Cannes 2018 review: Asako I & II (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi )

Often, when one has loved someone passionately but that romance comes to a premature end, it seems impossible to heal from the pain of that loss, especially when the coda of the relationship is bereft of answers to explain what went awry. The brutality of not having closure is something that can colour the nostalgia for a lost lover to unhealthy levels, and even once a more suitable potential partner arrives in one’s life, an abandoned lover may have trouble seeing how much better the new alternative could be, so much that they risk losing a love more gratifying. Asako I & II ponders this tale as old as time, and not just classic portrayals of melodrama in cinema itself, as it ponders what it means to continue to obsess over someone who has abandoned you, and how it affects the relationship with a partner prepared to love you in a way that your lost love could not.

“Boys don’t fall in love at first sight with girls like Asako,” one of her friends worries once Asako falls for Baku, a good-looking, free-spirited boy she meets in the street. Asako is sensitive and meek, and her friends are concerned that Baku is the type of boy who is a heartbreaker. After Baku goes out one night to buy bread and he still has not returned in the morning, Asako begins to panic, suddenly aware of the anxiety their separation causes: she has realized the depth of her fear of losing him. Apparently, this is the sort of thing he does routinely: this time, he has spent the night drinking with an old man he met, and accidentally fell asleep in his company. To her relief, he eventually returns, and he reassures her through her tears with a promise that, “I will always come back to you.” But before long, he has vanished again, and this time he does not return.

Ryohei works as a salesman for a sake distributor, whose office is so close to a coffee shop where Asako works that they can borrow pots of coffee to drink throughout the workday. When Asako comes to retrieve the empty pot, she stops dead in her tracks when she sees that Ryohei looks exactly like her former lover. “Baku?” she pleads, certain that it is him, but this name doesn’t register with Ryohei. Realizing that Asako is disturbed, though he doesn’t yet understand why, Ryohei asks, “You’re not afraid of me, are you?” At this point, she can no longer resist the urge to touch his face with an open hand, and he reacts: “Now you’re scaring me.”

The two begin to spend time together, but Asako is never able to completely lose herself to the moment or lower her inhibitions. “Why do you always run away from me?” Ryohei laments. “I feel like you sensed something when we first met. I would have liked to take this slow, but I would never have the chance because you’re always running away from me. Each morning when I come to work, I always look for you at the coffee shop. I have fallen for you.” And while the prescience of his subconscious recognition that Asako has been hurt is lost on him, he continues to say, “I am not the kind of guy who you think I am: I am neither bad nor scary.” Asako is moved and, lost for words, translates her inability to respond into a kiss.

Tortured by her conflicting emotions and ever-lingering reminders of her loss, Asako soon tells Ryohei that she can’t see him anymore. Asako’s roommate Maya is an actress starring in a production of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, and Asako and Ryohei had already been given tickets to different performances. Asako has stubbornly ignored all of Ryohei’s texts and calls. Unwilling to let her leave his life with no explanation, Ryohei switches his ticket for the performance she will attend. She is a step ahead of him: she has already exchanged hers in anticipation that he might try to connect. But when he leaves the performance, he sees her waiting in the street: she has changed her mind and returned to him. They embrace.

Five years pass, during which Asako and Ryohei move into an apartment together. Ryohei is still employed by a sake distributor; Asako continues to work for the coffee shop. Ryohei remains as head-over-heels in love with Asako as ever, but it has taken her five years to tell him “I love you” for the first time. Asako tries to convince herself that the reason she loves Ryohei has nothing to do with her memory of Baku, but her phantom pain over her feelings of worthlessness and abandonment remains unresolved: Baku’s ghostly presence continues to have a hold on her. Her friends sing Ryohei’s praises – one is jealous of the adoration in his gaze anytime he looks at Asako. She knows that Ryohei is exceptional, and that few are granted the privilege of being loved as he loves her, but try as she might, she struggles to achieve parity in the feelings she returns. And, as if he is not already haunting her enough despite over half a decade since they were lovers, Baku’s significance crescendos once her friends tell her that they have seen him modeling in advertising campaigns, and that he is signed to a film project which is poised to make him a big star. They can see that Ryohei is a doppelganger for Baku, and though not proud of it, Asako admits that while she loves Ryohei for who he is, the similarity in their looks is what convinced her to take her interest in him seriously. Ryohei wants to marry her, and she wants to accept, but first her conscience tells her she must confess why she fell in love with him. Ryohei is not surprised: he has already figured this out when he saw Baku’s work in the media years before Asako was even aware of it. Great guy that he is, he sees it as a stroke of luck that his physical similarities to Baku facilitated the opportunity for him to date Asako. Then, as soon as Asako decides to put her memories of Baku behind her and fully commit to Ryohei, Baku returns to her life, and Asako must finally determine which of the two is the man she loves, and what it is that she loves about him. Baku has kept the promise that he will always return to her, but is it five years too late, or good enough for Asako?

In exploring a familiar, tragically romantic story, it cannot be easy to make such charted territory feel fresh or unique. But this venture proves its worth as Hamaguchi’s passion comes through, treating even the smallest and barely tangible emotional experiences as important and insightful. For so long, Asako is unable to realize that the way she treats Ryohei is quite similar to the way Baku treated her. She doesn’t mean to be selfish: she is acutely sensitive, and how she has been hurt affects her profoundly. Unable to move forward, licking the wounds of her abandonment brings forth the same fears in Ryohei as when she was in a relationship with Baku and was afraid she would lose him. Ryohei tries to earn her undivided attention, while knowing he does not have her love completely, and the possibility that he could lose the one he loves looms ominously. His fears prove to be valid once Asako is given the opportunity to pick up where she left off with Baku, and she must decide to commit to the person who always loved her, or the one who was casually capable of leaving her without guilt. Without realizing it, people who are victims of abandonment can begin to feel worthless and inferior to the person who rejected them and can unwittingly come to fetishize the possibility of finally earning their approval, while the support of someone who has always loved and appreciated them is not able to subvert this challenge they face in trying to rehabilitate their self esteem. Ultimately, earning the favour of someone who could easily fail to perceive your worth is not going to be the cure for bruised self esteem, and it is imperative that Asako understands this.

Asako I & II reasons that obsession and a thirst to feel worthy of the unobtainable are not real or healthy endeavours, or pertinent to the nature of love. Real love comes from the people whose approval you don’t need to earn. There are sure to be many whose self worth is so secure that they don’t need to hear this message. But for the people who struggle as Asako and Ryohei do, the personification of such a non-judgemental, compassionate and sensitive message could be exactly what is required to help them reassess their sense of value, forget the people who discredit that, and look to the people who have their best interests at heart.