Asako I & II pulls apart adolescent romance

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      Starring Erika Karata. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable

      How can we hang on to a dream? That’s the question asked and only partially answered by Asako I & II, a Japanese character study that pulls adolescent romance apart and plunks it back together again, with an existential flare that burns almost bright enough to carry the film’s smart but overly simplistic premise.

      The Asako of the title, which refers numerically to her sudden awakening at the end of a somewhat attenuated two hours, is a young Osaka woman (Erika Karata) who basically gets by on her sweet nature and mangalike prettiness until she’s shaken out of dull routine by chance encounter. When she spies Baku (Masahiro Higashide), a classic shaggy-haired bad boy, at a photo exhibition titled Self & Others, she breaks decorum by following him into the street and letting him kiss her on the spot.

      A new, much less decorous Japan is on display in this incantatory love story from Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, whose 317-minute Happy Hour staked out epic millennial territory a few years back. Here, in a novel-based script adapted by Hamaguchi and Sachiko Tanaka—who specializes in sci-fi–tinged tales of host bodies and shared identities—young love meets the usual frustrations when exalted fantasy meets mundane reality.

      The affair is too hot not to cool down, and Asako finds herself in Tokyo, working at a dull café, when she meets Ryôhei, who is clearly the opposite of her old flame—considerate, ambitious, and emotionally intelligent. Oh, but I almost forgot: he looks exactly like Baku, and is played, in fact, by Higashide again. Asako initially fights to avoid such an obvious trap, but eventually must confront her opposing impulses. For viewers, this is a mostly pleasant journey, especially with spare music from tofubeats. But when Asako admits, “I’m not an admirable person,” you’re forced to agree. Or rather, she’s an unformed person, and it takes until the very end for her to become interesting.