Asako I & II is the second of the four features which announced Hamaguchi Ryusuke as a writer-director on the world stage after an earlier career mainly concerned with student film projects and documentaries. I watched it before a screening and discussion of Drive My Car. Already on this blog are Happy Hour (Japan 2015) which Nick Lacey reviewed and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021) which I wrote about after its London Film Festival screening. I did also manage to watch a small part of Happy Hour before it disappeared from MUBI. I mention this simply because I now realise how much Hamaguchi seems to be teasing away at some of the same or similar narrative ideas across the four films.
Asako is a shy and retiring young woman who also happens to be very attractive in a quiet way. We first meet her going to a photographic exhibition in her home city of Osaka and becoming intrigued by a tall young man with wild hair who doesn’t appear to be her type. Nevertheless she follows him out of the exhibition and they tentatively begin a relationship. He tells her his name is ‘Baku’. Asako is clearly smitten and then she meets his friend Okazaki. It turns out that Asako’s best friend Haruyo knows Okazaki and she warns Asako (in front of the two young men) that Baku looks like ‘bad news’. I think I missed something during this meeting of the four characters. Haruyo makes a comment about Okazaki’s name and Asako later explains to Haruyo that she likes the name Baku because the kanji symbol for Baku means ‘Wheat’. These early sequences (including a clubbing scene and a motorcycle ride, both accompanied by the music of Tofubeats (the singer, producer, DJ, Kawai Yusuke)), suggest that we are watching a conventional romcom. But then Baku does his disappearing trick, going out on a simple shopping trip but never returning. All of the film so far is a pre-title credit sequence, a device Hamaguchi will extend in Drive My Car.
A little over two years later, Asako has left university and is now in Tokyo, working in a coffee shop. Close by are the offices of a sake brewing company where she delivers coffee for a meeting and, shocked, comes across a young salaryman who looks just like Baku apart from wearing a suit and sporting a more conservative haircut. This is a second ‘meet cute’ in the language of modern genre romance. But this isn’t Baku, it’s Ryohei, someone who looks just Baku. Asako will fall in love all over again. She has a new friend in Tokyo, Maya, and Ryohei has a young colleague Kushihashi. The quartet this time are more conventional and become involved in more grown-up and sophisticated activities. Maya is an aspiring actor and one intriguing scene involves a discussion of acting in a Chekhov adaptation. I won’t reveal any more of the plot details but, as you are wondering, yes, Baku does re-appear later on and Asako will make a number of startling decisions.
As the title suggests, Asako I & II, is about the question of Asako’s reactions to events, rather than the differences between Baku and Ryohei. The film was adapted by Hamaguchi and Tanaka Sachiko from Netemo Sametemo, a novel by Shibasaki Tomoka. Hamaguchi tells us he followed the book quite closely but he has made one significant addition to the narrative in the form of the Tohuku earthquake of 2011. The novel was published in 2010. Hamaguchi explains that Shibasaki’s novels deal with the everyday but that they also contain social commentaries. The 2011 event was so important it had an impact on everyone’s lives. Its introduction in the film produces some remarkable cinema and its aftermath is cleverly woven into the narrative. Hamaguchi also tells us that he partially defined the two versions of his central male character by their speech and Baku the more ‘closed’ character speaks a standard Tokyo dialect while Ryohei speaks with a Kansai (Osaka region) dialect – common to many of the characters in Shibasaki’s novels.
The casting of the film sees a well-known young actor, Higashide Masahiro, as Baku/Ryohei. Although barely 30 when he made the film, Higashide had more than 40 credits to his name. Karata Erika as Asako had much less experience, mostly in TV and none of the others had quite the profile of Higashide (who Hamaguchi knew partly because the young man had appeared in a Kurosawa Kiyoshi film). As in his previous film Happy Hour, Hamaguchi used a rehearsal method inspired by Jean Renoir and the results are impressive. The film looks good as photographed by Sasaki Yasuyuki, but I’m not sure why it is presented in a 1.66 : 1 ratio – perhaps it is the French connection since that screen shape remains a choice for some French auteurs.
I enjoyed the film which I found intriguing. As Hamaguchi predicted in his press notes, I found the final section startling. I now feel (after also watching Drive My Car, post to follow) that although the four films are structurally different, I am getting a feel for Hamaguchi’s narratives and his ideas. I’m very much looking forward to what he does next. IMDb carries a teasing suggestion that he is currently planning or making something in Paris. With Kore-eda Hirokazu now taking Netflix’s shilling, I hope we get something new from Hamaguchi. Asako I & II is currently streaming on MUBI in the UK but I don’t know of any planned UK cinema or DVD release.