For decades Edogawa Rampo spellbound Japan with his stories of mystery and horror, a mixture of his English-language namesake (Edgar Allan Poe) and the "erotic-grotesque-nonsense" aesthetic that came to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s. And for decades Shinya Tsukamoto has been spellbinding audiences throughout Japan and the rest of the world with his movies riddled with much of the same dread and fleshly torment. With Gemini, Tsukamoto used one of Rampo's stories as the point of departure for one of his best films, one that starts with Rampo's psychological phantasmagora and moves out from there into more modern and ambitious territory.
The doctor and his wife
Sometime in the Taisho Era (around 1910, it seems), Dr. Yukio Daitokuji (Masahiro Motoki), a veteran medic of the Russo-Japanese War, runs a medical clinic out of his elegant house. His devotion and care are held in high esteem in the community, as he followed in the footsteps of his doctor father (Paprika novelist Yasutaka Tsutsui). He has a fianceé, a beautiful woman named Rin (Ryo), whom he allegedly found without her memory near the remains of a burned-down house and took in.
What contentment they all have seems tentative, as even from the beginning unfocused doubts course through all of them. Yukio's story about Rin was a concoction designed to get his parents to accept her more readily: he found her naked by the riverside one day (although, again, with no recollection of her past). A woman of low standing wouldn't do for the wife of a doctor. Yukio tacitly agrees, something made not-so-tacit one night when two patients show up in a frenzy. One's a mother and child from the slums, both plague victims. The other is the mayor, who got drunk, fell on a stake, and ruptured his abdomen. Rin is furious Yukio would snub the slum dweller, but Yukio's prejudices become clear: his role as a healer has not eclipsed his defense of a reactionary order of things.
Strange events unfold. Yukio's father dies abruptly one night (it's implied that it's a suicide). His mother, already rattled by the experience, passes away after seeing a ragged apparition in the house, one with an ugly, snakelike deformity on one leg. And then, one day while Yukio is outside the house, taking in some fresh air, he's attacked by another man and thrown into a disused well at the edge of his property, impossible to climb out of. The attacker is ... him.
Whoever this doppelgänger is, he seems to know everything about Yukio — how to conduct his business, how to comport himself in front of his servants, even the fact that he takes one extra lump of sugar with tea to pop straight into his mouth. In the early morning and late evening he uncovers the well, contemptuously throws food at Yukio, and torments him with talk of how he's eclipsed him completely. He is, as we learn, a piece of the family's past they did their best to throw away, and he is now back to take what's his. Not just Rin, but all the good things the doctor's life has to offer along with her, all things forbidden to the wretched of the slum.
A stolen life
This double, we learn, came from the slums Yukio so despises, along with Rin herself. The two of them were curpurses and thieves, looting from the houses of the wealthy. They were separated from each other when the double took the life of another slum-dweller (whether justified or not), and Rin took to looting on her own. When she, too, killed a man she was robbing by accidentally setting his house on fire, she fled her community, and found refuge in Yukio's kindness. But she's no amnesiac: she remembers everything, painfully so. When she confronts the double about what he's done, he does his best to gaslight her, at the same time knowing full well she's right. He came all this way to take her back, only to find she was never his to begin with. And for all his careful observation and planning, he hasn't counted on Yukio making a desperate bid for freedom.
Tsukamoto took only the barest outlines of "The Twins", Rampo's original short story, to make his film. The story, written in the form of a confessional by a condemned man, involves the same basic idea: two men, separated at birth, one of whom rises in life and the other falls. The fallen man plots to replace his sibling, but makes a single mistake that ends up sending him to the gallows. None of the sociological dimensions of Gemini exist in the story: it's half old-school detective story, where things like the mechanics of fingerprints become someone's undoing. But the other half is Gothic thriller, a flavor Tsukamoto draws on vigorously for his movie, something he's always been partial to anyway.
As with Tokyo Fist and Bullet Ballet, Tsukamoto sets up a fractured love triangle: two men duelling over a woman, only the woman has other plans. Rin's agency in the story takes up a significant amount of its time, especially in its second half. She's no wilting flower, and maybe that's why Yukio is drawn to her. Look at the scene where she upbraids him for operating on the drunken mayor (whose injury was his own stupid fault) and spurning the plague victims (who are blameless). He knows she's right; he just has the weight of family and social conventions rounding down his shoulders.
The end of the film implies Yukio's ordeal has transformed him for the better. It shows him marching out of his house, bag in hand, to do his rounds in the slum district, where before he would never have ventured. Whatever he thinks or feels about the ones in the slums may still be one thing, but his experience has shown him how he and they share more than they both know. His double had within him the ability to be a "civilized" man, and he has seen his ability to be a "beast" as well. He owes it to himself, and them, to be fully civilized, if the word is to have any meaning.
Gemini was Tsukamoto's first full-blown period piece, but only the second time he'd produced a film under someone else's umbrella — both times for the same outfit. In 1991 he made the horror-fantasy Hiruko The Goblin for Sedic International, and eight years later the same producer, Toshiaki Nakazawa, came calling with an offer to adapt Rampo's "Twins". Tsukamoto was not in the habit of saying yes to third-party offers, if only because he didn't want to spend time on something that had no personal resonance for him (and had found good ways to write his own ticket), but he was intrigued by all the ways he could make the story his own.
Originally slated to be a short, Gemini got bumped to eighty-minute feature length by its distributor, Toho, but the budget wasn't expanded to fit — in fact, Tsukamoto claimed the film cost only about as much as one of his own indie productions. To make every yen count, Tsukamoto drafted in personnel from his indie production outfit Kaijyu Theater, and used all the budget-cutting techniques he'd picked up along the way (e.g., post-dubbing all sound, to dispense with the need for an on-set recording crew). The results are lush and vibrant in every shot; nothing about the film looks cheap. Especially striking is the shantytown slum, with all its blazing patchwork colors, rippling in heat and half-invisible in steam, made doubly ominous by longtime Tsukamoto collaborator Chu Ishikawa's pounding choral score.
When I wrote about Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man here, the adjective that came to mind most was "hand-made", and the same adjective surfaces each time I re-watch another of his movies. Every project of his feels not just personal, but personalized. Gemini showed Tsukamoto could do that even when working with someone else's money and material. And even though it ranges far from what Rampo wrote, it's arguably among the very best things ever derived from his work, in big part because it doesn't stop where the author did.