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Asako I & II
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by Jay Seaver

"Some people are always looking to recapture first love."
4 stars

From what was said after the screening of "Asako I & II" that I attended, the film Ryusuke Hamaguchi made is rather different from Tomoka Shibasaki's novel, maintaining the basic concept but apparently giving the title character a more sympathetic characterization and otherwise moving things around. To whatever extent that's true, it seems to work out well; the movie version may occasionally be frustrating but only when meant to be, and it uses its concept of two apparently identical lovers to cover a lot of romantic ground without losing a sense of intimacy.

It opens in 2005, when Asako (Erika Karata) is a student in Osaka and meats Baku (Masahiro Higashide) outside an art gallery. Her friend Haruyo (Sairi Ito) immediately figures that Baku is bad news, even if she is classmakes with Baku's cousin Okazaki (Daichi Watanabe), but he is the sort that inexperienced girls like Asako fall for hard, no matter how clear the warning signs, and it ends when Baku goes out to buy shoes and doesn't return. Two years and a bit later, she's living in Tokyo and working at a coffee shop, collection some kettles from a meeting in a nearby office building when she meets Ryohei. He's a dead ringer for Baku but his polar opposite in personality - considerate, dependable, low-key in his charm - and immediately begins to pursue her, with neither her roommate Maya (Rio Yamashita) nor his co-worker Kushihashi (Koji Seto) understanding why she's being so weird about the whole thing.

There's an intriguing idea or three hidden inside Asako I & II that might work a little better if what I had expected to be the first half of the movie were given a little more space to play out - the film moves on from Baku and Osaka very quickly, and could maybe spend a bit more time giving an impression of who Asako is to start out with and maybe get Baku as solidly wedged into the audience's collective head as he is in hers. Being ghosted by her boyfriend messed with Asako enough to be positioned as this traumatic, formative experience but the impact winds up being a bit elusive for the audience. It's an understandable choice - first loves are powerful but this one in particular is pointedly superficial - but a little more of Asako pre-Baku or actually showing the breakup rather than a dry run could have helped a lot.

Still, the core of what Hamaguchi and company is doing is clever and kind of powerful, playing with how it can be impossible not to see the one who hurt you even when the new person in your life may be completely different in every way that truly matters - or, conversely, trying to recapture that initial rush even as you grow more mature. Hamaguchi deftly navigates the line between the two boyfriends being unusual and maybe being outre, or potentially in her head, right up until there's no further benefit to ambiguity. He builds up enough trust for the last act to get downright peculiar, having the music by Tofubeats becomes unsettlingly electronic after being a bare piano earlier.

Erika Karata does a nice job of seeming romantically shell-shocked, throughout, and also by turns head over heels and content, while opposite number Masahiro Higashide similarly turns in very different performances as the film goes on, both of them doing interesting work on playing the same pairing in different configurations while also making a last leg that asks a lot of work from them without giving them the chance to speak in detail effective. They're surrounded by lively characters with stories that feel their own while still reflecting on Asako and Ryohei.

There's plenty of interesting, careful construction around all this, from the white t-shirts that seem like blank slates in the first scene but suggest a ghost in the end. It's a smart, intriguing look at how something romantic can become all-consuming. It's a bit peculiar on occasion, but one or two times more through might even make some of the more distancing choices work better.

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originally posted: 04/29/19 00:46:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 New York Film Festival For more in the 2018 New York Film Festival series, click here.

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  17-May-2019 (NR)



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