There have been many stories about people encountering an exact double of themselves, but my favorite approach to this situation is the social one: we’re never quite so weird as when we’re seeing ourselves in a mirror. Polish author Stanisław Lem had great fun with this idea many times in various guises — he had his heroes bumping into himself (himselves?) due to botched time travel systems or other cosmic mishaps. Doppleganger, a movie by the intriguing Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, uses the social approach: we’re never so much an ass as when we’re trying to one-up ourselves.
Doppelganger opens with a scene that’s like something out of an X-Files episode teaser. A young woman sees someone who looks like her brother on the way home, and then finds him already waiting for her when she gets there. Not long after, she gets a phone call: Apparently her brother killed himself by jumping in front of a train. Who, then, is the fellow in her brother’s room, typing merrily away on his computer? His double, or doppelganger?
Uptight engineer Hayasaki's life is turned upside down by
the appearance of a man who claims to be ... him!
The movie then shifts to Hayasaki (Kōji Yakusho, who consistently plays the everyman protagonist in Kurosawa’s movies), a scientist for a medical-equipment company. He’s working on a robot can allow paralyzed people to walk and manipulate objects. “Human will is complicated,” he grouses at his henpecked assistant who wants to simplify the project, “and the whole point of this thing is to replicate the complexity of human will. Otherwise, what’s the point?” He developed one of the devices that keeps the company solvent, but he doesn’t want to rest on his laurels or get promoted to management. He’s sullen, pushy, type A, and he clashes angrily with his supervisor who wants to redirect his project funding into something they can bring to market a little more quickly.
One night Hayasaki is out eating dinner when he glimpses someone at another table that seems to look…exactly like him. Then he comes home and discovers the same fellow already in his house. The other man doesn’t say anything, just peers at him and then vanishes without a word. Is this his double? The most he can bring himself to admit is that maybe someone’s stalking him, or that the pressure of his work is making him lose his mind. Then comes a moment of near-genius when we see Hayasaki go into the same restaurant as before, sit down at the booth next to his double, and order “what he’s having” — and then we realize the other one is the original Hayasaki, who leaps up and runs home and barely remembers to pay for his coffee. There is only room for one of him in his life, and if he wasn’t his own worst enemy before, he sure it now.
Hayasaki and his double enter into a complicated relationship which
includes, of course, vying for the attention of a woman.
One night the double trashes his lab on a whim, and Hayasaki’s fired. He uses his new time off to find out more about this other double he’s also heard about. Ironically enough, the dead man’s sister likes her “new” brother better — he’s more motivated, less of a leech and a slacker. Is the point to such manifestations (if there even could be said to be a “point”) to show people their limits, to force them to become better people? Or just to do all the things they wanted to do but couldn’t, like Tyler Durden in Fight Club? The double is not evil and not good, just…differently motivated, and with a will to live that matches (and maybe even exceeds) Hayasaki’s own.
Where the film goes from here some people might find frustrating, because instead of getting tangled up in the logic of the situation’s origins (where do the doubles come from?), it moves forward with reckless abandon. What would you do if you had a double who could do everything you never could, and could take the blame for you in your stead if it came to that? Hayasaki and the double start dividing labor — one stealing and killing, the other working on the robot chair project again. Then more people enter the picture, creating real problems that a double cannot simply make disappear. And then there are a number of other surprises designed to confuse us thoroughly — but in a clever way, not because the film doesn’t know any better. What if, for instance, the double starts to take on qualities that only the original had?
Kurosawa started as a director of direct-to-video J-horror cheapies and has turned over the past decade into a filmmaker of the same inclinations and caliber as David Cronenberg. He uses horror and fantasy as a medium, a way of expressing ideas about our world that might not otherwise be easy to treat. Not everything works — his Kairo seemed like a complete waste of time — but when he gets it right (the allegorical Charisma, or the astounding Cure) the results are nothing less than electric. His movies are typically not very splashy visually, but here he often uses a device I haven’t seen often in a movie — he’ll frame and focus a shot in such a way that we expect someone (or something) else to be in the frame, but they aren’t. He also uses a great many split-screen effects to show us Hayasaki talking to Hayasaki, a sort of directorial nudge-in-the-ribs that actually got a big laugh from me the first time he did it.
Shinya Tsukamoto’s Gemini had something of the same premise — a man’s life is torn apart when his double appears — but spun it in a more horrific, Gothic direction — and its excesses were essentially par for the course. Gemini also held better through to the end, as the last twenty minutes or so of Doppelganger are a complete mess, enough for me to downgrade the film’s rating to a mere two and a half stars. Instead of black comedy we get outright farce, and the credibility that the movie built up beforehand is all destroyed. I was reminded of the similarly chaotic ending to Charisma, wherein various parties killed or were killed by each other with the remorseless logic of a chess game, and the works of man are cheerfully laid to waste, or something. It’s a frankly silly ending to a movie that, up until that point, seemed to have a real mind of its own. Maybe even two.