Hamaguchi pits idealistic infatuation against mature love as the story’s heroine tries to reckon with her past in Asako I & II.
When Baku reaches out and kisses bewildered Asako, it’s a love at first sight. In an instant, they grow from strangers to lovers and become inseparable; their relationship is intense and fuelled by overwhelming tension. But Asako’s friends are concerned, sensing a troublemaker and advising her against pursuing the relationship. Tangible proofs of his restless spirit reveal themselves sooner rather than later, too. His friend casually mentions Baku’s problems she never heard about and shares that his lengthy disappearances are to be expected. Yet, when he vanishes for hours, even his confession about discovering abandoned public baths occupied by his drinking buddy who took the bread he was supposed to buy isn’t enough to make her question his actions. Finally, Baku leaves to buy new shoes and never returns. Understandably, Asako is distraught, but she doesn’t give up hope that her beloved man will return one day.
Fast-forward two years. Asako moved from Osaka to Tokyo, where she works at a small coffee shop. Delivering coffee to one of the offices, she meets a man that looks exactly like Baku. Ryohei, a young office employee, is not the man she expects, but she’s dazed by his uncanny resemblance to her ex-partner. Surprised by her hot-and-cold behaviour, he’s equally weirded out and fascinated by her enigmatic personality. Initially shy and unsure, she warms up to him slowly as they start to hang out. Attentive, gentle and caring, he wins her over after weeks of trying to conquer her heart. But when they finally seem to settle down, Baku reappears in Asako’s life, awakening the feelings that she has only managed to bury.
Although it’s not easy to navigate the good boy-bad boy clichés of the premise, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi creates a solid framework for the story, backed up with solid characterisation that helps us to make sense of the heroine’s motives. The film gets a little messier as it progresses and can be downright confusing by the time finale hits, but it still keeps us on the edge of our seats as we watch heroine’s choices through our fingers, anticipating her ultimate decision.
Fiddling with a theme of a double, Asako I & II presents us two characters played brilliantly by Masahiro Higashide. As Baku, he captures the sense of recklessness, nonchalance, ethereal charm and rebellious attitude in every single scene. He switches into a completely different mode for Ryohei, who requires a little more decisiveness and solemnity.
Erika Karata’s Asako is a wonderfully ambiguous character. Accustomed to repressing her feelings, she opens up a little when Ryohei enters her life, learning how to let go of the past. But healing isn’t that easy at all, and she falls in love with her idealised idea of a man all over again when he reappears on the horizon. Ryohei’s responsibility and sensibility make her feel cared for and safe, but Baku’s bohemian nature and the memories of the good times they spent together call out to her. Each of them offers something that the other one can’t give her, but having both of them to herself is out of the question. For the protagonist caught up in this love triangle, it’s all about maturing, discerning love from lust and deciding what she truly wants from her relationship.
The characterisation doesn’t stop at her internal turmoil. The film takes us into Asako’s world, introducing us to her friends and family and allowing us to watch her when her guard is down. Delightful moments emerge from the interactions between her and Maya (Rio Yamashita), Okazaki (Daichi Watanabe) and Haruyo (Sairi Ito). We see the shy girl stand up and defend her friend when Ryohei’s co-worker mocks her acting, forcing him to apologise. We watch her poke jokes at her family and spend time with Ryohei as we recall the opening sequences with Baku. Finally, she talks to her sick childhood friend, justifying her behaviour – not so much to him, but for herself first and foremost. These behavioural cues undoubtedly help us to understand Asako’s intentions as the grand finale of the film approaches.
Asako I & II is also laced with situational humour, introduced to us from the early scenes. When Asako lists the names in Baku’s siblings noticing the fact that all of them have wheat-related meanings, her practical friend snarkily notices that their parents must be really into carbs. The film stockpiles on ironic commentary and well-translated wordplay (Baku’s name makes for bizarre misunderstanding once more), throwing us hilarious bits when we least expect them. That only makes it richer with humanity beyond the cascade of emotion thrown at us almost constantly.
Asako I & II opens as a part of the London Film Festival.
- Asako I & II (2018)