“Melodrama” has become something of a pejorative term for many of my colleagues, but I still see it as a neutral descriptor. The genre is associated with heightened emotions and blatant narrative contrivances; some viewers (and critics) scoff at these qualities, but I think they’re no more inherently silly than any of the tropes we associate with modern horror or action films. Moreover, I think they remain, when applied thoughtfully, useful tools for understanding the human condition. After all, who hasn’t experienced heightened emotional states at moments of crisis or epiphany? As for the narrative contrivances of melodrama, I believe they have the potential to make audiences realize how arbitrary so many social conventions that govern our lives are. For this reason, the melodrama will always have something to teach us, as new generations come to see through different conventions. No filmmaker understood this better than Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose postmodern melodramas tore apart the illusions of postwar political optimism and heteronormative mores, but other directors who have emerged since his untimely passing have utilized the genre just as perceptively.

On the basis of his new feature Asako I & II (2018), Japanese writer-director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi appears to be one of these filmmakers. His innovation here is to deliver melodramatic material with naturalistic, even understated performances and mise-en-scène, and this strategy has the effect of rendering both naturalism and melodrama uncanny. Presenting nonnatural contrivances within otherwise realistic settings, Hamaguchi suggests that the forces governing our lives are not simply arbitrary but practically paranormal. He subtly heightens the impact of this theme by frequently shifting the film’s perspective between its two main characters. Just when we think we understand one protagonist’s emotional drive, Hamaguchi will direct us to consider the other; in doing so, he preserves the power of melodramatic convention while developing a sense of mystery around each of his subjects.

That mysteriousness starts to blossom as early as the first sequence. The title character (Erika Karata), a woman in her early 20s living in Osaka, goes to an art gallery to observe a photography exhibit by Shigeo Gocho. A shaggy-haired young man crosses her path, and when she leaves the gallery, she notices he’s walking in front of her. (Hamaguchi keeps it ambiguous as to whether she chooses to follow him.) Outside the building, the man stops and turns to introduce himself to Asako. He says his name is Baku, then apprehensively moves to caress her. He leans in for a kiss, and Asako, though apparently shocked, kisses him back. Out of nowhere, it seems, two lives are transformed by romantic passion. Cut to some time later, when the two explain in a restaurant how they fell in love to one of Baku’s curious friends. That the two have apparently developed into a happy couple is no less surprising than the spark that brought them together originally.

The next several scenes depict Asako and Baku’s love affair without revealing much about either character. Hamaguchi divulges that Baku’s a club DJ with a tendency to act out violently; as for Asako, she remains something of a blank, apart from her desire to love and be loved. In one unnerving moment, the lovers get into a motorcycle accident, then start kissing on the pavement next to the totaled bike after they realize they’re OK. One evening after dinner at Baku’s apartment, Baku says he’s going out to buy bread and doesn’t return. His roommate tells Asako that Baku’s father is in intensive care and Baku sometimes acts on his grief by disappearing for weeks at a time. Baku shows up the following morning, and Asako forgives him; as she embraces him, she explains in voice-over that six months later he will disappear for good.

Hamaguchi then cuts to two years after Baku’s disappearance. We are now in an office building in Tokyo, and Masahiro Higashide, the actor who played Baku, now appears in the guise of a short-haired salaryman. After Hamaguchi presents a few details of his work, Asako enters. She works in a coffee shop next door to the office and has come to retrieve a coffeepot. Shocked by the sight of her old lover, she begins asking the man personal questions; only now is it revealed that this isn’t Baku, but a different character, Ryôhei. Hamaguchi follows up this melodramatic development with another one a couple scenes later, when Asako bumps into Baku again that evening outside a gallery showing another Shigeo Gocho exhibit. Is this deja vu, or a sign that Asako is meant to be with the familiar- looking stranger? Ryôhei ends up joining Asako and her roommate, Maya, at the exhibit, and the three make plans to meet again. Soon enough, and despite Asako’s trepidation, she and Ryôhei become a couple.

Hamaguchi depicts the pair’s ensuing romance with the same sociological curiosity about middle-class ritual he brought to his previous feature, the realist epic Happy Hour (2015). In fact the film’s placid realism would verge on dullness if it weren’t for Ryôhei’s resemblance to Baku and our knowledge that Asako wrestles with this fact every time she looks at him. Asako I & II develops suspense through the implicit question of whether the heroine likes her new boyfriend for himself or because he reminds her of the all-consuming passion she once experienced with another man.

This opens up another, age-old melodramatic question: Is it possible to live for spontaneous romantic love? Hamaguchi would seem to think it’s not, given his insistence on quiet, respectable naturalism. Yet his insistence doesn’t feel decisive—the questions he raises are never fully resolved. This lack of resolution stems from Hamaguchi’s deliberately vague characterization of Asako; for all the detail he brings to the film’s surface activity, the character’s inner life is always tantalizingly unclear. Ryôhei emerges as the more relatable character, as his puzzlement over Asako’s motivation mirrors the audience’s. That puzzlement has a certain metaphysical twinge, generated in part by the film’s frisson between naturalism and melodrama; Hamaguchi keeps us guessing as to whether the characters’ longings are innate or instilled by something beyond them and us.   v