Based on the novel by Tomoka Shibasaki, Asako I & II asks a lot of its audience, specifically a wealth of compassion to give willingly to a character who at first glance is too self-serving to be worth the sympathy. A purely reactionary character for much of the film’s runtime, Asako (played by Erika Karata) exists through a guarded curiosity, observing those who come in and out of her life with calculated silence. She’s selfish in love in a way that’s uncomfortably human, prone to actions that hurt those around her but never overtly malicious, her declarative and climatic actions taking place in moments of shocking quiet, a reckless choice that practically takes place within the blink of an eye. However it is precisely because of the difficulty in empathizing with Asako and the film’s push to force audiences to confront the lesser and greedier versions of ourselves that the film makes such a lasting impact. It’s a tremendous force of humanity by director Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour) that flirts with the fantastical but never loses sight of the enormous beating heart in its core, determined to examine love and all of its destructive and willful tendencies while simultaneously championing our ability to mature and cherish love. Love is more than a feeling but a lifetime of actions tacked on.
The film follows Asako, a young woman who lives in Osaka that falls in love with an enigmatic and captivatingly confident drifter named Baku (Masahiro Higashide). One day Baku disappears from her life with no notice, and two years later she’s living in Tokyo with her new friend Maya (Rio Yamashita). Here she has an impossible run in with a man named Ryohei (also played by Higashide) who looks exactly like her vanished love but completely different in terms of personality; sincere where Baku was aloof, committed where Baku disengaged. He falls instantly falls for Asako, who struggles to move on from her first love, afraid the damage that could be done if she were to start a relationship with a man on that chance that it could just be because he shares Baku’s face. Years pass as the courtship turns to genuine love before an unexpected return threatens the life they’ve built together.
First love is addictive, a theme implored by director Hamaguchi and his fellow scribe Sachiko Tanaka; the sweetest of drugs that becomes more than a part of us at times in our lives when we’re the most susceptible to the influence of others. We mold ourselves into the people we strive to be, often sidetracked by people who enter our lives and dictate their own set of standards that we then shape into a new and shared framework for living. Asako isn’t as much a victim to an old flame’s manipulations as she is to her own youthful ignorance, wishing to chase the euphoria that comes with the unburdened all-consuming love and passion that burns freely without the rules, empathy and patience that comes with longer relationships. She’s envious of a feeling that was fleeting and lost but in the moment burned white hot, lighting her past and future aflame.
Karata as Asako delivers the weakest of the main cast’s performances, partially due to being given such a initially complacent character to work with. She sells the moments of internal conflict and warring state of mind where we see the struggle emote from her eyes, but whenever she’s sharing the screen with other performers she nearly folds in on herself. Comparatively, Yamashita is a breath of fresh air, deeply emotive, sharing a wealth of chemistry with the cast, Higashide in particular. Even Koji Seto as Ryohei’s friend and co-worker makes a lasting impact in his more emotionally potent scenes as the romance for he and Maya is laid out early. This is Higashide’s film however, working within the difficult confines of making sure we can understand Asako’s draw to both Baku and Ryohei while simultaneously distinguishing why one is a better choice than the other. As Ryohei in particular he stuns with a natural charisma that exudes from of him in spades, so easy to root for as a man whose heart is too big for his body.
The work of cinematographer Yasuyuki Sasaki along with the direction by Hamaguchi elevates a simple relationship drama to greater heights, allowing moments of eeriness to creep into what could simply be a moment of romantic bliss. The two are very concerned with space, be it the lack of it or how much of it is taken up. From a scene where Asako and Ryohei find one another in an overwhelming bass of bodies, singled out in the crowd – always beacons for one another – to a moment where Asako stares brokenly, determinedly, out into a gray sea, only endless possibilities ahead of her (or vast loneliness depending on your interpretation), the complexities of space and how much of it we inhabit is delicately woven into the film. The film possesses an inherent grace and lyricism to its story, always transitioning into the next frame with little aggression or abruptness. If you were to watch with no dialogue it would be easy to mistake the film for a ghost story, with either Baku/Ryohei or Asako herself as the rudderless spirit – he who haunts her dreams and waking moments and she who lost something so significant she momentarily became a shell of herself. It’s that ability to intertwine the themes of hope and longing, romance and loss, happiness and regret that makes Asako I & II such crucial viewing.
Even greater still is its refusal to condemn its leading lady even as the viewers will struggle to not when she makes decisions that go against storytelling comfort. Hamaguchi recognizes humanity’s nature to make mistakes often to our own detriment, our ability to seek and fight for change and second chances when we realize how precious what we had was almost lost. Asako I & II isn’t so much about the two loves of the titular characters but rather the part one and two of her own personal journey, with a ending that promises many more chapters to come. Love, as shown here, isn’t so much about how we change one another with it, but how we grow to embody it, to lean on it and to express it more fully as time passes.