Review: Asako I & II

I have yet to see Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s previous film, the internationally lauded 5-hour domestic drama Happy Hour, which, probably due to its length, hasn’t been picked up by WOWOW. But having read about its charms for almost a year I was intrigued to see his latest, which premiered in competition at this year’s Cannes. It’s much shorter and, based on a popular novel, apparently more manageable than Happy Hour. In fact, it’s pretty conventional in terms of plot and characterization. Hamaguchi’s strong point is his attention to personality detail. Despite the hackneyed dialogue and thin motivation that’s built into the story, he manages to make the people on screen seem familiar in a three-dimensional way, though, in the end, it isn’t enough to lift the narrative out of the pedestrian.

The title is cleverly misleading. There are not two physical Asakos (Erika Karata), but rather two completely different men with whom she falls in love in tandem. The first man, Baku (Masahiro Higashide), she meets in Osaka. Baku is carefree and irresponsible and pretty much forces his way into Asako’s life. Her friend, Haruyo (Sairi Ito), warns her about him, but they become a couple of a sort, despite the fact that Baku, who has longish hair and a distracted demeanor, tends to disappear and not show up for appointments. One day, he goes off to buy some shoes and never returns.

The story resumes two years later with Asako transplanted to Tokyo, where she meets Ryohei (Higashide), who looks a lot like Baku but, due to his retiring manner, obviously isn’t. Thanks to a second chance encounter, the two become friends and then lovers, and it’s mostly up to the viewer to decide if Asako’s attraction is based on Ryohei’s inherent qualities or his resemblance to Baku. Most likely it’s a bit of both.

Hamaguchi’s handling of the romantic give-and-take is more satisfying than the intrigues that eventually materialize. You feel like you’ve seen these intrigues done before in better movies, even if you can’t name them off the top of your head. Asako I & II is better than most Japanese films of its ilk only because Hamaguchi is a more interesting director. He allows the story, whatever it’s flaws, to reach its own conclusions without clever tricks or narrative prodding, but he necessarily misses something with his casting. Higashide, a well-respected star of stage and screen, is quite good in the dual roles. I, for one, didn’t even find the resemblance that obvious because the two men were so different temperamentally. Karata, a newcomer, is more problematic. She underplays Asako’s emotional development, but it’s hard not to think that she’s doing so because she doesn’t feel ready for the part. She’s a very slight presence in a movie where she’s supposed to be the main focus.

In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Theatre Shinjuku (03-3352-1846), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).

Asako I & II home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Eiga Nete mo Samete mo Seisaku Iinkai/Commes des Cinemas

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