It has been more than two decades since Takeshi Kitano, Naomi Kawase, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Hirokazu Kore-eda began collecting major festival invitations and prizes as the leaders of Japanese cinema’s 1990s new wave. Since then younger directors have struggled to crack this “4K” establishment to gain international recognition as auteurs, not just cult favorites. (Hayao Miyazaki looms over the competition in a similar way in the world of anime.)
One filmmaker who recently managed this feat — if a Cannes competition invitation for his offbeat romantic drama “Asako I & II” is any indication — is 39-year-old Ryusuke Hamaguchi. A graduate of the University of Tokyo who studied filmmaking at Tokyo University of the Arts, Hamaguchi started his ascent when his graduation film, “Passion,” was selected for the 2008 Tokyo Filmex festival. His breakthrough then came with “Happy Hour” (2015), a five-hour-plus workshop piece that won an armload of awards, including best actress prizes for its four leads at the Locarno festival in Switzerland.
Based on a novel by Tomoka Shibasaki, “Asako I & II” is about a woman (Erika Karata) who falls for two radically different men who look exactly alike (and are both played by Masahiro Higashide). It saw a mixed, though mainly positive, reception at Cannes in May, but left without a prize.
This reaction, Hamaguchi tells The Japan Times at the offices of film distributor Bitters End, was pretty much what he expected.
“Some people said they didn’t understand Asako’s actions, but she was a very ambiguous character right from the script stage,” he says. “So of course some are going to say they don’t get her and that the movie isn’t well made.”
In Hamaguchi’s view, both “Happy Hour” and “Asako I & II” show a strong resemblance to one another despite the difference in how they were received by critics.
“They were both made with a similar set of values,” he says. “By that I mean a similar way of looking at human relationships and life in general. The most important thing to realize about human relationships is how hard it is for one person to be with another. That’s my basic view on life.”
Given the tight schedule of his star, Higashide, Hamaguchi couldn’t replicate the time-consuming workshop methods he used in “Happy Hour,” but he did rehearse with Higashide and newcomer Karata for a week before the start of shooting. He also didn’t make many changes in the script, which he and Sachiko Tanaka had spent two years writing.
“We had decided on Higashide when we started the script, so it was written with him in mind,” he says. “When I selected Karata in auditions, I felt she would be all right playing the character of Asako as she was written.”
The actress in the role of the conflicted, changeable Asako, Hanaguchi says, “has to show that the character’s actions come from within the character herself. If what she does looks calculated or is like a performance, the audience will lose trust in her. She behaves in ways that are extremely contradictory, but her behavior has to look real or it’s not interesting.” Acting in a film for the first time, Karata had what Hamaguchi describes as a “transparent quality” that made Asako’s actions believable.
By contrast, Asako’s situation — loving one man and, after he disappears, meeting another who is his double in looks, if not personality, borders on fantasy. But for Hamaguchi, this “extreme premise, so far removed from reality, made it possible to depict emotions that actually exist but never appear in everyday life. Through this premise I thought I could make the audience feel something like the truth.”
Shibasaki’s novel presented another problem in that it’s written entirely in the first person, from Asako’s point of view. To make the story filmable, however, Hamaguchi decided the story needed various perspectives. He supplied them in the form of subsidiary characters such as Asako’s straight-talking friend Haruyo and her actress acquaintance Maya.
“They supply a lot of information by what they say in this or that situation and carry a large burden in terms of the storytelling,” he explains, adding he was concerned that “if these characters came to look like tools of the storyteller, something like shogi pieces, they wouldn’t have any vitality.”
To avoid that fate he cast Sairi Ito and Rio Yamashita as Haruyo and Maya respectively, both of whom could project individuality and energy on-screen. “Finding actors like that was really tough,” Hamaguchi adds.
The ultimate aim of this painstaking structuring and restructuring, says the filmmaker, is to “heighten the emotions of the audience at the climax, after they have stayed (with these characters) from beginning to end.” He is not, however, aiming to send the crowd out of the theater on a single high note: “I was consciously trying to create an ending that would be sad and happy at the same time.”
Boosted by its Cannes invite, “Asako I & II” is getting a wider release than “Happy Hour,” but Hamaguchi doesn’t consider the former commercial or the latter indie.
“When I was in the indie world, I never thought to make an ‘independent movie’ or a film with a ‘strong directorial personality,'” he says. “I just wanted to make an interesting movie. That was my one basic principle: To make the most interesting movie possible. And that’s not going to change.”