CRITIPEG: Asako I and II

Plays Sept. 14 to 29 at Cinematheque

Asako I and II stars Erika Karata as Asako, a university student who meets a dreamy club DJ named Baku (Masahiro Higashide) at an art gallery in Osaka. After a brief but intense whirlwind romance, Baku disappears. Two and a half years later, while working in a coffee shop in Tokyo, she meets an executive at a sake company who she’s sure is Baku, but turns out to be his doppelganger, Ryohei (also played by Higashide).

As the film explores Asako’s new, more stable romance with Ryohei, it becomes clear how unlike Baku he is. He’s cautious and professional, but thoughtful and caring. He’s genuinely invested in Asako’s emotional needs, a sharp contrast to Baku’s free-spirited selfishness. While the current relationship matures and flourishes, Baku reemerges in the background of their lives as a pop-culture icon, a model who rockets to television superstardom.

Higashide is understated in his dual performances, resisting the urge to overdo it the way actors often do when playing two characters in the same film. Without putting too fine a point on it, he differentiates the characters through voice and posture. Baku and Ryohei genuinely seem like two different guys, to the point that the viewer could be forgiven for assuming they were played by two different actors. But Higashide’s focus is on the emotional truth of the two characters, not on wowing the audience.

Karata’s performance as Asako is the film’s strongest element. Asako is a shy character, much more so than her more outspoken and boisterous friends. Karata conveys wordlessly her confusion with her situation, falling deeper in love with a man she knows she may only be attracted to because of his resemblance to someone with whom he otherwise has nothing in common.

The film leaves open-ended what metaphor, if any, is implied by the Baku/Ryohei conundrum. Is it an allusion to Asako’s still unresolved feelings for Baku? To the fact that, until she gets over his disappearance, she’ll only be able to see her partner through the lens of the one that preceded him? That all our relationships blend into one in our memory?

The questions bring to mind other movies that have explored romance through doppelgangers, like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, in which Deborah Kerr played the three loves of Roger Livesy’s Clive Candy at various points in his life, or The Double Life of Véronique, with Irène Jacob playing two women living parallel lives on opposite sides of Europe. Asako’s use of deadpan comedy to explore a quirky, melancholic romance with a seemingly supernatural element also brings
to mind Eternal Sunshine of the
Spotless Mind.

This, sadly, is the film’s biggest flaw. Its themes and execution inevitably invite comparisons to other, better movies that have explored this subject matter with more depth, humour and style.

Director Ryūsuke Hamaguchi is clearly interested in themes about irrational love (his 2015 breakout Happy Hour explored similar topics to great acclaim), and he has the craftsmanship to someday make a great romance. But as it stands, Asasko I and II remains delightful, but slight.

Published in Volume 74, Number 2 of The Uniter (September 12, 2019)

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