Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s patient, observant style is evident in Asako I & II.
Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s patient, observant style is evident from the opening moments of Asako I & II. The film unfolds as a placid montage of Osaka’s streets where a young woman, Asako (Erika Karata), walks to a local art museum for an exhibit of Shigeo Gochō’s photographs. The director’s camera frames both the art and Asako in static frames of still photographs and the woman’s ruminative stares, but when a young man lopes past with a disheveled, devil-may-care gait and a bad-boy look, the camera twirls and bends with Asako’s piqued interest. The young man, Baku (Masahiro Higashide), appears to have entered the museum simply to cut through it, barely glancing at the art while he strides out of the building, and Asako follows him as if magnetized. Outside, he turns and notices her, and a close-up of his feet walking toward her shifts the film’s realist visuals into a moment of swooning romanticism.
This unexpected stylistic upheaval is just one of the twists and turns in Hamagachi’s back pocket. As a filmmaker, he excels at setting up places and characters through extended observation, only to overhaul narrative contexts and aesthetic setups on a dime. This opening stretch is revealed to be a visualization of Baku and Asako recounting their meeting to a friend, Okazaki (Daichi Watanabe), who is bowled over by the cinematic aspects of their story. The film plays up the puppy love of the couple, though Hamaguchi hints at tension when one of Asako’s friends, Haruyo (Sairi Ito), joins them, takes one look at Baku and announces that his is handsome but also “bad news.” The film idles in the naturalistic interplay of the characters, letting the suspicion and affability of friends and the couple’s giddy affections set the pace. Even a scene of Asako and Baku getting into a motorcycle crash, which replaces the still camera setups and warm color tones with harsh, metallic lighting as the camera scans over debris, ends on a buoyant note with the couple, each realizing that they are fine, dissolving into giggles of relief.
Then, just as it seems things cannot get any better for Asako, Baku abruptly leaves, and the film shifts two years into the future. The leap in time prefigures a method that Hamaguchi uses for the rest of the film, eliding over the connective tissue of the characters’ lives to constantly arrive at moments that complicate and contradict the emotional and existential states of Asako and her friends. The film lets the actors communicate the cumulative effects of time, growth and stagnation from what is unseen, and when things pick up in Tokyo with Asako delivering coffee to an office and discovering a businessman, Ryohei (Higashide), who looks an awful lot like Baku, her utter shock immediately conveys her lingering grief over her terminated relationship.
Ryohei’s resemblance to Baku also allows the film to repeat earlier moments to illustrate both Ryohei’s distinct behavior and, more broadly, how the characters change with age. This time, it is the man who pursues Asako, even getting her into another Gochō exhibit after a museum’s closing hours and expressing interest where Baku was all practiced cool. Meanwhile, Asako, still smarting from Baku’s betrayal, acts cagey as she enters into a relationship with Ryohei, at times running away as if afraid of falling too deep in love again or perhaps even enacting a proxy form of revenge against her former partner.
Ryohei, for his part, demonstrates a maturity wholly lacking in Baku. Earlier, Baku broke up a guy muscling in on Okazakai and an interested woman by literally kicking the interloper away and staring him down, menacing the stranger into leaving. Ryohei shows a more practiced form of de-escalation when one of Asako’s friends, Kushihashi (Kōji Seto), cruelly mocks the acting chops of another friend, Maya (Rio Yamashita). Castigating Maya for wanting too badly to be praised rather than to feel her art, Kushihashi rants and raves as Hamaguchi shrinks Maya in the frame while his words rain down. Likewise, Asako, standing in the kitchen in the background, is compartmentalized in the frame, offering a meek defense of Maya with the camera pushing in closer as she gains more confidence in standing up for her friend. But it is Ryohei who upends the dominant placement of the other man in the frame by kindly, but pointedly, encouraging him to apologize, saying that if he leaves on these terms he will one day see Maya on TV and feel only shame and regret. The ploy works, and a master shot of Asako still standing in the background with Kushihashi kneeling to apologize in the middle as Ryohei steps off to the side to allow Maya to be the one to decide to offer forgiveness, communicates a striking level of character depth for all involved, as well as Ryohei’s expert diffusion of the situation while also letting the person wounded have the last say.
Hamaguchi’s ability to draw such depths from the actors and frame them in such simple but descriptive ways carries over into the film’s final act, in which another time jump finds people leaving young adulthood for good and settling into their lives. The film illustrates so much with a character’s slightly slowed, contented pace, or more visible changes like a pregnancy bump, that all the subtle touches of Hamaguchi’s direction add up to a profound sense of observation. They also, however, expose how underwritten Asako is as a character particularly when Baku suddenly returns to her life and she regresses to a version of herself who is now more than seven years old. Baku’s reemergence throws ham-fisted drama into the film, disrupting the flow to no great purpose other than to reignite a long-overcome romantic tension. This also recasts Asako not as a woman living through the same period of growth and change as the other people in her life but as more of a blank, reactive slate. This badly throws off the film’s sense of self, which it only regains in the final moments, in which Hamaguchi’s preference for complex, open-ended conclusions leaves the characters in a hopeful position, albeit one that must contend with the consequences of rash actions. It’s a beautiful note to end on, but it cannot help but feel like it salvages the preceding 20 minutes instead of paying off the last 120.