×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Asako I & II’ (Netetemo Sametemo)

Ryusuke Hamaguchi delivers a less provocative or penetrating follow-up to the Japanese director’s last relationship epic, 'Happy Hour.'

Director:
Tomoka Shibasaki
With:
Masahiro Higashide, Erika Karata

1 hour 59 minutes

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.

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Asako I & II' (Netetemo Sametemo)

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 14, 2018. Running time: 119 MIN. (Original title: “Netemo Sametemo”)

Production: (Japan-France) A Nagoya Broadcasting Network, Bitters End, Comme Des Cinemas presentation of a C&I Entertainment production. (International sales: MK2 Films, Paris.) Producers: Yuji Sadai, Teruhisa Yamamoto, Yasuhiko Hattori. Executive producers:. Co-producer: Masa Sawada.

Crew: Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi. Screenplay: Sachiko Tanaka, Hamaguchi, based on the novel by Tomoka Shibasaki. Editor: Azusa Yamazaki. Music: Tofubeats.  

With: Masahiro Higashide, Erika Karata, Rio Yamashita, Koji Seto, Sairi Ito, Daiichi Watanabe. (Japanese dialogue)

More Film

  • David Kehrl neuer Head of Acquisitions

    'Resident Evil's' Constantin Names Acquisitions, International Co-Production Chief

    David Kehrl is to join Constantin Film, Germany’s leading independent movie producer and distributor, as the head of acquisitions and international co-production. He will report to Martin Moszkowicz, chairman of the executive board at Constantin Film, which produces the “Resident Evil” movies. Starting in February, Kehrl will be responsible for the acquisition of international theatrical [...]

  • The Plague Season 2 Spanish TV

    Telefonica, Atresmedia to Create Content Factory Behemoth

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — In a game-changing move for Spanish-language production Telefonica, Europe’s third biggest telco, and Atresmedia, the original co-creators of “La Casa de Papel,” are uniting to create a new joint contents production giant. Aimed at gaining more scale and uniting talent relations – writers, directors and producers – the 50/50 joint venture will [...]

  • KKR-Backed German Media Conglomerate Finally Has

    KKR-Backed German Media Conglomerate Finally Has a Name: Leonine

    The KKR-backed German media company formed through the merger of Tele München Group, Universum Film, i&u TV, and Wiedemann & Berg Film finally has a name: Leonine. The company revealed its moniker Friday, saying that “Leonine” met its criteria of being associated with its home region of Bavaria and Munich, in southern Germany, and of [...]

  • Scattered Night

    San Sebastian New Directors Jihyoung Lee and Kim Sol Talk ‘Scattered Night’

    After taking the Korean Competition Grand Prize and the best acting award (Moon Seung-a) at the Jeonju Intl. Film Festival, “Scattered Night” now heads to San Sebastian’s New Directors selection. An intimate portrayal of a family whose members are deeply isolated from one another, the film follows two parents overwhelmed by their responsibilities, their own [...]

  • Johnnie To Quits Taiwan Golden Horse

    Johnnie To Quits Golden Horse Awards as China Builds Pressure

    Leading Hong Kong film maker Johnnie To has dropped out of the Golden Horse Awards, where he was set to be president of the jury deciding the prize winners. The awards, which take place in and are organized from Taiwan, have long been considered the most prestigious prizes in Chinese-language cinema. However they are currently [...]

  • Zeroville

    Film Review: 'Zeroville'

    I’m tired of hearing how some novels are “impossible to adapt.” Balderdash! Just because some books don’t lend themselves to being translated from page to screen doesn’t mean that the attempt ought not to be made. Just ask James Franco, who’s shown a speed freak’s determination to tackle some of the unlikeliest literary adaptations of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content