Written and directed by Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, Asako I & II (寝ても覚めても) is an eccentric romantic drama that makes so little sense it’s quite brilliant. Despite a dizzying sequence of outlandish narrative turns, the film manages to capture the mind and heart with a wacky sense of charm and great cast of characters.
A chance encounter turned whirlwind romance finds a young woman, Asako, deeply in love with the free-spirited but elusive Baku. However, their fledgling relationship comes to an abrupt end when Baku disappears one night, despite promising Asako he will always come back to her. Two and a half years pass, and Asako has moved from her home in Osaka to Tokyo, still alone. Once again by chance, she meets Ryohei, a kind-hearted but demure corporate man who spots her from his office window. Asako is stunned; Ryohei looks exactly like Baku, if with a slightly more straight-laced haircut. Initially doubting her perceptions, Asako realises that they are entirely separate people with polar opposite personalities, but the resemblance to Baku makes Ryohei irresistible. A second romance blossoms, and over the next five years, Asako and Ryohei build a life together, accompanied by their rather adorable cat Jintan. All the while, Asako harbours the shameful secret that their love is founded on her inability to let go of the past.
Though bizarre in concept, Hamaguchi’s script manages to be both comical and remarkably sincere when it needs to. The two leads, Erika Karata and Masahiro Higashide (the latter playing both Baku and Ryohei) have a crackling chemistry and sweet vulnerability in both incarnations of their relationship. The supporting cast of friends surrounding Asako and Ryohei give great performances and provide a grounding perspective on the central romance, as well as some rather disjointed subplots that seem arbitrary but nevertheless add to the offbeat humour of the story. Cat lovers (and everyone else, let’s be honest) will also enjoy the large amount of screen-time given to the couple’s pseudo-child Jintan, whose delightful antics elicit an involuntary chorus of ‘ahhh’s from the audience every time she appears.
The film certainly isn’t predictable, but doesn’t completely give way to pure fantasy. There is also some particularly gorgeous imagery in the film’s most dramatic moments, when the world appears to stop turning around our two protagonists. Asako I & II seems to defy explanation, and though substantial meaning regarding the hazardous nature of attraction and appearances could probably be extracted, it’s perhaps best enjoyed taken with a pinch of salt and a hefty suspension of disbelief.
by Megan Wilson
Megan Wilson is a northerner currently studying film at King’s College London, and recently completed a semester at the University of Michigan. She is passionate about cats, old musicals, and turtleneck sweaters, but is not in fact an 80-year-old man. Her favourite films include Carol, Moonlight, Singin’ in the Rain, and Matilda. Find her on Twitter: @bertmacklln