Actors Masahiro Higashide (left to right) and Karata Erika with director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi at Cannes, 2018
ASAKO I & II (Netemo sametemo) B
Japan (119 mi) 2018 d: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
Premiering at Cannes, this film was overshadowed by other Asian films grabbing the spotlight, Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 Top Ten List #8 Burning (Beoning) and Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku). Seemingly lightyears removed from Hamaguchi’s earlier film, a probing five-hour marathon intensely exploring the disenchanted lives of a group of middle class women in 2017 Top Ten List #1 Happy Hour (Happî Awâ), this is instead a whimsical double romance conveyed with the innocence of a children’s story, with a piano score reminiscent of Miyazaki composer Joe Hisaishi, yet the accent is on first love, with intimations that something altogether different is consuming the soul, enraptured with the sight of someone altogether new. Asako (Karata Erika), whose name is an anagram of the city of Osaka where she lives, has the appearance of a porcelain doll, overly polite, soft-spoken, but also a young beauty, where her fortunate circumstances seem to revolve around that essential fact, especially with this story playing out like a fairy tale. Adapted from a novel by Tomoka Shibasaki, the film explores these surface issues, examining the effect of looks in a relationship, as Asako falls in love with two men with identical looks, where the underlying attraction to the first seems to extend to the second, especially since the two men couldn’t be more different in other ways. But all that is thrown out the window, as this is an infatuation romance, with the girl taken by the man’s strikingly good looks, falling head over heels in love, with little thought of the man’s point of view. Essentially a first person narrative, told exclusively through the eyes of Asako, we follow her as she eyes an art exposition of Shigeo Gochō’s photography series, “Self and Others,” at the National Museum of Art in Osaka. Gochō suffered from a rare degenerative disease which stunted his growth and caused his premature death, dramatically altering his perspective which is reflected in his work of staged portraits. Something similar happens to one of the side characters, offering a unique window into the real meaning of love. They key here is viewing a subject through a photographer’s lens, which essentially shows how someone looks, but only from the outside, as the viewer themselves must provide the internalization. This film works in much the same way, as Asako is blown away by the casual nature of an onlooker in the museum who barely pauses to view the photographs, Baku (Masahiro Higashide), struck by his ruggedly handsome looks, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, with shaggy hair, following him out the door and up the stairs where kids are setting off firecrackers. The explosions cause each to turn around and look, seeing the other staring back at them, with Baku (camera on his feet as he moves towards Asako) taking her in his arms and offering that romantic screen kiss. Fate has taken hold in the opening scene to the surging sounds of an electro-pop score by Tofubeats. The film flips the script, as cinema typically expresses a male gaze eying female beauty, right out of the Éric Rohmer playbook, while this accentuates male body fascination through the female gaze.
Capturing the euphoric rush of first love, given a mythical rendering, suggesting love has a mystical quality, this bubble is quickly burst by Asako’s best friend Haruyo (Sairi Itô) who calls him “bad news” and “a heartbreaker.” True enough, we find them taking a motorcycle ride around the city, and while we don’t see what caused the accident, the motorcycle is totaled, apparently an act of recklessness, yet miraculously the two riders end up unscathed, seen smooching on the ground in each other’s arms as pedestrians gather to stare in utter amazement. Their picturebook romance seems like one for the ages, though early on we discover Baku has a history of going out for a walk and not coming back for weeks, a quirky habit attributed to his curiosity, but also an accompanying indifference of others (the polar opposite of the photographer Shigeo Gochō), driving Asako into panic attacks, with Baku promising to change his ways. Nonetheless, after about six months, he tells Asako he’s going out to buy shoes and never returns. Skipping ahead a few years, Asako now lives in Tokyo working in a gourmet coffee shop around the corner from a corporate hi-rise building where we meet a rising junior executive in the sake industry, Ryôhei, played by the same actor Higashide (both characters curiously speaking different Japanese dialects), dressed in corporate attire, cleaning up after a business conference with his work partner and friend Kosuke (Kōji Seto). Imagine her surprise when she comes in to collect the coffee pot, eying Ryôhei, who she immediately identifies as Baku, even touching his face, but then runs out in a hurry when she realizes her glaring mistake. Ryôhei thinks he’s been mistaken for a tapir (baku), but amusingly finds no resemblance. Nonetheless, she’s left a haunting impression on him. Ryôhei is the polar opposite of her first boyfriend, well-groomed, a perfect gentleman, considerate of others, while following a traditional path to financial success. The first encounter, however, scares Asako, believing it can’t be true, still shook by the reverberations of heartbreak from her first relationship. What follows is like something from a Hong Sang-soo movie, literally mirroring the first part of the film, with another encounter of Gochō’s photographs (the same exposition on tour, now in Tokyo), and an eerily similar look across a crowded street, finally embracing each other, yet it’s all surfaces. One of the more intriguing scenes involves Asako’s friend Maya (Rio Yamashita), an aspiring actress, watching a scene on television at a dinner gathering with Ryôhei and Kosuke, where Kosuke grows irritated at her performance, finding it all wrong, having studied a bit of Chekhov himself, but his scorching critique attacking the narcissism of the performance is refuted by Asako, who is genuinely moved, with each offering cogently honest viewpoints that seem to bring them all closer together as friends.
