Review: Asako I & II Builds a Poignant, If at Times Frustrating, Mystery

Like Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s prior Happy Hour, the film is a parable of the grace that can spring from resignation.

Asako I & II
Photo: Grasshopper Film

In Asako I & II, director Hamaguchi Ryûsuke mounts a romantic triangle so stereotypical it wouldn’t be out of place in, say, a Twilight film. Asako (Karata Erika) is a pretty young woman who falls in love at first sight with the mopey, apparently irresistible Baku (Higashide Masahiro) in a meet-cute so strenuously fanciful that it might be a joke on Hamaguchi’s part. After following Baku through an exhibit of Shigeo Gocho’s photography, Asako confronts her future lover as fireworks explode on a sidewalk in rapturous slow-motion. Baku approaches and kisses Asako, and Hamaguchi skips ahead to show Asako introducing Baku to her friends, who correctly peg him for a flake. One night, Baku wanders off to get “bread” and disappears for hours, before leaving to get “shoes” only to seemingly disappear for good. Naturally, Asako pines for Baku, and of course she meets another man who offers an alternative vision of contentment that challenges her sense of self.

Coming from the creator of the epic, elegiac Happy Hour, the broadness of Asako I & II is a bit of a shock and a disappointment, but Hamaguchi also invests these romantic tropes with chilly dissonances, suggesting the presence of a grander mystery. When Asako strolls through the Gocho exhibit, Hamaguchi lingers on a photograph of twins, foreshadowing the arrival of Ryôhei (also played by Masahiro), whom Asako meets when she moves to Tokyo years after losing Baku. The men are dead ringers for one another, and Asako tentatively enters into a romance with Ryôhei, a sake marketing exec who’s dully, infuriatingly devotional where Baku was dully, infuriatingly noncommittal. It must be said, however, that both modes of dullness mesh quite well with Asako, who’s so overbearingly vapid that one wonders if Hamaguchi and co-screenwriter Tanaka Sachiko are indulging harlequin cliché as a form of critique.

One suspects a higher meaning from this narrative because Asako I & II is a ghostly, strenuously well-crafted film about characters who don’t seem to merit Hamaguchi’s grand artistry. There are sequences here that bring to mind the docudramatic profundity of Happy Hour, such as a transcendent moment where Asako, finally appreciating Ryôhei, gives him a massage as he lays out exhausted on the floor of their apartment. Hamaguchi’s leisurely, devotional pacing allows us to sense the meshing biorhythms of the lovers, suggesting how time isn’t only a thief but a benefactor that grants understanding.

Yet, as Asako I & II unfolds, the audience still awaits, for a while, a twist that justifies Hamaguchi’s fascination with these mindlessly attractive ciphers; throughout the film, we learn almost nothing about the protagonists beyond their occupations, as their convictions and interests appear to be non-existent. And the doubling motif is particularly misleading, as it brings to mind innumerable mysteries such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, priming us to wonder if Asako I & II has a genre-inflected stinger in its tail.

This sense of expectation is pointedly unrewarded, and Hamaguchi offers this anticlimax up as a parallel to the disappointment that’s common of maturation. There isn’t a conspiratorial explanation for Ryôhei’s likeness to Baku, as they’re simply men who resemble one another, causing Asako to ponder an unresolved moment from her past that’s left her feeling frozen in time. Though the exactness of Ryôhei and Baku’s resemblance is unlikely, it isn’t that much different from how our own various lovers can come to overlap and rhyme in our minds, fostering retrospective meanings and crosscurrents that are probably illusory.

When Asako commits an impulsive and unforgivable act late in the film, she’s attempting to preserve the youthful notion of her life as a potential mystery in the making, rather than facing what it truly is: a series of anecdotes in the existence of an ordinary person who’s adrift in ordinary ways. This latent terror of ordinariness explodes to the film’s surface in a devastating scene, when one of Ryôhei’s friends, Okazaki (Watanabe Daichi), mercilessly castigates an actress, Maya (Yamashita Rio), for what he perceives as a mediocre performance—an outburst that’s clearly a manifestation of this man’s loathing of his own averageness.

However irritating Asako and Ryôhei remain as Asako I & II drifts on, their lives gain in poignancy. Their lack of stature is their stature, and this realization forces us to confront our own means of self-glorification. Who are we to judge Asako and Ryôhei for petty preoccupations that so closely mirror our own? Hamaguchi teases the audience with more vital and interesting supporting characters, especially Maya, but keeps us tethered to Asako and Ryôhei, who do eventually confront their self-absorption—particularly Asako, in an agonizingly cathartic moment by a sick friend’s bed. Eventually, Asako and Ryôhei come to resemble not so much characters as friends, co-workers, and aquaintances who wind in and out of our lives as we march onward toward a singular conclusion. Like Happy Hour, Asako I & II is a parable of the grace—and, yes, happiness—that can spring from resignation.

Score: 
 Cast: Karata Erika, Higashide Masahiro, Itô Sairi, Nakamoto Kôji, Seto Kôji, Tanaka Misako, Watanabe Daichi, Yamashita Rio  Director: Hamaguchi Ryûsuke  Screenwriter: Tanaka Sachiko, Hamaguchi Ryûsuke  Distributor: Grasshopper Film  Rating: NR

Chuck Bowen

Chuck Bowen's writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The AV Club, Style Weekly, and other publications.

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