How do we count the age of ghosts? That question, posed by Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s most recent short, is given a kind of answer in his newest feature, Asako I & II. Baku, the first of two Masahiro Higashide paramours, is not a phantom—at least not literally—when, after a heartbreaking departure early in the film, he makes a fated return; his reappearance subjects our eponymous heroine to a haunting nevertheless. Years of uncertain domestic contentment with Ryohei, the second Higashide steady, foretell a dangerous encounter with a lost lover. But more than a reignited old flame, it is the specter of youth that possesses Asako. The ghosts age only as much as you do.
That a reemergent lover confronts us with an earlier, not-quite-forgotten life is, in the realm of romantic comedies, a known insight. And Asako I & II, if it does nothing else well, plays the genre songbook with symphonic grace. Hamaguchi makes for a surprising conductor, though, at least if you take the tack favored by some Happy Hour partisans and read that earlier work as a Rivettian exercise in durational dramaturgy. If, like me, you see in Hamaguchi’s last film a classical woman’s picture played at half-time, his reinvention as pop impresario makes significantly more sense. This is a filmmaker devoted, without shame, to the most cliched beats offered by his scenario. As evidence, look no further than the initial meet-cute: honest-to-goodness sparks fly.
To dwell on the ways in which Asako I & II resembles run-of-the-mill manga (and there are many) is, however, to belie the rigor that Hamaguchi brings to bear, and the film resonates only because of the dissonances that arise from playing the script’s pop rhythms against the direction, which is sharp and socially specific. Mise-en-scène is inextricable from milieu: bourgie young Tokyoites live in a world of Muji-approved wood tones and cramped, but not tiny, apartments, and Hamaguchi’s visual schema responds in kind. I’m not sure that these environs count as anyone’s idea of paradise—heaven is still far away—but it takes a certain personal (and financial) stability to live the way Asako I & II looks, which makes those moments when the style suddenly breaks, either to indulge in romantic reverie, or, as happens more frequently in the second part of the film, during Baku’s extended disappearance, to embrace the outside world, all the more vertiginous. The guarded equilibriums of one’s late twenties are not yet immune to youth’s wobbly passions or, as the presence of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake suggests, safe from the infinite vagaries of chance and circumstance.
But instability is the wellspring of transformation, and it’s precisely Asako’s inconstancy that enables her final metamorphosis. When at last Baku reaches out his hand and beckons, he whisks Asako away from both dinner and domesticity, and yet he cannot pull her back in time. Face to face with her phantom desire, Asako no longer recognizes the youthful spirit conjured in it (“I will always return,” though a sweetheart’s vow, is also a ghost’s threat). A little housekeeping is necessary, following this aftershock, to put a new life in order. Luckily, an unlocked door awaits Asako. As does the promise held out by the English-language title, which, though awkward and surely hellish for prospective marketers, is, in its clumsy way, quite wise: We are our own sequels.