In enigmatic romance “Asako I & II,” the willful heroine can’t choose between two lovers who look exactly the same. Japanese independent director Ryusuke Hamaguchi uses this rather unlikely premise to explore the mysteries of the heart. Catapulted straight to the main competition in Cannes without prior participation at other sections, the helmer’s ninth work boasts a momentous leap in his career. Yet, compared to his previous five-hour epic relationship drama “Happy Hour,” this is less ambitious and lacks the raw honesty or spellbinding intensity of that film.
Adapting a novel of the same title by Tomoka Shibasaki, Hamaguchi extols his source for a compelling representation of love as a mystic experience. However, what gets transferred to the screen becomes more like banal indecision.
When Asako (Erika Karata) encounters her first love Baku Torii (Masahiro Higashide) in her hometown Osaka, it’s staged like a fantasy sequence in a music video: While firecrackers pop in slow motion around them, Baku turns, catches her eye, and walks over to kiss this complete stranger. With a thick mop of hair, kicking around in flip-flops and dungarees, Baku is the quintessential Bohemian. Asako’s BFF Haruyo (Sairi Ito) is vehemently against the match, sensing at once that he’ll break her heart.
The couple’s attraction is abashedly sexual, as manifested in a slightly comical scene when they’re thrown off their motorbike in an accident, and end up making out on the highway. While visiting the country home of their mutual friend Okazaki, Baku ducks out to get bread and doesn’t come back till the next morning. A sign of what’s to come, when six months later, he says he’s off to buy shoes and never comes back.
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Despite the brevity of the relationship, losing Baku haunts Asako enough for her to move to Tokyo, where she finds work in a coffee shop. Two years later, she happen’s to meet Ryohei Maruto (also played by Higashide), who’s a dead-ringer for Baku. A marketing executive for a sake company, he’s a straitlaced salaryman who’s warm and dependable — in other words, the polar opposite of her ex.
As if responding to a special vibe he gets from Asako, Ryohei courts her persistently. Asako tries to pull away as she doesn’t want to be reminded of Baku, but as intuitively as she fell for her first boyfriend, she realizes after a certain point that she loves Ryohei. Her feelings change again when she learns, through a chance reunion with Haruyo, that Baku has become a supermodel.
Although Higashide makes a painstaking effort to distinguish the two roles with stylish flourishes such as different hairstyles, body language, and most impressive of all, a broad Osaka dialect for Baku, and standard Japanese with a Kansai (West Japan) inflection, the two personas don’t amount to more than a formulaic dichotomy between the boring nice guy and dangerous bad boy that form love triangles in potboiler romances.
The story doesn’t really provide logical reasons or psychological motives for why Asako falls in or out of love with either man. More importantly, she is the least cognizant of her own emotions, even though she talks incessantly about them to Ryohei and her own friends. Toward the end, her impulsive behavior makes her no less capricious than the shiftless Baku. The Japanese title, which roughly means “whether asleep or awake,” reflects her ambiguous state of mind.
The film ends on a pseudo-philosophical note, implying that life, like the river that runs below the couple’s new house in Osaka, is filthy or beautiful depending on how one looks at it. If this is intended to help make the audience to embrace the heroine for all the damage she’s done to herself and others, it’s an uphill struggle. Karata’s exquisite porcelain-doll face makes her an even more brittle, alienating presence.
As in “Happy Hour,” it’s the ensemble acting that lifts “Asako” out of melodramatic clichés. Koji Seto and Rio Yamashita, who play Ryohei’s colleague Kushihashi and Asako’s flatmate Maya respectively, provide a much more lively and down-to-earth ambiance when the four interact. Most notably in a scene when Kushihashi harshly criticizes aspiring actress Maya’s line delivery. The way he speaks his mind on a first meeting is rare for a Japanese social occasion, and perhaps points to the underlying moral of the story, which is the need to voice and examine one’s hunches and emotions openly and honestly, whether one understands them or not.