the great within the film. Even with a year between watches, Baby Assassins remains a top tier watch, satisfying action fans from start to finish again and again.
No bonus features included with this home release review.
Streaming exclusively on Hi-YAH! July 22nd, 2022.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital August 16th, 2022.
For more information, head to Well Go USA’s Baby Assassins webpage.