Asako I & II starts with a benign stalking. A young woman is standing in front of a black and white Shigeo Gocho photograph of twin girls—one and two—when a stranger sidles up behind to get a look. He moves on after a second but she’s transfixed by him. When he leaves the exhibition, she follows, up the escalator, out of the building, into the street. Woozy synths start playing as they look at each other, separated by maybe a dozen feet and a group of children bursting firecrackers. He walks up to her, they introduce themselves and suddenly he kisses her. It’s an intensely romantic scene, though with an edge, almost Brian De Palma-like.
“And that’s how we met,” Baku (Masahiro Higashide) tells his friend, as the film takes the first of several nonchalant time jumps. Asako is his girlfriend now, as smitten as when she first met him. Her friend, Haruyo (Sairi Ito), warns her that he’s probably bad news. We see a glimmer of this when Baku goes out to buy bread one evening and doesn’t return till morning. Asako makes him promise he won’t do it again. Even as they embrace, the voiceover says: “Six months later, Baku said he was going to buy shoes and never came back.”
Two years later, Asako is in Tokyo, having left Osaka, though not the memory of Baku, behind. She works at a coffee shop, which regularly delivers to a sake company’s office nearby. There she runs into a man who’s the spitting image of her old lover, though in a suit and without the long hair. She tentatively says, “Baku?” But his name is Ryohei.
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s reputation on the world scene has been growing for a while, starting with Happy Hour, which played at the Locarno Film Festival in 2015, followed by Asako I & II, which was in competition at Cannes in 2018. This has been a breakthrough year: His Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at Berlin, and Drive My Car won three prizes, including best screenplay, at Cannes. I have not watched Happy Hour but the three that came after reflect a specific and unique sensibility: orderly, understated, curious about the workings of love and desire.
One should say the failings—for romantic attraction and fulfilment rarely follow each other as a matter of course in his films. For instance, Ryohei falls, immediately and inconveniently, in love with Asako. She doesn’t tell him about Baku, and, after rejecting his advances for some time, enters into a romantic relationship with him. It’s a less twisted Vertigo—a missing, possibly dead, partner replaced by a doppelganger. But Hamaguchi is less concerned with the perversity of the situation than with the emotional implications, especially when Asako is forced to reckon, in the film’s dramatic final stretch, with what Ryohei means. Is he his own man or Baku II?
Though the tonalities are different, Hamaguchi’s work has more than a touch of Éric Rohmer. A critic-turned-director, Rohmer made outwardly simple, emotionally intricate films like My Night At Maud’s, Love In The Afternoon and Claire’s Knee. Most of these were simultaneously understated and talky, about desires that shouldn’t arise but invariably do. Like the French director, Hamaguchi has an unfussy but striking visual sense—there’s a precise richness to his framing that’s very soothing.
Both of Hamaguchi’s films from this year improve on aspects of Asako I & II. Erika Karata is appealing but blank as Asako; another actor might have telegraphed more clearly what she feels about her two lovers, and why the title refers to two Asakos when there seems to be only a consistently opaque one. But in Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy—a triptych of stories, the first two about romantic entanglements, the last (and best) about chance encounters and generosity—the women playing the leads are less manicured, and uniformly excellent. Drive My Car, though working through themes present in Hamaguchi’s earlier work, feels like a turning point. An adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story about a theatre director who throws himself into a production of Uncle Vanya not long after the death of his wife, it’s a sombre and deeply felt examination of loss and recovery.
Asako I & II, streaming on MUBI, is a worthy introduction to Hamaguchi while we wait for his other work to appear on OTT here (or, if we should be so lucky, in a theatre). My favourite scene from all his films comes towards the end of this one. Asako, in a long shot, runs after Ryohei along a winding country road. The rain, which had been pouring a few seconds earlier, stops, and as she runs, a wall of sunshine extends behind her. It’s a miraculous natural moment captured on film, like the gust of wind blowing across the field in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror. As a symbol of hard-won joy, it’s more exhilarating than anything Hamaguchi’s characters could have explained in words.