I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish
by Nick Pinkerton

Asako I & II
Dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Japan, Grasshopper Film

You could be forgiven for mistaking the beginning of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II for a rather artistically ambitious karaoke video, or something from a romantic, teen-oriented manga. A young woman (Erika Karata), the Asako of the title, steps into an exhibition of the work of Japanese street photographer Shigeo Gocho at the National Museum of Art in Osaka. She lingers over one photo in particular, from Gocho’s 1977 series Self and Others, of two identically dressed preadolescent girls holding hands in a park, but soon her attention is drawn to a handsome, lanky mop-topped stranger with an indecisive gait, Baku (Masahiro Higashide). They leave the gallery together, and on a walkway alongside the Aji River where some boys are setting off firecrackers, find themselves face to face. Without a word, Baku moves in for a kiss, and Asako doesn’t stop him. The effervescent synth score—credited to the 27-year-old musician tofubeats—rises, and the cherry bombs snap and crackle. It’s strictly stereotypical grand amour, and, of course, totally transcendent.

The same combination—a fateful embrace and the briefly burning illumination of fireworks—that opens Hamaguchi’s film is echoed in the closing of another New York Film Festival selection, the Chinese director Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but in many other respects the works could not be more different. Where Bi is putting himself in the ring with heavyweights of cinematic modernism, Hamaguchi is working within a very different frame of reference, that of disposable commercials and music videos and autotuned pop vocals—but employing these lightweight materials, his movie goes much deeper. In fact, Asako I & II, the follow-up to Hamaguchi’s study in the group dynamics of four thirty-something female friends, Happy Hour, which garnered him comparisons to Jacques Rivette, could readily be classified as a mainstream-ready romantic comedy. This might seem to suggest a bit of a creative about-face, for Happy Hour, running a bit over five hours, was not precisely a commercial proposition, but in fact Asako I & II, in the space of two incident-heavy hours, works in every bit as much feeling and active intelligence as its predecessor.

Beginning on the emotional crest of a pop rush, love at first sight sealed with a kiss, Asako I & II, per Carly Rae Jepsen, cuts right away to the feeling—this before the movie begins and life gets in the way. When next encountered, Asako and Baku are an established couple, or at least she, evidently doting and devoted, would like to think so. Asako’s friend, Haruyo (Sairi Ito), warns her that he’s a heartbreaker. Baku’s friend, Okazaki (Daichi Watanabe), essentially tells Asako the same thing; head-in-the-clouds Baku, he notes, has a funny habit of wandering off unannounced, sometimes for months at a time. Asako takes no notice of these warnings, or of anything outside of her infatuation—mere moments after the two wipeout in a motorcycle accident on a trip to Okazaki’s mother’s house, she and Baku are crawling all over one another in the middle of the road, worked into a hormonal frenzy by their proximity to death.

Baku’s eventual disappearance from Asako’s life is so much a foregone conclusion as to be covered, like an afterthought, by a piece of narration, after which the story resumes in Tokyo, “Two years and a bit later.” Asako, now working in a coffee shop, re-encounters the bohemian Baku inexplicably slotted in a square office job in the employ of a sake company under the name “Ryôhei.” Or so it appears: Though at first we have every reason to share her suspicion that this is just Baku in salaryman drag, the part being played by the same actor, after a little time around Ryôhei, who is polite and deferential and entirely devoid of Baku’s mystique, she is satisfied that this is, indeed, another man, eerily similar and entirely different.

Most everything that occurs in the first half recurs in the second. There is another romance, tentative, between Ryôhei and Asako, who pointedly avoids mentioning that she had a previous lover who might be the present one’s long-lost twin—they come together decidedly in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, a brush with mortality to match the motorcycle accident. There is another exhibition of Shigeo Gocho’s pictures, in which the earlier attraction of the two girls in matching dress now takes on a new meaning. There is, also, another pair of supporting characters: Asako’s roommate, Maya (Yamashita Rio), a stage actress, and Ryôhei’s co-worker, Kushihashi (Kôji Seto), whose catastrophic meet-cute is one of the most compelling passages in a movie that has distinguished scenes to spare—sitting down before a recording of Maya’s performance in a staging of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Kushihashi, rather than issuing the expected polite compliments, leaps onto the offensive, coolly, expertly, and savagely attacking the “narcissism” of the performance.

Maya and Kushihashi will become a couple not long after this scene, which is key to Asako I & II: in the world of Hamaguchi’s film, love often seems to come tinctured with masochism, much of that masochism linked to the fatal fascination exerted by what Kushihashi at once decries and expresses in his showboating takedown of Maya’s acting ambitions, the undertow suck of the narcissistic personality. Most obviously this can be seen in the borderline parodic character of Baku, who re-enters the movie along with Haruyo after another ellipsis that takes us five years into the future, where Asako and Ryôhei are found cohabiting in a well-trod domestic routine that includes regular visits to a coastal community where they perform some manner of charity work, possibly connected to the ongoing ecological crisis following the Tohoku tsunami, and are rewarded with massive amounts of fresh seafood for their trouble. They have an adorable cat. They are nesting.

