Asako I & II (Netemo sametemo)
Japan (2018) Dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Apparently, it isn’t what you look like that matters when finding love, but what is on the inside, but let’s face it, good looks do help as an icebreaker in establishing an immediate attraction between two people. But what if two people look alike but have wildly different personalities – which way do you turn then?
In Osaka, shy student Asako (Erika Karata) visits a photography exhibition and falls in love at first sight with scruffily dressed Baku (Masahiro Higashide). The feeling appears mutual, cemented with a kiss seconds after names are exchanged. Asako’s best friend Haruyo (Sairi Ito) warns her Baku will only bring heartbreak, and shortly after, she is proven right when Baku goes out to buy some shoes and never returns.
Two years later, Asako is now working at a coffee shop in Tokyo that also caters for the office across the street. When collecting a coffee pot after a meeting, Asako is shocked to see Baku in a smart suit, but he doesn’t recognise her – this man is in fact Ryohei (Higashide) newly arrived in Tokyo. After the initial shock of the resemblance to Baku, Asako falls in love with Ryohei, but five years later, Baku returns to the scene.
Based on the novel Netemo Sametemo by Tomoka Shibasaki, Asako I & II takes as its theme the concept of duality, a favoured rubric for philosophers and writers as unsubtly illustrated by the many references to Chekov and Ibsen. The adopted title by Ryusuke Hamaguchi might appear misleading as there is only one Asako and two similar looking men in her life, but you know it can’t be that simple.
Despite being for all intents and purposes a gentle slice of life romantic drama, this is a deeply philosophical work that explores not so much the attachment to the physical, but the response to the emotional. There are two Asakos in the sense both Baku and Ryohei bring out a different side of her via their divergent personalities, both offering something that makes her happy but in different ways.
Hamaguchi does something interesting by flipping the location dynamics – he depicts Osaka as a rather staid, conservative province with Baku’s caprice and libertine attitude standing out. In contrast, the far bigger, busier Tokyo provides Asako with a quieter, secure life with Ryohei, when you’d expect the hectic metropolis to be all fireworks and fun. Or maybe that is the point – free spirit or reliable salaryman the surroundings are incidental.
So what drew Asako to Baku beyond his looks? His cousin Okazaki (Daichi Watanabe) explains Baku is known for disappearing for days, leaving Asako wondering what else she doesn’t know about her beau. It is not just the audience who wonders once Asako does fall for Ryohei, if it is the man himself she adores or his resemblance to Baku – this is the reason she gave him a wide berth in the first place, though a smitten Ryohei is keen to know why.
Asako’s flatmate jobbing actress Maya (Rio Yamashita), tries to bring them together via a double date with unexpected results – Ryohei’s friend Kushihasi (Koji Seto) criticises Maya’s acting, revealing his own aspirations in that area, leading to this unlikely pairing whilst Asako still avoids Ryohei. Eventually, Ryohei’s stability, gentleness, and general amiability wins Asako over, and after five year together in their own home with a cat, Baku is a distant memory. Or is he?
Meanwhile, Haruyo resurfaces in Tokyo having worked abroad and, reuniting with Asako and meeting Ryohei. Like everyone else Haruyo questions Asako’s true feelings but she insists Ryohei is the one. Haruyo then points out a billboard outside the café that Asako somehow didn’t see before that has Baku’s face on it, since he is now a successful model and TV actor. And guess who has just arrived in Tokyo do some filming?
I have to admit I was really enjoying this film until this happened. I don’t know if this was how it occurred in the original novel but the contrivance of this revelation didn’t ring true. If Baku’s fame was already two years old at this point, how did Asako miss it? Slight spoiler – Ryohei did know about it the moment Baku’s picture first appeared but said nothing about it.
Give the bulk of the film’s two hour run time is devoted to the Asako-Ryohei relationship, I personally would have had Asako see Baku in a magazine straight away then have her struggle to decide which man is her true love. What Hamaguchi gives us instead is two acts of domestic bliss then 20-minutes of poor decision making, compressing whatever fraught drama there should have been into one rushed segment.
Conversely, I can see why Hamaguchi went this route, pulling the carpet from under our feet after a relatively blissful ride, and we hit the ground with an almighty, bruising thud. This avoids being a run-of-the-mill melodrama, sparing us the overwrought screaming matches attendant in such circumstances but this way, we are also denied some gritty tension to make this development feel substantial and devastating as it should be.
Erika Karata as Asako is quietly charming, expressing her inner tumult in such a slight manner, it is almost imperceptible. This makes Rio Yamashita and Sairi Ito appear more charismatic, whilst Masahiro Higashide does a good job with the dual roles of Baku and Ryohei. But, there is an irony to this as it was revealed he and Karata began an affair during this film as Higashide’s wife was carrying their third baby. Oops.
Asako I & II is an unsuspectingly compelling drama with a wonderfully fertile premise about the delusion of being in love at (literal) face value, the complications of which might have explored with a little more depth in a better paced second half. Not all questions are answered and the open ending is agonisingly the right one, but it will get you thinking.