by Will Ross
This piece references plot details indiscriminately.
In romance stories every happy ending is the same, and every tragic finale is different. If there is a space between, it’s maddeningly difficult to define in anything but contradictory terms: if love does not end happily, how can it avoid some trace of tragedy? But how many of our own personal stories of romances cannot be cleanly sifted into one box or another, but are instead held in our memory in a slow, wobbling uncertainty, for months or years or decades before we can finally pack them away and assume they’ll never come open again? And who doesn’t on some level fear the re-emergence of some past romantic episode? More than anything, Asako I & II, is about these fears, a treatment of their simmering, unacknowledged presence in our lives that ends with a terrifying affirmation of a notion famously expressed by Faulkner: "The past isn't dead; it isn't even past."
A romance film in the arthouse tradition, that is, one about obsession and doubles and finally an acceptance of one’s own long-denied perversity, Asako I & II may resemble familiar works in some ways, but it is, at long last, too tragic not to stand alone. After a few months of a reckless, love-at-first-sight relationship, the stone-faced, beautiful, and dangerously carefree Baku goes out to buy shoes and never returns to his lover, the meek and distantly sweet Asako. Years later, she meets Baku’s doppelganger, Ryohei, and soon falls into a long and loving relationship with him without ever mentioning his uncanny resemblance to her former lover. As the years pass by, the two clearly forge a more complex and communicative bond with each other than what Asako ever had with Baku; the outgoing, emotional, cautious and slightly needy Ryohei is pointedly sketched as Baku’s inverse. Then tremors of uncertainty emerge when Baku is suddenly reintroduced into the outskirts of her life: he’s become a celebrity through a career in modeling and acting. Asako can no longer ignore him.
That description forms the vast majority of plot, but the events are not linked through any traditional cause-and-effect construction. Explanations for characters’ decisions or outcomes cannot be decisively proven, only plurally hypothesized. Ultimately, we judge these people because we cannot understand them. We are called on to observe them with empathy, but Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s direction and his co-written script studiously avoid tidy conclusions. This is a script dedicated to suggestion and possibility, and so its tone is rife with uncertainty and melancholy.
The aim is not to psychologize characters by slowly unveiling the full breadth and depth of their inner lives. Such an approach would in fact be antithetical to its core thesis. Instead, it advances a disturbing implication that a person who is ignorant of their own thoughts and desires is not necessarily ignorant, but that in the absence of certainty they have to work off a best guess. That is, the choice is to live forever with the destabilizing forces of trauma and loss, or to choose to tell one’s self a story that offers the best hope for moving forward, with “truth” as a faint and ephemeral Macguffin. Point of view shots, the most direct evocation of subjectivity and selfhood here, do not clarify feelings and identities; instead they render the thoughts behind their gazes disjunctive and ambiguous. One scene has a group of strangers insisting that Asako — whose perspective the frame assumes for a moment — eat an oyster for the first time. When she tries it, she quickly puts her hand to her mouth, seemingly revolted or even sick, and after a long moment she pulls her hand away, smiles, and says “It’s good!” Is she merely saving face? Is she lying to herself and them? Whatever the answer is, stepping into her shoes via the camera brings us no closer to it.
Above all else, Asako I & II is about the impossibility of yoking Identity to experience, and the scenario tests this premise in different variations and combinations. Most obviously there are the doppelgangers and the divided inner self of Asako herself (the English title probably doesn't go far enough in merely suggesting duality). But other echoes, reflections, and imperfect impressions of characters' interiority make this not merely an intellectual exercise but a mysterious experience. Asako's close friend Maya, an actor at the outset of her career when we first see her, is particularly memorable as a character who doesn't merely yearn to be with someone else, but to be someone else; most obviously she wants to perform as other people on stage and television. But it’s strongly hinted that she is also in love with Ryohei, and rather than competing for him she contents herself by vicariously enjoying his unflagging adoration for Asako.
The film is at once committed to suggesting psychological spaces by elliding them, and to maintaining a focus on interiority at all cost. Even acts of nature are blatantly symbolic: the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake is almost entirely severed from its sociopolitical consequences or even much of a procedural look at how people on the ground reacted to it. Instead, like the fireworks that explode in the moment she first locks eyes with Baku, it signals a violent rupture more for an individual than a wider population, and marks an uncanny shift in Asako’s attitude and choices. Whether this is meant to portray a world whose whims of chance and coincidence determine people’s lives, an outward expression of inward states, or both, is left somewhat frustratingly unclear, not to mention confusingly inconsistent: the most perilous moment for Asako, a motorcycle crash that occurs offscreen moments before we see her and Baku splayed across the pavement unharmed, arrives with no corresponding moment of inward change, and is simply used to illustrate her naive willingness to put her life — emotionally and physically — in the hands of someone who seems bound to destroy it. Like the earthquake, it’s a powerful moment taken on its own. But it’s also part of a wider approach to symbolism which (far more than its unwillingness to explain or diagnose its characters) sometimes renders Asako’s storytelling too diffuse for its own good.
Water is the most frequently summoned of these symbols, in rain, rivers, kitchen sinks, and elsewhere. It recurs so often that its significance demands attention (in the full sense of “demands”). Characters expose themselves to it, shield themselves and others from it, yearn for what (or who) is in the rain, settle for a life safely sheltered from it. When Asako and Ryohei move back to Osaka, where the obsession with Baku began and — for a few years — seemed to be buried, the impending disaster is underscored by a river next to their new home that runs so high a flood seems inevitable.
And it is. When Baku returns, it's so sudden and brazen that the gentle rhythm of life Asako has built with Ryohei and her friends is ruptured with a hallucinatory suddenness. The results are an apocalyptic realization of everyone's worst fears: Asako runs off with Baku, tells Maya (devastated more than anything by Ryohei's despondence) that she will never come back, and throws her cell phone out the window of Baku's car. He seems to feel neither here nor there about it. They seem to be driving into nowhere. Asako balks at the emptiness of her lover and her future; she goes back to Osaka and begs Ryohei to forgive and trust her. He eventually offers the former, but forever precludes the latter.
These final scenes are the film's only serious misstep, ending on a belaboured attempt at ambiguity and an on-the-nose recitation of water's symbolic significance (with Ryohei disgusted by a river's underlying uncleanliness, and Asako entranced by its aesthetic beauty). In truth, the trajectory of these people is too far down past too many points of no return to imagine their relationship as anything but an unhealthy one, and the attempt to tease out hopes to the contrary offer little to persuade otherwise. With the over-elaborated plotting and symbolism of the last 15 minutes, Asako I & II writes itself into a corner, but it's a corner that never really needed to be there in the first place. Just before this epilogue comes a moment that renders all that follows redundant with its totalizing immensity: Asako and Baku stop the car on a long, faceless stretch of highway, effectively walled in by concrete embankments shielding it against the sea. "You can't even hear the waves," Baku remarks, and it's true; this is the one moment when the sound design's ambience becomes uncanny, when we cannot resolve our intellectual understanding of the space with our visceral reception of it. In this moment Asako sends Baku on without her, and after he drives away, she climbs the embankment to face the vast water. Once more, a POV shot filled with the merged grayness of sky and water raises more uncertainty than clarity, but now the oceanic confusion is at last confronted head-on. Everything that follows over-enunciates what we learn in this moment: there are no easy answers as to where that confrontation leads, or the right way to handle it. Avoiding it may be the most monstrous choice of all.