9*. GEMINI (1999)

Sôseiji

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Masahiro Motoki, Ryô

PLOT: Yukio is a successful doctor, decorated for his service in the war. His wife Rin is an amnesiac. Yukio discovers he has an identical twin from whom he was separated at birth—a resentful and savage twin, bent on revenge.

Still from Gemini (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tsukamoto adapted the story from a 1924 short story by Edogawa Rampo (“the Japanese Edgar Allan Poe”).
  • In an unusual move, fellow director assembled a 15-minute “making of” featurette to accompany the film on DVD.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our first glimpse of the twin in the shadows. He looks just like Yukio, but wears ragged robes and a bizarre fur earmuff that covers half of his face. He shakes like he’s having a fit, then approaches the camera by doing cartwheels. It’s scary enough to give someone a heart attack.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Eyebrowless clan; somersaulting doppelganger

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Pulling back from the unbridled mania of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and similar body-horror experiments, Shinya Tsukamoto proves that he can generate cold sweats with a more subtle, purely psychological approach. With its deep shadows and determined pace, Gemini generates an uncanny horror that seeps into your bones.

The opening minutes of “The Making of Gemini

COMMENTS: Gemini begins with an abstract, ominous prologue. It features composer Chu Ishikawa’s short but powerful theme, an eerie tape-looped chant that grows in sinister intensity as another chorus joins in a counter-melody. Meanwhile, the camera shows us maggots, rats, and a decaying corpse lying in a puddle. This disturbing opening suggests a theme of vermin and disease; appropriately, the first shot of the story proper introduces our protagonist as a famous doctor.

Edogawa Rampo wrote the story on which this was based in 1924, and based on the absence of modern technology and the archaic costuming, the story could be set around the turn of the century. A reference to Hoten (a Japanese POW camp in Manchuria during WWII, where unethical medical experiments were conducted) suggests a later date. Ultimately, Gemini supplies little internal evidence for its setting existing in any particular time or place other than the Land of Parable. What immediately jumps out at you about the milieu Tsukamoto creates is that none of the people in this world have eyebrows (or rather, they have only faint impressions of eyebrows, an illusion created by the painstaking application of latex to the actor’s faces). This factor suggests hikimayu, the ancient Japanese practice of removing the eyebrows that died out in the 19th century; except that hikimayu was practiced by upper-class women only, not everyone, and they would replace their shaved eyebrows with smudges of ink. The lack of eyebrows therefore obliquely suggests the story happens sometime in Japan’s past, but in a distorted version.  As the movie goes on, you also note the rigid class structure of this world: the doctor and his respectable patients live removed from the “slums,” which the prejudiced Yukio believes to be an irredeemable cauldron of infection and depravity. Into this dreamlike and allegorical setting, Gemini inserts melodramatic complications—an amnesiac, an evil identical twin, abandoned lovers—to create a simple yet surprisingly deep and enigmatic allegory.

Far from the hectic technique we associate with Tetsuo, Gemini moves at a lethargic and brooding pace. For example, over dinner Yukio hints that the house is making him uncomfortable: a vague feeling of being watched, a strange smell the maids can’t precisely locate and eradicate. Later, Rin hears something that the audience cannot, and begins walking down the shadowy corridors of the empty house; incomplete snatches of Ishikawa’s theme pop up and fade away as she creeps slowly through the silent halls. It’s an unexpectedly subtle and spooky turn by Tsukamoto, one that sets up a similar journey down the same halls by Yukio’s mother later—one that ends in a louder and more startling reveal. Gemini‘s lighting is often dramatic and weird, in unnaturally saturated shades of red, orange, blue or green. Ryô gives a restrained performance as Rin, as befits a repressed woman with a head full of secrets. Masahiro Motoki is similarly proper as Yukio, but cuts loose into sneering villainy as Sutekichi, the evil twin. Like the contrast between the two long-lost brothers, the differences between Yukio’s privileged palace and the slums is stark. The slum people wear bright and barbaric, if ragged, robes. The flashbacks to slum life are presented in what we think of as Tsukamoto’s signature style: abrasive music, careening cameras, fast editing. A kung fu battle in the middle of the film even end with arterial spray, a visceral exploitation detail that feels out of place among the quiet atmospheric moments of the rest of the film. The stylistic switch-up may not be completely effective, but the incongruity is certainly strange, and marks the film as a true Tsukamoto vehicle, in case we had forgotten.

