Asako I & II (Japan, 2018) [SDAFF 2018]

Asako (Erika Karata) visits an Osaka-based art gallery, to see a photo exhibition by a famous photographer. She hears a young man humming a tune nearby, and, when exiting the exhibition, she sees the man in front of her and instinctively follows him. He turns to talk to her, and they are instantly in love and dating. The guy, named Baku (Masahiro Higashide), is everything Asako could wish for. He’s handsome, charismatic, eccentric, funny, and wins over her friends. Even Haruyo (Sairi Ito), Asako-s best friend, who first warns Asako about Baku being a typical woman chaser, starts warming up to him.

But then, one day, Baku disappears. Two years have passed, and Asako is running a coffee shop in Tokyo, when a nearby sake export company new employee shocks her. The man, Ryohei, looks so much like Baku. In character he is an opposite, though. A bit clumsy, friendly, dependable – he’s your basic overall good guy. Asako and Ryohei start dating, but who is Ryuhei really? And to where did Baku disappear?

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s previous film, the 5-hour long Happy Hour (2015) was hailed by many as one of the best Japanese films of this decade. As in Happy Hour, Hamaguchi is here interested in the dynamics of human relationships, which he explores on many levels. Not only are Asako’s love affairs the focus of the film, but also the dynamics of friendship, as Haruyo and other friends and acquaintances get their share of screen time as well.

The theme of twin like resemblance is established in the opening of the film: the exhibition features a photo of identical twins. Asako studies the photo, when the first glimpse of Baku is shown in the film. Two year later, in Tokyo, Asako, Haruyo and Ryohei visit the same photographer’s exhibition, with the same twin photo exhibited. It is hinted that Baku and Ryuhei might be related or even be the same person – and they are played by the same actor, Higashide, who plays with the contradiction of standard Japanese and Osaka region heavy dialect to separate the characters. In a way, Asako I & II is about appearances and staging, especially when Baku’s new career as a successful model turns the tables around one more time. In one scene, this appearance/inner contradiction is spelled out quite literally. Asako’s Tokyo flatmate Maya (Rio Yamashita) is an aspiring actress. She shows some video footage of her acting to her friends, when Ryohei’s work colleague Kushihashi (Koji Seto) quite harshly starts criticizing her superficial performance.

What are Asako’s motivations for dating Ryuhei? Does she hope to get her first love back by dating someone so similar-looking? Or is does she suspect that Ryohei is really Baku? Or maybe Asako does what many do – when the sexy, glamorous love goal is not available, settle for the second-best thing, who in this case even resembles the first love object. As time goes by, Asako seems to have formed a nice life. She has now the dependable Ryohei as a partner, a cat, friends, volunteer work in tsunami-hit Northern Japan, and plans to return to Osaka with Ryohei. And we wonder whether she is going to continue this way, or throw everything out of the window for another short span of erotic enchantment. In the end Asako’s motivations for her choices remain closed to the audience as well. We don’t get to know enough of her to understand many of her rash reactions and final choices.

In this respect, Asako I & II does not rise to the same level of intense exploration of human relationships as Happy Hour did. Still, some scenes, like the firecrackers during Asako’s and Baku’s first kiss, make a nice impact, at the same time realistic and fantastical, with a touch of irony.

Asako I and II is showing on November 9 and 11 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.