Do we ever really forget our exes, or are they destined to haunt us forever? This idea of past flames as ghosts is quite literally realised in Asako I & II when our lead, Asako (Erika Karate), bumps into a man who literally looks exactly like a former love. With a premise suitable for the most mainstream of romantic comedies, it instead plays out like a strange combination of the gentle character drama and the whimsical fable that never really comes together. The most anticipated feature of Ryûsuke Yamaguchi’s career after he wowed audiences in 2015 with Happy Hour, Asako I & II represents a major step down in form.
When Asako and Baku (Masahiro Higashide) first lock eyes, it is very stereotypically love at first sight — nothing can bring these two lovers down. Even when Baku crashes his motorcycle, both of them start laughing and making out in the middle of the road. Yet, Asako really should have listened to the advice of her friend, Haruyo (Sairi Itô), who warns her that Baku will cause her nothing but heartbreak and loss. She learns this the hard way when six months later he simply disappears, seemingly never to be seen again.
Since then Asako has moved on and moved out, finding a new life in Tokyo where she works in a café. Providing coffee for the office building next door, she bumps into Ryôhei (also Masahiro Higashide), who is the spitting image of her former lover. Although she initially finds herself in shock, the attraction between the two of them is undeniable. After all, she has every reason to think he looks sexy.
Once she falls in love with Ryôhei, Asako finds herself on tricky ground, wondering whether she is only attracted to Ryôhei because he looks like Baku or because she actually appreciates him for who he is. The two men represent different strands of Japanese society; while Baku is a rebel and a bit of a free spirit, Ryôhei is a company man — throughout the seven or so years we spend with him, he stays in the same job. In one of the best jokes of the movie, Baku’s career progression is something of a revelation, eventually forcing Asako to confront her past.
At this point it momentarily feels like the movie might be gearing up a grand statement about the value of authentic love in the face of trivial appearances. Yet at the crucial moment, it backs away, leading to a conclusion that is both completely unearned and faintly ridiculous. This is emblematic of the film as a whole. It meanders when it should be tighter, and lazily deploys all kinds of strange plot twists and (literally) earth-shattering moments to do the dramatic lifting for lack of decent characterisation.
In fact, Asako I & II is one of the rare movies where the friends-who-get-together-too happen to be the far more exciting couple to root for. Asako’s roommate, Maya (Rio Yamashita), is an actress stepping up from crime reenactments to the plays of Chekov and Ibsen, while Kushihashi (Kôji Seto), a colleague of Ryôhei’s who is invited around to dinner, watches one of her shows recorded on TV and bitterly lashes out at the mediocrity of her performance. It’s a harsh and well-acted scene of the sort sorely missing from the rest of the movie, setting up an eventual romance between the two, as Kushihashi — a former actor himself — is the only person who has ever been honest with her. Yet, perhaps the most important thing about Maya’s small but not insignificant arc is that she actually has some of her own passions.
One of the most important stables of the romantic comedy is ignored here — what the lead actually does for a living. In New York comedies for example, it’s always either advertising executive, TV show-runner, or fashion journalist who really wants to write “real stuff.” Here, Asako simply works in a cafe. She gives no reason why she enjoys serving coffee, if she has any passions for the job, or is given any extracurricular traits that define her outside of being a romantic lead. The only thing that seemingly matters for her is finding romantic fulfillment, and even though she is well drawn in that respect, much more should’ve been down to truly round her out.
The philosophical rom-com is a genre that requires a fine balance between insight, character work, and humour. Although intermittently funny, Asako I & II lacks depth, personality, and the kind of narrative structure that would actually make us care. It is refreshing to see a female lead who doesn’t know what she wants, inverting the male gaze and seeing desire from a woman’s eyes. If only the film actually knew what it wanted to do with its own premise, then we could’ve been in for a real treat.