Asako (Erika Karata) is a young woman living in Osaka who falls for an attractive and inscrutable young man named Baku (Masahiro Higashide). A fling ensues. Alas, the relationship terminates on account of Baku’s sudden, mysterious, and eerily matter-of-fact disappearance. Flash forward, just over two years later. Asako is working at a coffee shop in Tokyo when she meets a bland salaryman named Ryôhei … who just so happens to be a dead ringer for Baku (naturally, as he is played by the same actor). Slightly creeped out, Asako nonetheless enters into a tenuous romance with the doppelgänger. If Ryôhei mirrors Baku, the second section of Asako I & II (2018) mirrors its first, all of this serving to suspend us in the irreal and the uncanny. So everything in Tokyo is about as settled as it can possibly be in this not especially settling context, when all of a sudden Baku once again enters the picture, now a famous model, his face beaming from screens and billboards.
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s newest film plays at engaging genre templates and popular culture, as if it were the slightly irreal double of a standard Japanese rom-com, only to proceed to incorporate the device of the double, as such invoking a quality of the gothic, itself indebted to mythology and fables of antiquity. Asako I & II is glassy and beautiful, in possession of a visual sheen and formal grace that is something beyond the real. Its characters have a limited agency perhaps not dissimilar to that of zombies, and we have the increasingly disturbing sense that there is nobody home. Hamaguchi's subject ends up being the disconcerting slippages increasingly characteristic of 21st century reality.
Director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has been making documentaries and narrative feature films since 2007, but it was his epic five-hour-and-seventeen-minute 2015 ensemble film Happy Hour, born of an improvisational acting workshop and one of the greatest films of the past decade, that brought him significant international attention and universally acknowledged status as a filmmaker of distinction. Happy Hour was a film of extended duration providing the performers with uncommon freedom, incorporating elements from literature, theatre, cinema, and modern musical composition to facilitate the intersection of myth and ritual within an urban topography, as such invoking the legacy of French filmmaker Jacques Rivette. If Happy Hour resembled such Rivette films as Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) and Le Pont du Nord (1981), films that are not unlike a new breed of experimental theatre loosed on the streets of Paris, adult actors playing in a manner akin to how children might be expected to, Asako I & II bears commonalities with Rivette’s later metaphysical jigsaw ghost story The Story of Marie and Julien (2003), an influence on Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, another film Asako I & II resembles in key ways. Ghosts, phantoms, spectres, and doubles. Mythology and modernity, reality’s loss of consistency in the post-historic age of screens, themselves all-pervasive conveyors of the phantasmic.
-Written by Jason Wierzba