Central Question: Can a film divided against itself stand?


Nicholas Rombes
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Doppelganger, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to that Kurosawa), is a film that, like its protagonist, superimposes itself on itself. For one hour and forty-seven minutes it hopscotches in tone, shifting abruptly among all sorts of genres and then looping back through them, from graphic horror to metaphysical thriller to pratfall comedy to romance. All without a trace of irony: this is not a film interested in “deconstructing” genres to make a point. Rather, Doppelganger is fueled by the total commitment of the remarkable actor KÔji Yakusho to his two parts: the character Michio Hayasaki and the character of Hayasaki’s double.

The film opens with a young man walking casually up the edge of a bridge and jumping to his death. As in most of Kurosawa’s films, there are no visual or musical cues to warn us; it’s like the camera just happened to catch the jump. We later learn that the jumper had seen his doppelgänger: as one of Hayasaki’s coworkers explains in passing, “If you see [your doppelgänger], you die.” At this early point in the story, the film relies on long, slow shots to signal a deep sense of unease and menace. But then something strange happens: around the same time Hayasaki sees his doppelgänger (a funnier, greedier, sloppier, meaner, animalistic version of himself), the film goes off the rails. It splits, just as Hayasaki has: suddenly it feels like we’re watching a supercharged absurdist comedy, even though it still looks like the film we had been watching.

There are hints of this formal shape-shifting in Kurosawa’s previous films. In Doppelganger, however, the customary ambience of metaphysical dread is radically undermined by unexpected shifts in tone: take the Monty Python–esque escapade that ensues when an “artificial body” chair falls from a van in the middle of a high-speed pursuit. The mash-up of generic tones in this scene—broad comedy, the chase film, the getaway—cuts against the grain of genre-mixing films of the same era (such as Tarantino’s Kill Bill films) by leaving ironic meta-commentary out of the equation. That is, Doppelganger uses pastiche not as a wink to the knowing audience but as a straight-on shared experience of reality in all its variegated, contradictory forms.

Said artificial body chair turns out to be an important binding element in the film: initially a mind-controlled wheelchair that Hayasaki builds for a shadowy corporation, it slowly evolves into a character of its own as it’s stolen, smashed, rebuilt, argued over, and eventually driven off a cliff into the ocean. At one point a frustrated pre-doppelgänger Hayasaki chides a coworker who believes it would be best to simplify the machine: “I thought the point was to replicate the complexity of human behavior,” he exclaims, throwing down his screwdriver. “Get with it!” In this way the chair hints at the metaphysical can of worms the film opens: is the doppelgänger a double of the human, or vice versa? Does the original give rise to the replica, or the replica to the original, or are they one and the same? Late in the film, during a spectacularly brutal fight, Hayasaki’s doppelgänger screams to Hayasaki: “I accept the you inside of me… you have to accept the me inside of you!”

A decade after its release, Doppelganger’s reputation has shifted from that of a curious transitional point in ­Kurosawa’s canon to something more like the center from which the other films emanate, using his signature split screens and abrupt mood shifts in the service of a plot that mirrors these formal choices. And while the film remains as jolting as it was in 2003, it now feels like it has absorbed the weird, unsteady tone of our time in America—as though it somehow prefigured the strange aftershocks of 9/11, the sand-splitting wars, the quickly splintered feeling of unified heartsickness, the national derangement concerning torture and its attendant simulacra effect in which a nation’s self-conception folded back on itself.

Doppelganger thus reminds us of how a seismic shift in mood and feeling can alter not only the way we see a film but also the film itself. If, as quantum theory suggests, the mere act of observation actually changes what is being observed at the particle level, then perhaps it’s not impossible to imagine that sometimes this phenomenon manifests at the level of our observable reality as well. Which is to say that today, ten years hence, Doppelganger emerges as a double of its original self, the same and yet not quite the same.

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