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'Asako I & II' review: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's surreal romance is unlike any other film

The Japanese filmmaker returns with a fascinating, albeit ambiguous, tale. 

Erika Karata and Masahiro Higashide star in "Asako

Erika Karata and Masahiro Higashide star in "Asako I & II."  Photo Credit: Grasshopper Film

'Asako I & II'

Directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Starring Masahiro Higashide, Erika Karata, Sairi Ito

Not Rated

Playing at Metrograph

Someone definitely broke Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's heart.

The Japanese director's latest is a fascinating albeit difficult-to-pin-down examination of betrayal, abandonment, sublimated feelings and poor communication. It's definitely not for date night, but as food for thought about what makes people tick, it's not quite like any other film out there.

When Asako (Erika Karata) and Baku (Masahiro Higashide) first lock eyes there are literal fireworks. (There are some kids lighting them off outside an art museum.) She is stricken. How could she not be? Baku has an air of coolness that would make James Dean wince. With his mop of hair and detached, monosyllabic speech, he may as well have “dreamboat” tattooed on his chest.

Soon Asako is on his arm, though her bestie Haruyo (Sairi Ito) can tell he's trouble. She's right, of course. A few months into the relationship, just when she's truly smitten, he heads out one day and vanishes.

Cut to two years later and we see Baku again, but with his hair cut and wearing a suit. He works in marketing for a sake company in Tokyo and when Asako, who works next door at a coffee shop, comes by to pick up a used pot, she stops dead in her tracks. But it's not Baku. This new man, Ryohei (also played by Masahiro Higashide), is much more shy and gentle. And with Asako acting so strange around him, he's definitely interested in her.

Eventually Asako begins to see Ryohei as an individual, just one who looks exactly like the man who ghosted her. (He comes up with some strong excuses to keep seeing her.) Their relationship clicks on the day of the 2011 tsunami/earthquake. (Hamaguchi stages a frightening-yet-slightly-comical sequence where the lights dim in a theater just when the rumblings start.)

Complications quickly arise, however, when Haruyo informs Asako that Baku is now a celebrated model kicking off an acting career. Naturally it's only a matter of time before Baku makes his return.

The surreal nature of the story is played straight and nothing in this movie is louder than a whisper. Though told from Asako's point of view, the film doesn't tip her hand to the audience. We aren't really sure what she thinks of Ryohei, and her behavior, although probably realistic, is hard to applaud. Pencil in time to argue over what the movie is trying to say, just do so with someone with whom you have a very sturdy relationship.

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