“Asako I & II” is a bit of a ghost story, and it’s never quite clear who’s the ghost. Is it Baku (Masahiro Higashide), the lanky bohemian mystery boy who whisks into and out of the life of a naive young woman named Asako (Erika Karata), only to reappear two years later as someone else entirely? Or is it Asako herself, who puts her life and emotions on hold waiting for Baku to return? The movie keeps you guessing, mostly in pleasure, at both its meanings and its methods.
It comes to us from Japan’s Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, who made a small but defined crater in the consciousness of US arthouse audiences with “Happy Hour” (2015), a 5½-hour drama about four women friends that deepens into a meditation on life’s choices and connections. (Released theatrically in Japan in three parts, it’s available as such on Amazon Prime. Check it out.) As in that film, “Asako I & II” tells of a character going off the grid and the ripples that ensue over time. Unlike “Happy Hour,” its plot invites discreet soap opera touches and its central character is something of a blank.
Which is partly the point. When first met (at a photography exhibit featuring Diane Arbus-like photos of twins, among other identity games), Asako is an undefined Osaka teenager who lets herself fall helplessly in love with Baku. He’s handsome, unkempt, charismatic, unreliable. Her best friend, Haruyo (Sairi Itô), warns Asako of likely heartbreak, and in a show of directorial empathy Hamaguchi lets the inevitable betrayal — Baku goes out to buy shoes one day and never comes back — occur offscreen.
Two years later, Asako is in Tokyo, working at a cafe. Up the street is a sake-brewing company, where one of the junior executives, Ryôhei (also played by Higashide), is Baku’s exact double, to the point where Asako is speechless in his presence. He’s steady and tender, everything the other man wasn’t; if Baku was a bad boy, here’s his good-guy analogue. Would falling in love with Ryôhei be a betrayal of Baku or would it be some weird kind of consummation? Which Asako does she want to be?
Heady stuff, and also the plot of a classic women’s melodrama from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Instead of Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis, though, we have Karata, who is intentionally put forth as an enigma even to her friends. Pretty and shy, socially recessive, she at first seems to have not much personality at all. Yet her actress friend Maya (Ryo Yamashita) acknowledges to Ryôhei that Asako has a steely determination beneath her submissive demeanor, and we see glimpses of obsession as well. “Asako I & II” gradually shifts its focus and at least part of its sympathies over to Ryôhei, even as the years roll on, the two move in together, and Baku threatens to reappear on the scene.
Hamaguchi makes movies with a light, detached touch that is nevertheless attuned to small moments of bliss and disaster; he’s unquestionably working in the tradition of the 20th-century filmmaking master Yasujiro Ozu (“Tokyo Story”). A performance of Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” in which Maya is starring gets interrupted by an earthquake, and “Asako I & II” leaves the theater to take in the aftermath on the streets, an orderly society suddenly thrown off balance. Hamaguchi is interested in emotional earthquakes and their toll on the shaken.
This one’s a lesser achievement than “Happy Hour,” when all is said and done. The final act of “Asako I & II” increases the melodramatic developments and forces the heroine to act, after which she and the director try to put the pieces together in ways not entirely convincing. And while Asako is meant to be shown as repressing her feelings, Karata’s performance itself feels wan and underimagined. (A viewer might be drawn more to Maya, who’s comparably easygoing while carrying an obvious and unacknowledged torch for Ryôhei.) There are roiling waters within the deceptively still heroine of “Asako I & II,” but Hamaguchi seems uncertain about how to bring the turmoil to the surface.
ASAKO I & II
Directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. Written by Hamaguchi and Sachiko Tanaka, based on a novel by Tomoka Shibasaki. Starring Erika Karata, Masahiro Higashide. At the Brattle. 120 minutes. Unrated. In Japanese, with subtitles.