Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s latest feature brings with it an enticing premise: girl and boy fall in love at first sight, boy one day disappears, girl meets boy’s exact double and falls in love all over again. After all, the doppelgänger device is one that lends itself near perfectly to the mystery-romance – its providing of a narrative obstacle often kindling a deeper love (though occasionally ever more twisted) from its protagonists.

Not quite Vertigo, however, Asako I & II is a peculiarly sweet film that nonetheless seems doomed from the get-go – after a rushed, flung-together first encounter sets up the subsequent romance(s) as bland and unearned. The titular Asako (Erika Karata) first meets Baku (Masahiro Higashide) on the way home from a Shigeo Gochō exhibition – their catching-of-eyes taking place over a group of kids setting off fireworks by the river. The ensuing sparks are exclusively literal, however, with the pair’s first kiss more head-scratching than heart-warming.

The romance is soon accepted (if only out of necessity for the rest of the film), but before we’ve had a chance to become fond of either character, Baku disappears. Despite only telling Asako that he’s just going out to buy some bread, several years pass – and Asako is left alone. Now working as a barista in the corporate district, Asako is stunned when one of the businessmen upstairs comes in to ask for a pot of coffee. The perfect replica of the missing Baku, Asako insists that they are one and the same; though the man disputes this and claims to be Ryohei, not Baku (“I’m not a tapir!”).

Indeed, though the two are largely identical, personality differences soon emerge – the measured Ryohei a completely different entity to the free-spirited Baku. Asako soon finds this out herself, becoming inevitably attached to Ryohei and thus another fling begins. What follows is a meandering ‘looks vs personality’ discourse, one that while obviously disposable is also too weakly threaded to justify its presence anyway.

Ryohei nevertheless proves to be a much more well-founded partner to Asako than Baku ever was – though the returning spectre of the missing man eventually provides Asako with a difficult decision. Higashide is tremendously effective in the double-role at this point, managing to arouse emotions which are completely dissonant with one another from one scene to the next. Karata, meanwhile, seems oddly lifeless in the titular role – with Asako’s friend Maya (Rio Yamashita) ending up a far more interesting character to follow.

The saving grace of the film is in its sweet peculiarities – the frequent J-pop, supernatural sound design, and show-stealing pet cat in Jintan (a career best). One lengthy sequence centres around the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake that eventually triggered the horrific Fukushima nuclear disaster, and while it might seem ultimately out-of-place, there’s little denying its sense of detachment and emotional heft while you are watching it. The end result, whether intentional or not, is a strangely surreal romance that is perhaps fitting of its doppelgänger premise.

Dir: Ryūsuke Hamaguchi

Cast: Masahiro Higashide, Erika Karata, Koji Seto, Rio Yamashita

Prd: Yuji Sadai, Teruhisa Yamamoto, Yasuhiko Hattori

DOP: Yasuyuki Sasaki

Music: tofubeats

Country: Japan, France

Year: 2018

Runtime: 120 minutes