This year’s Halloween movie review is back and I am returning to a familiar name for this year’s chosen film, Shinya Tsukamoto. There are slight spoilers in here.
双生児 -GEMINI- 「そうせいじ ジェミニ 」
Release Date: September 15th, 1999
Duration: 83 mins.
Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Writer: Shinya Tsukamoto (Script), Edogawa Rampo (Original Story – Souseiji: Aru Shikeiin ga Kyoukaishi ni Uchiaketa Hanashi)
Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Ryo, Yasutaka Tsutsui, Shiho Fujimura, Akaji Maro, Masako Motai, Renji Ishibashi, Tomorowo Taguchi, Tadanobu Asano, Naoto Takenaka, Yuriko Hirooka,
Gemini (1999) is an adaptation of the Edogawa Rampo story ‘The Twins’ by Shinya Tsukamoto. Now, tone down any expectations of hyper-stylised violence and prepare yourself for psychological horror as a doppelganger forces a doctor to confront class issues in Tsukamoto’s first period film.
It is Meiji-era Japan and as the country goes through growth pains Yukio (Masahiro Motoki) has been blessed with good fortune. Following his unscathed return from being a military surgeon on the bloody frontlines of an unspecified war, he has followed in his father’s footsteps and taken over the practice in his family’s beautiful home. He is handsome, highly educated and refined, a naturally talented doctor, and well-respected by those who can afford him. To cap things off, he has a beautiful wife, Rin (Ryo). The only wrinkle in his picture-perfect life is that Rin has no past for she has amnesia and nobody knows a thing about her and her social status, something which rankles his parents. Despite this, Yukio is happy.
Things begin to go wrong for him during an outbreak of a plague in a nearby slum. Desperate people besiege his home with entreaties for help but the doctor prioritises treatment of the well-to-do and abandons the needy. Feelings of guilt over his actions turn into paranoia as he becomes aware of strange smells and a shadowy figure lurking in his abode and Rin begins to resent his behaviour towards the poor. When his parents die in mysterious circumstances, a warning from his mother before her death suggests Yukio’s seemingly perfect background has a shadow cast over it. When he is confronted by a stranger named Sutekichi (Masahiro Motoki) who shares his face, the doctor finds himself forced to come to terms with a hidden side to his character at the same time as the mystery of Rin’s past is revealed and it seems that everything finds its roots in the social fault-lines of Japan.
I recommended toning down expectations in the opening paragraph because you might be familiar with Tsukamoto’s frenetic cyberpunk stories Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer where metal sprouts from skin and apocalyptic visions are rendered in stop motion, crazed editing takes us deep into psychosis, and icky body horror is done in practical effects that splinter the screen. Following those career-defining and insane bursts of energy, Tsukamoto moved more towards a calm and considered realism in his 90s output. Though there are bouts of extreme violence and crazy camerawork in his boxing drama Tokyo Fist (1995) and the grim film noir Bullet Ballet (1998), his early energy gave way to increasingly contemplative and brooding stories that allowed for deep dives into ambience as is seen here.
Tsukamoto creates a wonderfully moody Meiji gothic chamber piece in this film thanks to an atmospheric set and his artistic vision. His central location is a traditional house with twisty corridors, dark wood floors, gorgeous fusuma with their illustrations, and shoji that are perfect for letting in varying levels of light and acting as a backdrop for menacing shadows as Sutekichi impinges on Yukio’s perfect life. Interiors are shot with a variety of lighting techniques that emphasise shadows and the use of saturated colours, such as amber and blue, throw a disconcerting and surreal light on surroundings and characters.
These design choices lend the film an almost fairy tale-like feel but the story definitely spikes in moments of horror, especially the night-time introduction of Sutekichi in his garish garb.
Meanwhile, the exteriors offer little reprieve from tension as we are taken to a finely manicured garden but spend a lot of time in a claustrophobic dry well and we enter a chaotic slum crowded with beggars and trash, the likes of which Yukio and his ilk avoid. It is from here which threats and feelings of guilt emanate for the rich and Sutekichi is a symbolic representative of these people.
