[Ed. Note: The following piece discusses the plot of Asako I & II in great detail . . . So, spoiler warning, etc., etc.]
With the release of Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s 2015 independent film Happy Hour—a five-hour arthouse drama about the lives and divorces of four thirty-something women that received festival awards and overwhelming critical praise—the unheralded Japanese director (with about half a dozen feature films already under his belt at that point) suddenly emerged as a significant new voice in international cinema. Premiering in Competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and adapted from a novel by Tomoka Shibasaki by Hamaguchi and Kiyoshi Kurosawa collaborator Sachiko Tanaka, his follow-up, Asako I & II, is a smaller yet no less perceptive work that is similarly preoccupied with mining existential ruminations on identity, survival, and personal growth, this time through the cinematic dissection of an idiosyncratic love triangle.
After they both exit an exhibition of Shigeo Gochō’s photography series, “Self and Others,” at the National Museum of Art in Osaka, Asako (Erika Karata), a young, college-aged woman with a faraway look, locks eyes with handsome, shaggy-haired Baku (Masahiro Higashide) alongside a nearby river. Shot in slow motion as firecrackers pop off between them and a breeze blows through Asako’s hair, Hamaguchi conveys their immediate attraction in a swelling crescendo of electro-pop music and romantic cliche-imagery just shy of parody. After only exchanging names, the pair kiss and their romantic fate is sealed within four minutes of the film’s runtime.
Capturing the dream-like euphoria of young love at first sight, the scene also suggests Baku’s overwhelmingly mythic qualities: he is less human than idea, an instantly recognizable bad boy archetype signifying unattainability and heartbreak. Asako’s forthright friend Haruyo (Sairi Itô) sees him for what he is the moment they meet: “Good looking, sure, but he’s bad news.” And sure enough, six months later and after more warnings about his recklessness and untrustworthiness, Baku tells Asako he’s going out to buy shoes and never returns.
In Asako I & II, love is something like a natural disaster or freak accident: with little-to-no warning, a person can enter your life and indefinitely alter it—or destroy it. For Asako and Baku, this idea is reinforced in a memorable early scene in which the young lovers are found lying in the middle of a stretch of road, thrown off Baku’s motorcycle from a collision that happens offscreen. Amidst scattered shards of broken headlights, Asako and Baku gain consciousness and reach for each other with a laugh, followed by an intense horizontal makeout session, much to the bewilderment of passing motorists and onlookers. Beyond a bit of Ballardian auto wreckage fetishism, Hamaguchi is suggesting a link between love and death, both forces beyond control to which we can fall victim without warning.
Fast-forward two years after Baku’s disappearance, Asako has moved to Tokyo and works in a gourmet coffee shop next to a corporate building wherein she meets a sake company employee named Ryôhei (also played by Higashide) who is the spitting image of Baku. At first convinced she is seeing her old flame, Asako stares at Ryôhei as if at a ghost and calls out Baku’s name. But it doesn’t take long to confirm that Ryôhei is merely a confused doppelganger; affable yet exceedingly square, Ryôhei is the obviously safe, vanilla alternative to the bad boy with whom Asako was once so smitten. After a humorous exchange revealing Ryôhei’s confusion about the word “baku” (which also means “tapir”), Asako leaves convinced that she did not re-meet her first love but instead an unwitting double.
As its English title suggests, Hamaguchi’s film is structured by a sequence of repetitions. Everything that happened to Asako in Osaka happens again in Tokyo: another romantic prospect, another chatty bestie, another encounter with Shigeo Gochō’s photographs (the same exhibition, in fact). But Asako has changed. The blank expression that once indicated her naiveté now signals a trauma survivor’s reticence to those around her, especially Ryôhei, who makes repeated polite advances after their first meeting. While evidence of an attraction eventually surfaces (whether it’s to Ryôhei or to Ryôhei-as-Baku-stand-in is the primary dramatic question of the second half of the film), Asako is haunted by the memory of her first heartbreak and finds herself unable to commit.
For Hamaguchi’s characters, the human experience seems to consist of preparing for or recovering from catastrophe, the potential for disaster hovering over every frame. Early in the film, a radio program in the background of an idyllic get-together mentions the 2008 Akihabara massacre and a similar tragedy that happened in Osaka years prior. Towards the end, a happy-go-lucky former classmate from the first half of the film later reappears paralyzed by ALS. Most significantly, the 3/11 Great East Japan Earthquake makes an appearance, marking a significant turning point in the middle of the film: it is only then, after a brush with death, that Asako finally falls into Ryôhei’s arms, surrounded by dazed Tokyo dwellers making their way to safety.
Hamaguchi dissolves to Asako and Ryôhei as a couple five years later, living a comfortably average domestic life together with a cat. With their free time, they make trips to the coastal town of Sendai, an area particularly devastated by 3/11, to help with local recovery efforts. The altruistic nature of the endeavor reinforces Ryôhei’s status as Gallant to Baku’s Goofus, but it also suggests his willingness to participate in Asako’s emotional recovery with an understanding that, like the rebuilding of so many Japanese towns and communities, it will take time. Despite their seeming happiness, however, Hamaguchi continues to suggest that Asako is still not free of her past and the proverbial levees could break on her and Ryôhei at any moment. And sure enough, it doesn’t take long for Baku to literally come knocking, reappearing in Asako’s life the way he first entered: as if a dream.
The film’s original Japanese title, Netemo Sametemo, roughly translates to “even when sleeping, even when awake,” indicating a perpetually liminal state of existence between dreams and reality, unconsciousness and consciousness. It’s an apt description for Asako, whose face defaults to an inscrutable sleepwalker’s stare and who cannot shake the fantasy of Baku even as she builds her real life with Ryôhei—like Sleeping Beauty in reverse, Baku’s kiss curses her with inertia. A figure of increasing mythical stature, Baku’s mere presence on screen disorients our own sense of perception: when he finally reenters Asako’s life, it's unclear whether it is in actuality or in Asako’s imagination (as a PTSD flashback).
Imagined or not, Baku’s power over Asako is real. With the simple proffer of his hand, Asako leaves with him on the eve of her move to Osaka with Ryôhei, driving north through the night until they end up near Sendai. Shortly after awakening in the dreamy, windswept pre-dawn blue hour by the sea, however, something changes in Asako and she realizes she’s made a mistake, offering only “you’re not Ryôhei” as explanation to an untroubled Baku. What exactly happens to enable this epiphany is more or less a mystery, but within hours of embracing Baku, she leaves him behind—effectively an inversion of the beginning of the film. Perhaps the most telling insight into Asako’s interiority is a close-up and reverse shot in which, having determined to make it back to Ryôhei on her own, she stares at the roiling sea, the timeless Romantic image of contemplative introspection rendered even more powerful given the film’s reminder of its potential for destruction.
It’s an image that anticipates the film’s poignant final shot of the pair, reminiscent of a Shigeo Gochō photograph that appears twice in the film, through which Hamaguchi finally offers a slight glimpse of optimism. As a filmmaker invested in depicting the nuance of romantic relationships and the neuroses, insecurities, and desires that enable and entangle them, Hamaguchi is fixated on a primary question: “When will this end?” This question hovers over the lives of the four women struggling to maintain their marriages and friendships in Happy Hour, the romantic-creative partnership at the center of Intimacies (2012), and the prolonged adolescence of the men at the heart of his debut feature Passions (2008). With Asako I & II, Hamaguchi concludes that it’s impossible to know the answer, but that doesn’t make the endeavor of love any less worth pursuing: gazing at the muddy river next to their new home, the battered couple, free of illusions and reunited with a shared knowledge of the pain of abandonment, both know it could eventually flood them out, but, as Asako says, it is also beautiful.