‘Asako I & II’: A High-Concept Romance Falters [Rotterdam Review]

The Playlist | 2/2/2019 | Joseph Owen
jolan (Posted by) Level 3
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This strange, deliberately naïve film plunges a high-concept romance into a banal, lifeless world. Therein lies profundity, but it makes for a disjointed, peculiarly shallow experience. Interiority is displaced; faces remain unmoved, difficult to parse; landscapes are sterile, otherworldly. “Asako I & II” testifies for the innate inadequacy of love and the a priori reality of manifold desire, of dirtied beauty, of mitigated intimacy. You can’t always get what you want. And if you do, it’s sullied, malformed. Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi stretches and contorts this thesis into a tonal menagerie, one striking and bemusing, an assortment of cages from which the forlorn fail to escape.

Based on Tomoka Shibasaki’s novel “Netemo Sametemo,” ‘Asako’ has characters defined by passivity and quiet heartbreak. Dual identities and multiple motivations are of central concern, couched in melancholy, set in a Japan wherein things happen to you, wherein agency and decision are withdrawn. Carved out of alabaster, college student Asako (Erika Karata) falls in love once differently or twice the same. Her infatuation rests on a doppelgänger: Baku, the absent, flash, enigmatic bore; and Ryohei, the caring, attentive, straight-edged bore (both played by Masahiro Higashide). One looks like a failed musician, the other an advertising executive. For the first love, she suffers cruelty; for the second, she inflicts it. This is how sorrow sustains itself.

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That the men look the same invokes the uncanny, of course, but the similarity runs deeper: these are polar archetypes that induce sickness and blanket craving. To be completely earnest or completely cynical is to barely differ. Asako yearns for adventure and security, to be nasty and nice. That she is both ‘I & II’ suggests these lovers constitute a mirror held...
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