Throughout the film the issue of class is repeatedly brought up, whether it’s Yukio’s refusal to help the poor, his family’s offensive essentialist beliefs in the natural inferiority of the lower classes, or the upset caused by Rin’s lack of pedigree. Sutekichi’s invasion and inversion of Yukio’s life and the revelation of his background leads to a fundamental questioning of his beliefs as it posits a scenario that pulls apart Yukio’s rigid class definitions that strip people of their humanity. Furthermore, the film effectively explores the duality of human nature as the rich and civilised Yukio confronts his twin, a more animalistic antagonist who bristles with class resentment and makes him understand his position is merely a quirk of fate rather than breeding. The use of twins allows the story to symbolise this inner struggle, the well, a focal point of the drama, being symbolic sort of Yukio’s unconscious, perhaps.
Reading the film as an allegory is helped by the sense that the setting has no specific time. The military costumes and household props locate us in the early 20th century, a time when Japan modernised, its population exploded as did rates of urban poverty, but the striking makeup, which leaves the upper-class cast of characters without eyebrows and painted an aristocratic shade of white, and the mannered behaviour of the performers all adds to the blurring in time periods so that it moves the film into the realm of a fairy tale. It may be set in the past but this story remains relevant today as societies around the world grapple with increasing levels of poverty and discrimination so it is well worth watching and considering the ideas in this film.
Keeping the whole thing flowing are strong performances from the cast, Masahiro Motoki absolutely capturing the massively different behaviours of his two characters while Ryo is a luminous and mysterious beauty who enraptures the camera in many a scene, some which feel like dreamlike fashion shoots as she is wrapped in gorgeous kimono, others requiring her to carry weighty dramatic loads. The two have to balance a love story amidst heavy storylines full of conflict and they do so well, their relationship feeling essential as various conflicts are played out.
Released a year after Bullet Ballet, Gemini came at a time when the world clamoured for more J-horror after audiences experienced terror with Ring (1998) and it was shown at festivals alongside Shikoku, Ring, Ring 2, and Audition and like the latter title, it provides a great contrast to the stories full of vengeful ghosts as it gives audiences a historical horror story with a degree of social commentary that is done in a strikingly beautiful way.
Following this film, Tsukamoto returned to stories set in contemporary times and continued to toned down the horror and special effects. However, explorations of the human psyche, love triangles and hidden histories would be features in his next couple of films, A Snake of June (2002), a psycho-sexual drama where a woman is blackmailed into public acts of indecency, and Vital (2004), which has an amnesiac medical school student digging through his memories of a past lover whilst cutting up corpses. If you want to continue exploring Tsukamoto’s works, these are where you need to go.
And with that, I bid you a Happy Halloween!
Third Window Films are going to bolster their stable of Shinya Tsukamoto films by issuing a (Region B) blu-ray release of Gemini, his 1999 horror title, on November 02nd.
It has a sparkling HD transfer that is pin-sharp and accentuates the colours and the extras, which the disc is packed full of, do a brilliant job of going into the background of the film.
The Takashi Miike documentary provided has nice snapshots of the film but these snippets of shoots are fleshed out in the “Behind the Scenes” which show, in depth, the creation of all of the key sequences, from the prop creation and costume fitting to filming multiple takes where Tsukamoto works with the actors on their performances and in utilising CG. There’s a great section where the construction of and filming in the well is gone into detail and reveals what a remarkable feat was accomplished.
It’s all fascinating viewing that adds extra depth to the film which has a fantastic score by Tsukamoto’s regular composer Chu Ishikawa, one dominated by a track which is all menacing chanting which grows increasingly stronger throughout the film. The make-up demonstration featurette offers some brilliant artistic details and seeing Tsukamoto and his principal cast premiering the film in Venice is a nice addition.
New HD transfer
Audio commentary by Tom Mes, author of Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto
Making of Gemini” featurette directed by Takashi Miike
Behind the Scenes
Make-up demonstration featurette
Venice Film Festival featurette
First 1000 units come with slipcase featuring new artwork illustrated by Ian McEwan
Here’s the trailer and synopsis and a little extra info: