Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi follows up his acclaimed, 5-hour-long 2015 film Happy Hour, with Asako I & II. It was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and has had limited screenings across the U.S.
An adaptation of Akutagawa Prize-winner Tomoka Shibasaki’s novel, Asako I & II concerns Asako (Erika Karata), who starts a whirlwind romance with the roguish Baku (Masahiro Higashide), only to connect with businessman Ryohei (also Higashide) upon noticing his resemblance to her former flame. Ingenue actress Erika Karata perfectly embodies the tentative, timid Asako as she shuttles between two cities and two men, Baku in boisterous Osaka and Ryohei in refined Tokyo. Masahiro Higashide, in turn, demonstrates outstanding versatility in portraying both Baku and Ryohei: one can hardly tell that they are the same person.
With its doppelganger characters, Asako I & II joins many films from a gamut of genres, from irreverent comedies (Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, both versions of The Parent Trap, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Twins), pulpy B-movies (De Palma’s Sisters), and sci-fi (Duncan Jones’ Moon, Kanji Nakajima’s The Clone Returns Home) to wistful arthouse films of its own ilk (Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique). Under the hand of a less-controlled director, the doubling could easily come across as a gimmick, the plot reduced to that of a soap opera. However, what elevates Asako I & II from a movie about a petty rebound relationship is its underlying metafictional message. For cinephiles such as Hamaguchi and audience, the chemistry of romance is synonymous with the magic of film.
As in his longer slice-of-life work Happy Hour, Hamaguchi’s adaptation casts a spell with its leisurely pace. Characters drift across cloudy, gray-lit Japan, establishing a slow rhythm which at first is indistinguishable from reality. Instead of taking in the gratuitous drama and flashiness expected of the grand scale of a cinema auditorium, audiences may feel as if they are people-watching indoors from a streetside cafe, and one on the outskirts of town at that. However, these chilly, crisp long shots bring out the subtlest changes in atmosphere to reflect profound emotion, a trademark in introverted Japanese society—and especially in the country’s recent trend in independent film. Sparks literally fly, and while expressions remain stoic on-screen, audiences can feel an internal shift as characters fall in love from a very great height indeed. The gradual pacing lends Asako’s interactions with the bad boy Baku a surreal edge, all while maintaining believability. Make no mistake though: it is the very believability of cinema that makes its fantasy so treacherous.
It is therein that the doubled characters of Asako I & II overlap with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. In Hitchcock’s legendary film, a fantasy woman is a noirish trap that a real woman is forced to imitate. The legend of colonial California and submissive female domesticity in Hitchcock’s film equates to the falsity of movie romances as depicted by Hamaguchi. The sizzling, impetuous interactions between Asako and Baku are elevated to that of celebrity, whereas the milder exchanges with the more dimensional character of Ryohei are truer and steadier, the mundane yet lifegiving connections of rain versus the all-consuming passion of a cinematic ocean. With his motifs of water and art, the world of Asako I & II recalls the sublime, immersive landscapes of Vertigo. While his movie is free of Hitchcock’s Technicolor mattes, hypnotic animation, and dolly zooms, Hamaguchi uses clean cuts and diegetic sound to create a disorienting effect even with his stable, silent shots. It is easy to get swallowed into the gravity of film, which is after all a double of real people and places as seen through a camera.
Though the doubling of the men is physical, the title of the film mysteriously indicates that there are two Asakos as well. If it were not for this titular acknowledgement, Ryohei and Baku are at risk of reflecting two flat character types, and Asako could be pigeonholed into the tropable indecisive woman deciding between two men—a dynamic no better than that of say, the notorious teen romance Twilight. However, Asako’s split-self identifies how her choices can either ground her in reality or sweep her away into fantasy, adding an existential element that deepens Hamaguchi’s empowering empathy with the female gaze. This, no doubt, is the dilemma of every moviegoer as they exit a darkened theater, fictional afterimages searing their lids as they adjust to the light. To watch a movie is to lose one’s sense of self, to explore those in others for a given hour or two. Upon return from this amnesia, a viewer finds another layer upon his or her own identity.
Asako I & II recalibrates audiences through its tightrope suspension of disbelief. The central love triangle weighs reality with fiction, or perhaps vice versa. Take your pick. In any case, one will literally experience déjà vu in viewing Asako I & II for the first time. And this is a film to see again.