Asako I and II

Asako (Erika Karata) stares at a picture of twin girls at a Shigeo Gochō photography exhibit, but not so intently that a cute 'bad boy' doesn't catch her eye. She follows him, he notices her and strides over and kisses her just as some young kids' fireworks go off on the street. But after promising he'll always come back for her, Baku (Masahiro Higashide) disappears one day. Two years later, after having moved from Osaka to Tokyo, Asako is stunned when her path crosses with a young salaryman, Ryôhei (also Higashide), who is the spitting image of Baku in "Asako I and II."

Laura's Review: B+

After breaking through to Western audiences with "Happy Hour," cowriter/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi returns with a fanciful yet searching rumination on love based on Tomoka Shibasaki's novel 'Netemo Sametemo.' In its simplest terms, "Asako I and II" could be seen as puppy love versus adult love, but Hamaguchi is going for something more psychological, Asako describing her years with Ryôhei as a dream during which she matured, having woken up unchanged upon Baku's return. Hamaguchi himself refers to the divide as the Everyday versus the Unexpected, but his his literal symbolism of Ryôhei as harbor after an earthquake versus Baku's fireworks more aptly translates to safety and solidity versus danger and excitement. In Osaka, Asako learns of a coincidental link to Baku through her friend Haruyo (Sairi Itô), who is also friendly with Baku's friend Okazaki (Daichi Watanabe). Haruyo warns Asako away from Baku, describing him as a ladykiller. What he actually seems is irresponsible, crashing Okazaki's motorbike, then laughing sprawled on the pavement with Asako. After Baku's disappearance, we jump ahead two years where Asako, now working for a Tokyo coffee shop (this is why she got a college education?), enters a business conference room to retrieve a coffee pot. 'Baku?' she finally stammers upon being confronted by Ryôhei before running out of the room. Amusingly, Ryôhei thinks she's compared him to a tapir. He also becomes intrigued by this pretty young woman who reacts so oddly around him, something she repeats when he runs into her and her roommate Maya (Rio Yamashita) attempting to get into a closing Gochō gallery show. He bluffs and charms their way in, but Asako keeps her distance. Maya, embarrassed by her friend's behavior, invites Ryôhei to come for dinner. That dinner turns out to be very reminiscent of one of many scenes in "Happy Hour," which this film already echoes in its themes of passion versus stability with artists on its periphery. Ryôhei brings along his officemate Kushihashi (Kôji Seto), luring him with the promise of meeting a television actress (Maya does reenactment and stage work), but Kushihashi is harshly critical of the Chekhov performance Maya shows them on DVD. Ryôhei breaks the tension, but Asako is still wary. He tries to engineer another run in by attending Maya's Ibsen play. She's eluded him once again, but when a major earthquake cancels the performance, Ryôhei spies her on the crowded street and it is then that Asako succumbs, running into his arms. Five years pass and we find the couple living happily together with Jintan, a cat with attitude to spare. But when they run into Asako's old friend from Osaka, Haruyo tries her best to hide her shocked reaction at meeting Ryôhei. Left alone to reminisce, Haruyo points out the billboard over Asako's shoulder. Baku is now a superstar model with a television series and upcoming movie premiere. (Asako's questioning of Haruyo over her changed appearance is breezily acknowledged with news of cosmetic surgery, Baku and Ryôhei's face often noted by Asako as the reason for her attraction.) Then Ryôhei informs Asako that he's been transferred to Osaka and double trouble looms. While Asako's character can be frustrating, her personality defined by a dainty prettiness, Hamaguchi's control over his theme is so strong we are easily caught up in her romantic reverie. Itô and especially Yamashita help to establish the two sides of Asako while Higashide creates two totally different characters (although admittedly, the Baku who returns is more vapid than the one we meet initially). Music by Tofubeats is more modern if less emotive than that of "Happy Hour." "Asako I and II" is refreshingly yet likably odd, a unique take on the cinematic love story. Grade:

Robin's Review: DNS