Everyone who has an interest in Japanese cinema knows Shin’ya Tsukamoto – be it from his highly influential cyberpunk trilogy (Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992) and Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009)), his erotic Snake of June (2002), his version of Fires on The Plain (2014), or his latest period piece Killing (2018).
Gemini (1999), now available from Third Windows Films, Tsukamoto’s first foray into period films, brings Edogawa Ranpo’s short story The Twins to life in a way that only he can.
[The blu-ray by Third Windows Films contains, among others, an informative audio track by Tom Mes, a making-off featurette by Takashi Miike, and a revealing behind the scenes video.]
Dr. Yukio Daitokuji (Masahiro Motoki) is living, at least at first glance, an ideal life. Not only is he a young, respected doctor with a thriving practice, but he is also happily married to a beautiful woman called Rin (Ryo). Yet, there is one thing that slightly bothers him. His wife suffers from amnesia and is unable to share her past with him.
Then, one day, Yukio’s father (Yasutaka Tsutsui) meets a gruesome end. At the funeral, his mother questions once again Yukio’s marriage to Rin, stating that the house has felt odd since she started living there. Not long thereafter, his mother (Shiho Fujimura) dies and Yukio, after being attacked by someone, is thrown in the well in the garden.
Gemini is a narrative that touches upon two themes to deliver its message: the theme of the unknown and the unheimlich and the theme of class-based prejudices. The first theme is evoked by Yukio’s initial position in the narrative. Yukio vacillates between a wish to resolve the unknown that marks his wife and a wish to enjoy his marital life as it is and his wife in her current amnestic state. Yukio is caught – and this is fundamental – between the desire to known and the desire not to know his wife’s past. This unknown that he wants to know and, at the very same time, does not want to know disturbs his ability to fully enjoy his current marital life.
The sudden death of his parents radically alters his ideal life – a life he enjoyed but, due to the mystery that surround his wife, not to the fullest. Yet, these sudden deaths, these deaths that confront Yukio with the unheimlich that marks the house, does not instigate him to question his amnestic wife, but compels him to seek, within the parental house, the source of this Otherness. Then, one day, after Yukio’s unheimlich feeling has subsided, he is attacked by someone, his double, and thrown into the well.
In this respect, it must be mentioned that Gemini has an interesting narrative structure, a structure that beautifully plays with the unheimlich. While, at first, the only unheimlich for the spectator is Yukio’s wife, Yukio’s double becomes, after throwing Yukio into the well and taking over his life, unheimlich for the spectator as well. The spectator is ultimately confronted with multiple questions: What is Rin’s desire and Yukio’s double’s desire? And where lie their respective enjoyment?
The second theme that Gemini touches upon is not so much the struggle between classes as such, but the dehumanization of the lower classes by the higher class as well as the prejudices of those of the higher class against those who live in the slums. While Tsukamoto visually shows the difference between the civilized upper level of society, full of people subjected to repression of their carnal desires, and the uncivilized underbelly of society, full of those who, largely unbothered by societal repression, try to survive, Tsukamoto does not substantiate this distinction. What Tsukamoto ultimately illustrates, via Rin and via Yukio’s double/twin, is that, beyond class differences and social stratification, all speaking beings are driven by the same neurotic desire: the desire to be loved/the desire to love. Only by discerning that this neurotic desire underpins the central conflicts that structure the unfolding of the narrative, can one truly appreciate the ending-sequence and the message of Gemini.
The composition of Gemini – a mixture of fixed shots, shaky tracking movement as well as shaky spatial movement – stands out due to Tsukamoto’s energetic and somewhat rough compositional style. Even though Tsukamoto’s energetic style gives a pleasing rhythm to the unfolding of his narrative, this style does sometimes interfere, especially in the beginning of the narrative, with Tsukamoto’s attempts to evoke an unsettling atmosphere. By editing certain sequences too energetically, he robs certain shots (especially shots of Rin) of their ability to unnerve the spectator. On the other hand, Tsukamoto’s use of visceral camera movement and his play with compositional pacing does enable him to infuse palpable tension into his narrative as well as startle the spectator with unsettling visual moments (Cine-note 1).
Moreover, to engender an unsettling and ominous atmosphere, Tsukamoto also relies on the colour/lighting design. While the lighting design, i.e. the play between light and shadow, is exploited for atmospheric effect in a straightforward manner, Tsukamoto utilizes the colour-design in a more expressive manner. The expressive use of colour-design is evident in the alternation between sequences with a realistic colour palate and sequences with a warm yellowish tinge. The yellowish colour-scheme, by adding a very prominent visual warmth to the certain scenes, subtly expresses that both Yukio and Rin consider their current marital life as being ideal – this colour palate echoes, in other words, the satisfaction they feel in their marriage.
Tsukamoto also relies on sounds and musical accompaniment for crafting an ominous atmosphere – supporting his energetic visual composition with a mix between ominous, rhythmically tensive, serene, and more lighthearted musical accompaniment. By alternating the serene musical accompaniment with the ominous musical accompaniment (i.e. the insisting religious-sounding chants and the dramatic opera-styled singing that disturbs the idealized dimension of their marital life), Tsukamoto succeeds, very early on in the narrative, in putting the spectator on edge (Cine-note 2).
Another element that supports the subtly unsettling nature of the atmosphere in the beginning of the narrative is the presence of the character Rin as such – her presence, just as the mother contends, disturbs the warm ideal. That the presence of this character strengthens the estranging atmosphere is due to an interplay between three elements: Ryo’s restraint acting-performance, the exquisite costume design and otherworldly make-up-style, and the narrative insistence on her amnesia.
With Gemini, Tsukamoto delivers a fabulous and unique romance horror narrative. What makes Tsukamoto’s Gemini so special is not the energetic and carnivalesque visualization of the animalistic side of human subjectivity as such, but because he succeeds with his thrilling horror narrative to uncover the often-forgotten truth that all speaking beings are driven by a desire to be loved/desire to love.
Cine-note 1: Later in the narrative, Tsukamoto starts, by using more temporally long shots in his energetically paced composition, to emphasize the emotions of Yukio and other characters.
Cine-note 2: In the scene where Rin discovers the body of Yukio’s father, the ominous music foreshadows the atmospheric change – the warm ideal atmosphere suddenly transforming into a dark, ominous one.