It is all quite comfortably settled, until Haruyo, reunited with Asako when she appears in Tokyo, brings tidings of Baku’s new career as a model, a setup followed by the hysterical punchline pan from the table where the women are talking to a billboard displaying Baku’s face, larger than life. Though Asako outwardly receives this news with equanimity, a chance encounter with Baku shortly after she and Ryôhei relocate to a new riverside apartment in Osaka for his work precipitates a crisis. The easily distracted lover who abandoned her in search of adventure snaps his fingers, and Asako comes running as though the last seven years were but a dream.

And maybe they were, at that: Hamaguchi’s film is adapted from a 2010 novel by Tomoka Shibasaki, Netemo Sametemo, the title of which translates as something like “When Asleep or Awake,” suggesting the almost somnambulistic quality displayed by its lead character, who rarely takes a decisive, active part in her life in the movie that bears her name, and lives to regret it when she does. Observations on her likability or lack thereof seem to me as beside the point as quibbling over the “likability” of, say, Marie Rivière’s monomaniacal depressive in Éric Rohmer’s Le Rayon vert (1986). Hamaguchi has himself cited Rohmer as an influence, and Asako’s vacillation between Baku and Ryôhei might be taken as an extreme instance of the recurring story of Rohmer’s Moral Tales, in which a man, having first committed himself to the idea of another woman, is drawn to another, only to stay true to his first decision.

More changeable even than Rohmer’s vacillating protagonists is Asako, a character whose exterior sweetness covers a callow core, played with wonderful opacity and a touch of detachment by Karata, who at times seems less to be choosing between human men than between preferable lifestyle brands—will it be the Sexy Bad Boy or Cozy Breadwinner? (It is neat to see the successive-lovers-played-by-the-same-performer concept, done with actresses in films from 1943’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp to 1994’s Cemetery Man, here carried off with actors.) That Higashide courts cliché in his double role is no more an accident than the fact that both men are, in their own way, involved in the business of marketing, or that Asako returns to images from Self and Others—for more imperative than the choice she makes between her doppelgänger lovers is Asako’s ability to shed her own self-centeredness, to reorient herself into a new relation with the world outside of her head.

As Asako makes her way back to the home she abandoned by way of familiar locales, she makes a penitent’s journey of comeuppance that’s notably different in tone from what has preceded. Passing through the seaside village where she’d volunteered with Ryôhei—charity, too, can be a form of bulwarking pride—she sees a different side of the colorful old salts, less lovably picturesque: “Guys find a woman who’s had another guy’s dick in her unbearable,” one comments, on hearing of her romantic difficulties. Visiting the home of Okazaki, last seen all those years ago, she finds him diminished by a genetic condition, in a vegetative, mute state, watched over by his mother—the sort of love that has very little to do with fireworks though, in one of the little twists that steers the movie away from piety, the mother is found to be sustaining herself in middle-age with memories of an old affair. Finally back in Osaka, she faces Ryôhei. He tells her that he’s let their cat go—the nice, supportive sap now seemingly exhibiting his own narcissistic tendencies, prioritizing his heartbreak over the needs of an animal that had been reliant on him for care.

The complex relationship between love and dependency—and reliability—that runs through the whole of the film, comes to the fore in its closing chapters. Earlier, Asako had received a sort of warning about the nature of her attachment to Ryôhei: “Gratitude isn’t love.” It’s on-the-nose dialogue, the sort that wouldn’t be out of place in a television K-drama, and this isn’t accidental; Hamaguchi utilizes the shorthand of pop clichés not because he’s pandering, but because he understands the degree to which we internalize these clichés, how they shape the way we narrativize our own lives, how seductive they are, even as they fail to accommodate or prepare us for the complexity of our experience. Asako I & II is pop at its core, but always at the edges of the narrative there is lurking a more somber kind of drama—Maya’s Chekhov recital, or her performance of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck that Ryôhei attends, stopped before it begins by the earthquake. Who knows, he might have learned something?

As it is, no reconciliation is immediately in store for our sundered couple on Asako’s return, only a resigned truce. The last we see of them, they stand on the rear deck of the apartment that is not yet a home, estranged but resigned to coexistence. The river in front of them is part of the same watershed that provided a backdrop to Asako’s blissy kiss, but that water has long ago moved on. It’s difficult to hold out much hope for them as a couple, but Asako, at least, seems shaken awake, newly aware of both herself and others. And now that the music video is over, maybe life can begin.