Monday, October 16, 2006

Gemini (2004) review


Shinya Tsukamoto's take on a Meiji era "Cask of Amantillado", and the parable of Cain and Abel, is possibly one of the best Japanese horror-films ever lensed. There are no supernatural-elements, only the landscape of tormented human-souls. This was a for-hire film for Tsukamoto, and was released through Toho studios. For a director who has often expressed his love for the Toho monster films, it was a dream-come-true, and it did well in Japan. The film was originally slated to be less than feature-length, but because of the director's resourcefulness, it was lengthened to a running-time of 83-minutes. I originally thought the film was a little short, but there-it-is. More amazing is the fact that Tsukamototo was director, editor, writer and cinematographer! Perfection is achieved in all-areas.

While based on a story by the noted Japanese author, Edogawa Rampo, Tsukamoto has made a tale that is more his own. First, he changed the setting of the period-piece from the Showa era (1920s), to the late Meiji era when poverty was more-obvious in Japanese society. He also changed a major plot-point: in Edogawa's original, the doppleganger-brother (Sutekichi) murders his brother, throws him into a disused-well, and steals his identity permanently. Tsukamoto's revisions allow-for much more by the survival of the brother (Yukio), and is more realist since the Sutekichi would have to learn all the medical-knowledge Yukio knows. This would push the story into the realms of the supernatural or the absurd. But, the truth is, this is the oldest-story told. The real trick is making it one's own, and the director achieves this with his running-theme of the love-triangle, and a feminine-wisdom that teaches the male-protagonists something they could never learn otherwise. As-usual, there are also the themes of class and one's standing and honor in Japanese society.

It should be noted that the Japanese have been very-obsessed with an aesthetic for purity and order (like Germans?), and this extends to people. Even today, survivors and the children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are discriminated-against for being "contaminated" and "impure". In the late Meiji era, it was much-worse. The children of the wealthy would be abandoned, just as the brother, Sutekichi. His serpentine-birthmark causes his removal by his purity-obsessed parents, and he is the "bad-seed" to them. The story isn't a long-stretch, and one has to imagine how the real outcasts reacted. And yet, this is still a parable about Japanese society, which has a strangely universal-appeal. Gemini has a tension to it that resembles Poe's stories, and it is also about the psychology between people.

Sutekichi is the monster of this tale, but he was created-by his parents who abandoned-him near the slums. Sutekichi is raised, and taught by a thief to survive, much like an animal. His visage, covered in filth and rat-pelts, is terrifying. He scarcely looks human, a shadow-image of the successful doctor, Yukio. Sutekichi represents the oppression of Japan's violent, disordered-past from the eras of the Shogun and the Samurai. Yukio represents the emergence of a modern Japan, with his work as a doctor and his bourgeois life with his new-wife, Rin. He toils helping cure the rich and the poor alike, and is a hero as a field-doctor in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905). This is important: it was the war that ushered-in Japan as a modern nation, and was the first time that a Western power was defeated by an Asian one. This is about a new Japan.

And yet, the story is creepy. Sutekichi murders his mother and father dressed as a shaman or ghost from traditional Japanese-lore. Also, Yukio and Sutekichi are identical-in-appearance. He is an apparition of the past. Also, the doppelganger is universal as an occult-symbol of death and the unknown, and this is perhaps why the film has a wider-appeal. By the end, it's clear that Yukio must absorb his brother to become whole. In killing his brother, there is a union of the past and present. He has understood the depravity of the slums by festering in the well, and he has understood the crimes of his parents. Rin also plays her part in educating Yukio what it is to be poor and desperate--to live like an animal. The doctor will return to his practice a full-man, but there is an ambivalence, as he also looks menacing striding towards the camera. It is very-much like the ending of Scanners, and so, the connection with Cronenberg remains.