By Liam Lacey
While most romantic melodramas and rom-coms play with the idea of destiny, the bittersweet Japanese oddity Asako I & II makes it something of a central character. Adapted from a novel Net emo Samte mo (Whether Awake or Asleep) by Tomako Shibasaki, the story follows a young Asako, her first heartbreak and its aftermath, all wrapped around an improbable mistaken identity premise.
The film is directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who first gained international attention with 2015’s Happy Hour, a five-hour drama about the lives of four women in their thirties, performed with mostly non-professional actors, who collectively shared a best actress prize at the Locarno film festival.
Without that previous success, it’s something of a puzzle how the much-more-conventional Asako made the cut for the 2018 Cannes film festival. The first part of the story, almost a long prelude, sees a shy young student, Asako, swept off her feet by a free-spirited good-looking young man named Baku who she meets at an art gallery and falls for, while firecrackers (courtesy of some delinquent street kids) snap around them.
A girlfriend warns her that she doesn’t trust the guy, but Asako won’t listen because the passion’s too hot. After a motorcycle accident, in which they crash on the highway, she comes to, rolls over and begins making out with her new boyfriend, in front of startled onlookers. But Baku has a disquieting habit of disappearing for hours without explanation and, one day, Baku goes out to buy shoes and doesn’t return.
Our main story starts two years later. A still-traumatized Asako is working in a Tokyo coffee shop when she thinks she sees Baku again, this time as a strait-laced young marketing man for an Osaka-based saki company. It turns out he’s just his extremely identical but utterly unrelated twin, named Ryohei. Despite her initial nervousness, Asako falls for him. They begin a happy relationship and although Asako dotes on him, she fails to tell Ryohei of the extraordinary resemblance to her first love. For a while, the viewer is confused: Is Ryohei really Baku in disguise? Is he the victim of amnesia?
Some years later, Asako discovers that Baku is still out there, and he has become a celebrity model and teen idol. The trouble is, she’s not over him, and Baku has not finished messing with her. Their reunion, in a restaurant — where Asako is dining with Royohei and friends — is the most piercing moment in the drama.
In the double role of solid nice guy Royohei and sexy bad boy Baku, actor Masahiro Higashide does a decent job, with contrasting clothes, gestures, haircuts and, apparently, informed, different Osaka and Tokyo accents. If he has two personalities, Erika Karata, as Asako, barely manages to complete one.
In ways that seem to go beyond the film’s intentions, she seems psychologically stunted, unaware of — never mind not in control of — her own emotions. If Baku is a plausible sociopath, Asako’s romantic obsessiveness proves just as damaging, and while there are interesting ideas to probe here, the film never really feels much deeper than a distilled version of the Harlequin novel about the hot bad boy, the sweet dull boy and the girl in the middle who doesn’t know her own mind.
Somewhat more interesting here is the portrait of the anxiety-ridden millennial generation, especially the secondary characters, including Asako’s actress roommate Maya (Rio Yamashita), and Ryohei’s amusingly blunt friend (Koji Seto), whose clumsy honesty is presented as an alternative to characters tragically hampered by their emotional diffidence.
Asako I & II. Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi. Written by Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Sachiko Tanaka, based on the novel by Tomako Shibasaki. Starring Erika Karata and Masahiro Higashide. Opens May 31 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.