The doctor always wondered, idly, what was obscured by his wife’s faulty memory. Being an ex-army surgeon, and having seen the worst of the Russo-Japanese war, a trauma of the mind was hard for him to fathom. A scarred face, a scarred body—but not a scarred soul. She’s clearly disturbed, but can’t remember why. And in the rather smothering atmosphere of his house, where he practices medicine with his ailing mother and his sullen adoptive father, there’s little chance of her feeling normal.
This is the premise for Shinya Tsukamoto’s Gemini, which loosely adapts an Edogawa Ranpo short story and turns it into a movie of remarkable power. Tsukamoto is of course the “punk” director of such techno-modern nightmares as Tetsuo the Iron Man, Tokyo Fist and Bullet Ballet. His early productions were done under the collective name of the “Man-Sized Monster Theater,” and his focus has long been on monsters in human form in the modern era. With Gemini, he plunges into the early part of Japan’s 20th century—the dawn of Japan’s modern times—and finds monsters there as well.
One day the doctor is out for a stroll by the well on the edge of his property. There, he is attacked and thrown down into the cistern by a stranger, and when he looks up at the man’s face, he sees … himself. This double then proceeds to usurp his life, sliding into the conjugal bed, destroying his reputation—while at the bottom of the well, the original doctor slides into madness and bloodthirsty rage. Every now and then the double visits him, taunting him with suggestions that what has happened is not entirely the result of bad luck—that the doctor may be to blame for what has happened, if only in the most oblique way.
There is a great deal more, none of which I want to spoil. One of the most infuriating things about the way the movie was promoted and released was that several of the movie’s most important secrets were revealed on the back of the video box and in the trailer itself. This is unforgivable, especially considering the caliber of the movie and its source material. Spare yourself the ad copy and just watch the film; the less you know, the better, especially when the film turns the halfway mark and shows how a great deal of what has been going on is simply a façade.
Tsukamoto’s jolting style might seem to make him the wrong choice of director for a period suspense thriller, but he fills the screen with gorgeous colors and lurid, slashing sweeps of motion and energy, and reins it all in when none of that is needed. Rin, played by model-turned-actress Ryo, is the movie’s visual and emotional center with her bizarre quasi-Dutch hairdo and her toothy smile. Masahiro Motoki is amazingly effective as both the staid doctor and his sneering double. Earlier, the doctor’s quiet, polished manners are a textbook example of proper Japanese face. Later on, when the doctor exacts revenge, he has turned into one of Tsukamoto’s pop-eyed half-human monsters. It doesn’t feel like a directorial indulgence, either: it totally fits the aim and scope of the material.
Tsukamoto loves to fill the screen with color and movement, but his trademark hyperkinetic look is toned down a bit. It’s actually closer to the “Kabuki cinema” look pioneered in Seijun Suzuki’s films—blaring costume designs, hairstyles (I mentioned Ryo’s weird basketweave), and dance-troupe-like bodily movements. There’s also something else that didn’t even consciously register with me until about 10-15 minutes into the movie, obvious as it was, and which only contributed further to the incredible sense of unease and disjointedness that the movie evokes in the viewer. [No one in the movie has eyebrows.]
Much of what Gemini addresses, however obliquely, is tied into the Japanese concept of face--how you present yourself to the world and your peers. This is in turn used comment on another singularly Asian notion—that of the uncontrollable inheritance of ideas or philosophies from one’s elders. In a key scene, two people show up for treatment at the doctor’s clinic. One of them is a slumdwelling woman with a baby; both are infected with plague. The other is the town mayor, who got drunk and fell over on a post and impaled himself. The doctor hesitates, then treats the mayor first, despite the protest of Rin. Later on, he defends his position: “I don’t like it, but there’s nothing I can do about it, is there? It’s what my father would have done.” Rin counters angrily with: “And what about you? What would you do?” But there is no “I” for the doctor except what he presents to the world, and that will become his undoing.
The notion that one’s identity is inextricable from the choices one makes in life is probably a peculiarly Western one, and the movie works hard to show up that dichotomy. When the twin shows up, he gleefully mocks the doctor’s good intentions (and by proxy, his whole family’s intentions). They’ll turn away the slumdwellers they don’t feel like treating, but they can’t deal with the possibility that they may have one of them among them (i.e, the amnesiac wife)—and, again, revealing more would be poisonous to the film, so I will stop there. Part of the movie’s pleasure is in seeing its plot unfold, and in watching how its basic story gives way to some remarkably complex and thought-provoking issue-making. What starts as a mystery and becomes a revenge thriller turns into a sly and ominous dissection of the concept of the personality.
Gemini was adapted (with considerable freedom) from a short story by Edogawa Rampo, a Japanese author who often rates little more than a footnote in the East for his choice of name (say it out loud, see what other author it sounds like). This is a shame. Rampo wrote some remarkably insightful and psychologically acute fiction in the guise of thrillers and mysteries, on the order of a Japanese Hitchcock. Several of his other stories, including The Spider Man, The Walker in the Attic and The Human Chair have been made into excellent films in Japan, and a remarkable and surreal treatment of his life and work, The Mystery of Rampo, made it into U.S. theaters for a brief run. Tsukamoto himself was important back when he released the two Tetsuo movies, but now he’s become a requirement.