for Cinetalk.net

Asako I&II is a story of first love set primarily in the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. But this is no rom-com. It is mostly void of the cheese and fluff one might expect when learning it is a tale of loves lost and found. Coming of age is never easy. Even for a quiet, and seemingly mature 21-year old young lady named Asako.

Though adapted from a novel by Tomoka Shibasaki, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s capture of modern society is timely. The Tohoku disaster predates Tinder, but the interactions between the central characters will feel all too familiar to Ghost Generation. Yes, even you, silly Millennials (especially YOU, to be honest). With the availability of social media and dating apps like Tinder, people seem to be looking for serial dating rather than committed monogamy. In this day and age, it’s common to “ghost” (to disappear with no news after initial interest) and “zombie” (to come back after a long period of ghosting as if nothing ever transpired) each other. Asako is an unwilling participant in such behavior. Her boyfriend Baku gives her a double whammy of both ghosting and zombie-ing. Problems arise after Asako has already moved on. But has she, really?

Enter Ryohei, the spitting image of her long lost love. Hamaguchi’s choice of title, Asako I&II might be somewhat tongue in cheek. As we follow Asako’s journey from, let’s call them Baku I, to Baku 2, it is in fact Asako who is faced with her own duplicity. Her desires and fears can either permit her to grow, or remain the same, while the world around her evolves. Is Asako 2.0 a noticeable improvement to her former self? And how much of it comes from within? How much is attributed to Baku – a symbol of life in a glass jar – beautiful, unchanged and fragile?

Japan itself is like Asako. Fragile but also resilient. After the Tohoku incidents, the country has been under perpetual ‘renovations’. The Fukushima power plant, lives lost, and the extensive damage to the Sendai region of Japan are only touched upon in Asako I&II but they are the basis of the central couple’s bond. The protagonist and her second love regularly roadtrip to the affected area to volunteer and lend support to the inhabitants of post-disaster Sendai. Driving all the way from Kansai region may appear to be a selfless activity. Helping others sometimes helps the Helper. But sometimes it can act as an avoidance tactic for tending to one’s own needs. Asako and her boyfriend fall into the grey area in between.

And mentioning Kansai, most of the characters speak in Kansai dialect. Anyone who has spent even a few days in Kyoto or Osaka wold recognize the regional differences in expression. Honmani vs. Hontouni (“Really?”), or Ookini vs. Konnichiwa (“Hello”) are commonly heard throughout the script. It is with very deliberate intent that Hamaguchi wanted to portray the experience of the Kansai transplant to Tokyo, and their relation to the rest of Japan (including Sendai, and later, Hokkaido). The depiction is efficient, though rarely expanded upon, and would go mostly unnoticed by a non-Japanese audience.

Nevertheless, there is a larger theme at play. Like the ins and outs of Asako’s love life, or the upheaval and restructuring of Sendai, “life is dirty, but beautiful”.

Asako I&I screens May 17th in select theatres in Montreal