Dualities define the perpetually submerged worlds of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour followup Asako I & II (寝ても覚めても, Netemo Sametemo). Waking and sleeping, fantasy and reality, past and present, presence and absence, love and sadness. Asako (Erika Karata), an ordinary young woman of the contemporary era, finds herself in a similar position to many of the heroines of contemporary Japanese literature in that she has no idea what she really wants out of life and is essentially torn between a series of idealised lives snatched from movies and magazines. Yet she is also haunted by a broken heart, arrested in a state of perpetual adolescence thanks to an early disappointment in love in which remains horribly unresolved.
As a university student in Osaka, Asako attends a photo exhibition dedicated to one of the few books put out by legendary Japanese photographer Shigeo Gocho titled “Self and Others”. Fascinated by an eerie picture of two little girls dressed identically, one slightly taller than the other, Asako’s attention is eventually caught by a striking young man. She leaves the exhibition and follows him until he eventually turns and faces her. Firecrackers some teenagers had been struggling to light suddenly explode around his feet. He strides over to her, asks for her name, and then leans in for a kiss – at least, that’s the way he later tells it to a disbelieving friend who points out that “no one meets like that”. An arty type in dungarees and shaggy hair, the young man’s name is “Baku” (Masahiro Higashide) – he uses the character for wheat (his dad was big into grains) but it’s also a homonym for explosion which a is key indication of the unpredictable excitement he comes to represent for Asako as her uni best friend Haruyo (Sairi Ito) attempts to warn her by insisting that Baku is the heartbreaking type and whatever she has with him is destined to end in tears.
Haruyo’s prediction comes to pass when Baku steps out one day to buy some shoes and never returns. A brokenhearted Asako makes her way to Tokyo and begins working a cafe but two and a bit years later, she is stunned to find “Baku” wearing a suit and working in an office. He doesn’t remember her and says his name’s Ryohei, but Asako can’t shake the association which is both attractive and repellent in equal measure. Ryohei is smitten, he felt the connection too, but Asako doesn’t quite know what to do with this unfortunate coincidence.
Events repeat themselves with only mild distortions – Asako and Ryohei attend another Gocho photo exhibition though this time with Asako’s Tokyo best friend, Maya (Rio Yamashita). Rather than a motorcycle accident, Ryohei and Asako find and comfort each other after the 2011 earthquake and eventually become a couple, move in together, and even get a cat. Asako begins to fall for Ryohei, but can’t be sure her love for him isn’t really love for Baku refracted through a different lens. Baku, a man with a wandering heart, once told her he would always return no matter how long it might take. There’s a part of Asako that’s always waiting, held back, afraid to move and unwilling to acknowledge the death of her younger self as immortalised in the image of herself with Baku.
When Haruyo runs into Asako and Ryohei unexpectedly in Tokyo, she gives us our first indication that Ryohei really does look like Baku and the association isn’t just a projection of Asako’s romantic anxieties. Haruyo’s first words to Asako are that she hasn’t changed – they’re intended as a compliment, but Asako bristles. She feels as if she’s moved forward, matured, is preparing to enter a comfortable middle age with Ryohei at her side but deep down she knows she hasn’t. She’s still the naive student pining for a lost love that never cared enough about her to resolve itself. She worries she’s been playacting and that her relationship with Ryohei isn’t “real” even if she cares about him enough to have her feeling guilty for this mild form of betrayal.
Later, offered another possibility, Asako feels as if her life with Ryohei has been like a dream, or perhaps the only waking moment of her life. When Ryohei introduces a work friend to Maya as an excuse to get close to Asako, they watch a video of her performing a scene from Chekhov’s Three Sisters – a play famously about self delusion in which the fierce belief in an impossible future becomes the only thing which makes life possible. The climactic earthquake hits just as Ryohei is preparing to watch Maya perform in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck – the play which lays bare the playwright’s key tenet, that if you take away a man’s life lie you take away his happiness. Ryohei’s friend Kushihashi (Koji Seto) might rip into Maya’s “narcissistic” acting, denigrating her for attention seeking rather than baring her soul on stage, but Asako admires her determination and absolute certainty in her chosen goal, things she herself lacks.
Talked down by the soothing tones of practiced de-escalator Ryohei, Kushihashi is prompted to confess that his outburst was mostly out of jealously, that having given up his dreams of the stage for a conventional salaryman life he resented seeing someone else embrace theirs. Asako can’t decide which “dream” she wants – a life of fireworks and unpredictability with Baku for all the heartbreak it might bring, or one of gentle happiness with the good and kind Ryohei. A series of crises prompt her into making a clear choice – seemingly her first, though it may be too late. Real love is messy, painful, and ugly, but it’s beautiful too once you learn to see through the miasma of self delusion and romantic fantasy.
Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.
Original trailer (no subtitles)