August 16, 2006
Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Doppelganger Double Feature
Kiyoshi Kurosawa - 2000
Home Vision Entertainment Region 1 DVD
Kiyoshi Kurosawa - 2003
Tartan Video Region 1 DVD
The recent release of the American version of Pulse inspired me to catch up on a couple more films by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. As it turned out, Seance was based on the novel Seance on a Wet Afternoon, filmed in 1964 by Bryan Forbes. Kurosawa's film isn't so much a remake as it is a twisted reworking of key plot elements. While Kurosawa admits to no direct literary or filmic influences for Doppelganger, the film shares with Dostoevsky the notion of a "twin" who appears to create havoc on one's life. As it progresses, Doppelganger takes on the resemblance to some of the films of Brian De Palma. While Kurosawa is unable to sustain a comic mood for more than a few seconds, he is consciously aiming for a dark comedy with moments of slapstick. What is also shared with De Palma includes several scenes using split screens, and De Palma's thematic obsession with twins or doubles. Seance also has a De Palma connection by having Koji Yakusho play a sound recordist, a job somewhat similar to that of John Travolta in De Palma's Blow Out.
Both of Kurosawa's films here begin similarly with an explanation of doppelgangers including the explanation that one who sees their "twin" will die soon. At its best Seance is like a contemporary version of the kind of horror films produced by Val Lewton in the Forties. Kurosawa creates a sense of creepiness and unease with lights, sound, wind and those unknown horrors that are just outside the camera frame, if not behind a door or under a blanket. Showing the ghosts, faceless people who suddenly appear and disappear at will, undermines the mood of Seance, perhaps the fallout of viewing Japanese and American versions of The Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water. The J-Horror ghost, especially the screaming kid, has quickly become another film cliche. The appearance of doppelgangers aside, Seance maintains its suspense as several coincidences add up to tragedy, and a middle-aged couple who think of themselves as ordinary find themselves in an extraordinary situation made worse by a every attempt to outguess fate.
Doppelganger is unusual in that Kurosawa is in a more playful mood, and the usually somber Yakusho even cracks a smile as his character's mischievous alter ego. The doubles in Doppelganger are twins who are opposite selves. In some ways, Doppelganger could be seen as having Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde share the same space. The film is also a critique of how scientific altruism and a demand for perfection get corrupted by capitalism. The split screen is sometimes used to show Yakusho as the twins in two different places at once, while at other times the technique indicates the character's sense of split personality. While the narrative goes into unexpected directions when Yakasho's scientist and his double co-exist in an uneasy truce, Kurosawa is by nature too serious even for the blackest of comedies. Displaying humor in brutality and violence takes a special talent that eludes this Kurosawa. No matter how funny Kurosawa tries to be, it's as if he were on automatic pilot to make the kind of serious-minded horror films that first gained him attention. Another critic mentioned that Doppelganger might represent Kurosawa's conflicts of his demands as an artist with the demands of Japan's film industry. If the conclusion of Doppelganger is any indication, it can be seen as symbolic of someone who creates and then destroys his own art because of the impossibility of offering it to the public on the artist's own terms.
Posted by peter at August 16, 2006 02:51 PM
Peter, I'm a big Kiyoshi fan; I've seen about a dozen of his films. But not DOPPELGANGER, which I hear is a sort of loose companion piece to BRIGHT FUTURE (which I've also not seen).
My favorites by him are probably: CURE, LICENSE TO LIVE, CHARISMA, BARREN ILLUSION...
Posted by: girish at August 17, 2006 09:45 AM
I too am a huge Kurosawa fan and have thought of calling a blogathon whenever I felt I could administer same. Google him on Twitch and you'll get the most up-to-date info.
Posted by: Maya at August 17, 2006 11:57 PM
Peter, I came back for a second read. I meant to comment on how astute you were to pick up the connection between Travolta's sound recording career in "Blow Out" and Koji Yakusho's in "Doppelganger." Both, I think are cinematic citations to the wind in the trees in Antonioni's "Blow-Up", which I think has been properly identified as a "cinephiliac moment" at Girish's site. It's always heartening to know you're not the only one perceiving such cinematic citations.
Further, I appreciate your association of Kurosawa's characteristic dread with that of Val Lewton's, another helmer who deserves his own blogathon.
Posted by: Maya at August 21, 2006 09:31 AM