Asako I & II (2018)

Excellent performances of nuance and subtlety aside, Hamaguchi’s work here is emotionally rich but its plot shifts remain unconvincingly executed. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Review #2,290

Dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi
2018 | Japan | Drama/Romance | 120 mins | 1.66:1 | Japanese & English
PG (passed clean)

Cast: Erika Karata, Masahiro Higashide, Sairi Ito
Plot: Asako lives in Osaka. She falls in love with Baku, a free-spirit. One day, Baku suddenly disappears. Two years later, Asako now lives in Tokyo and meets Ryohei. He looks just like Baku, but has a completely different personality.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
International Sales: MK2

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Love
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: Oldham Theatre – Hamaguchi Retrospective (Asian Film Archive)
Spoilers: No

I wanted to surrender myself to this film, but it ultimately proved elusive to me.  Made as a follow-up to Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s breakthrough Happy Hour (2015), Asako I & II might be his most commercially-appealing film to date as it centers on a romance between a man and a woman. 

She, the titular character, is played by Erika Karata in what feels like from the outside a meek performance of shy glances and few words, but inside, she is far more impenetrable psychologically, which makes her actions in the film occasionally seem baffling. 

He, Asako’s love interest, is played by Masahiro Higashide (whom I first saw in the more recent Wife of a Spy) in a double role as Baku and Ryohei.  The free-spirited Baku, Asako’s first lover, leaves her inexplicably; a couple of years later, she meets Ryohei, who looks exactly like Baku, forming a strong romantic relationship with him. 

“I just can’t handle how much I’ve fallen for you.”

While the performances are excellent, full of nuance and engaging in a low-key way that leads to a subtle but emotionally rich experience, Hamaguchi’s handling of plot shifts in the final third of the film remains unconvincing. 

Granted, Asako I & II is adapted from a novel, which does suggest that my slight vexation with how the story had turned out may be unwarranted.  But still, the film is real but unbelievable, and it is this contrivance that I can’t seem to buy into. 

As such, Asako I & II is to me a weaker work, even though there is much to appreciate in the polished visuals and Hamaguchi’s gift for conversational dialogue.  

Grade: B-



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