With an emphasis on fate, Ryôhei attends one of Maya’s plays (hoping to run into Asako) when a real-life disaster occurs, the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (Wasurenai - Never Forget - Japan 3.11) and caused more than 10,000 deaths, the worst in Japanese history, which plays as a backdrop to the utter chaos it provides on the streets of Tokyo when buildings crumble and trains stop running. On the long walk back home, through the panicked and crowded streets, Ryôhei and Asako eye one another (this time the camera follows Asako’s feet), running to embrace each other with another romanticized screen kiss. This fusion of historical reality into a fairy tale romance certainly adds a unique complexity, including visits the two of them make to the coastal town of Sensei during the rebuilding efforts, which adds to the collective recovery of the nation, all playing into a motif of trauma survival. With a thematic emphasis on empathy, developing a compassionate understanding of others, the film takes a seismic shift which only highlights how easy it is to lose one’s bearings. Jumping forward five years, Ryôhei is transferred to Osaka, hoping they can buy a house there and be married, which is the moment Asako chooses to tell him about Baku, which doesn’t faze him (apparently knowing all along), adamant in his love, happy at the prospects of living a long and happy life together with their cat Jintan that becomes synonymous with their union. With Haruyo returning to town, she, Maya and boyfriend Kosuke treat the happy couple to a celebratory dinner before their departure, which has an added surprise, as Baku (now an infamous fashion model, billboards seen all over town), arrives unexpectedly, whooshing Asako out of there in a rush, running away together without a word, an act of liberation or chaos? Throughout the film Asako’s character has exhibited a kind of transparency and warmth, where the audience is able to see right through her, but not here, as the pain inflicted is disturbing, suggesting she hasn’t grown since her earlier relationship, despite hints of maturity. Thinking only of herself aligns her with the selfie generation, bordering on narcissism, but is completely out of character with everything we know about her. Beyond bewildering, this entire section suggests an induced dream, as if it never happened in real life, but things like this happen, associating an idealistic fascination with first love, handled in a distinct and uniquely female way. Baku is a celebrity and a star, a cultural sensation where young girls grow ecstatic just thinking about him, a subject of idol worshipping. Asako has fallen into this same delusional pit, retreating to girlish expectations, but he turns out to be much the same, indifferent to all the adulation. It’s as if they hopped into a time machine and went back in time, only to discover the world has changed around them, with the earthquake’s shocking ramifications among them, so how could they pretend all that never happened? It’s a curious development, concluding with a hint of ambiguity, as there’s no happily ever after scenario, yet also no real reconciliation. These same lingering questions persist throughout the troubled lives of the four women struggling in 2017 Top Ten List #1 Happy Hour (Happî Awâ), with Hamaguchi becoming a modern era specialist in inner turmoil and trauma survival, calling into question what really constitutes happiness. This film examines that illusion, providing a thread of realism that’s hard to turn away from, using the ocean as a mirror into the soul (with its unpredictable wild ragings and habitual rhythms), featuring exquisite cinematography by Yasuyuki Sasaki, but viewers will have to extract deeper insinuations on their own.