When we arrive in the story, Yukio’s only real problem is his concern over his wife’s amnesia, and the intrusion of the uncanny doppelganger to destabilize the protagonist’s happy existence  suggests that Gemini calls for a psychoanalytic reading. Given that the story deals with intimate familial relationships—Yukio at the center, orbited by his parents, wife, and brother—and casts them in terms of sharp-edged melodrama, that psychological aspect will always be in the background. Tsukamoto pushes a slightly different angle, however, playing the story as an allegory of self-destructive class consciousness. Yukio’s mother disapproves of Yukio’s marriage because Rin is an amnesiac and her pedigree is unknown; it’s impossible to determine if she is from marriage-worthy stock. Significantly, Yukio has not fathered a child with her yet. Yukio’s extraordinary prejudice against the slum dwellers, illustrated both in word (confessing that he believes that if the slums burned down it would be “the end of all our troubles”) and in deed (choosing to treat the wealthy and powerful, and ignoring a poor mother and child begging for his help) is his only apparent character flaw. In fact, although Yukio does not realize it, his irrational prejudice is the true source of all his problems—fuel for his brother’s deadly resentment, and a contraceptive barrier in his marriage.

Every literary battle between doppelgangers, twins, or shadow archetypes symbolizes an internal struggle between different aspects of an individual. The question is, will the good twin win? The answer here would seem to be yes. Not only does Yukio defeat his shadow twin, he seems to be changed for the better afterwards. It appears he has quickly fathered a child, suggesting that he has learned to overlook Rin’s lack of pedigree and thereby regained his own sexual potency. And he now willingly enters the slums, presumably to donate his medical expertise to the poor. But Tsukamoto leaves some ambiguity in this resolution. Why does the old sage who sits by the gate outside Yukio’s mansion recoil in horror when he sees the transformed doctor? And why does the movie’s terrifying theme song crank up as Yukio marches towards the steaming slums? Tsukamoto presents what should be a celebration of the restored moral order instead as an ominous event, complete with a final closeup on Yukio’s mysteriously determined face. It just wouldn’t feel right for Gemini to end with the unambiguous triumph of good over evil.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Not nearly as abrasive as some of the director’s earlier films (think Testuo The Iron Man), Gemini is nevertheless a genuinely bizarre and occasionally unsettling work.”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)

“Although with Shinya Tsukamoto at the helm, Gemini could never turn out as anything as simple as a straight historical drama and what emerges reminds, if anything, of the deadpan bizarreness of a Peter Greenaway film. The Greenaway connection is something bolstered by the weirdly over-ornamented costumery – the upper-classes in pasty-faced makeup and shaven eyebrows, the women with exaggerated bun hairstyles, and the double in a patchwork costume and makeup that for all the world looks like a rainbow-hued rat that has just emerged from a muddy puddle.”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Review

IMDB LINK: Gemini (1999)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Rampo’s repetitions: the doppelganger in Edogawa Rampo and Tsukamoto Shin’ya – Abstract of an academic article discussing the doppelganger symbolism in the movie and the original short story

HOME VIDEO INFO: Due to the rights being held separately, Gemini was not included in Arrow Video’s 2020 Shinya Tsukamoto box set “Solid Metal Nightmares.” Fortunately, Mondo Macrabro immediately stepped in with a single disc Blu-ray release of this key entry in Tsukamoto’s filmography (buy). This is the film’s first appearance on Blu-ray, with a new HD transfer from the original negative. Extras include the Takashi Miike-created behind-the-scenes documentary, the Venice Film Festival premiere reel, a short demonstration of the makeup, twenty additional minutes of raw behind-the-scenes footage, plus the trailer (and trailers for other Mondo Macabro features). There is nothing especially noteworthy about the behind-the-scenes documentary, which alternates clips from the film with scenes of the crew at work, except for the novelty that someone as independently established as Miike made it, presumably as a demonstration of respect for Tsukamoto. The first 1000 units sold by Mondo Macabro included a commemorative booklet with an essay by Tom Mes.

The 2006 Image Entertainment DVD (buy) is now out of print and fetches higher prices than the new Blu-ray release, but is available on the secondary market should you need it. It duplicates the Miike documentary, original trailer, and makeup demonstration from the above release. It also has a photo gallery, a once popular DVD extra that now seems quaint.

At the time of this writing, Gemini was not available on streaming platforms.

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