Doppelganger (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2003)

Hayasaki (Koji Yakusho) the genius inventor of the world’s first artificial body isn’t having a good time. He can’t get his robotic arms to crack an egg without crushing it, his boss is suggesting he abandon his project and someone’s driving around in his car. When the culprit turns out to be Hayasaki’s doppelganger, a figure who’s made himself at home in Hayasaki’s flat and refuses to leave, the stunned inventor accepts his double’s offer to help clear away all the stresses in his own life so he can concentrate on his work. But the doppelganger’s methods prove so violent they get Hayasaki sacked from the company. So, stealing his invention and relocating to a disused factory with the help of hired thug Kimishima (Yusuke Santamaria) and Yuka (Hiromi Nagasaku), a woman whose own brother has also been replaced by a doppelganger, the inventor’s dream of completing the world’s first artificial body edges closer to reality. However, an argument with Hayasaki’s double results in Kimishima killing the doppelganger even as Hayasaki rejects fame and fortune in favour of handing over his invention to a rival company. But en route both Kirishima and Hayasaki’s former boss attempt to seize the invention for themselves.

After grim horrors like Cure and Pulse this is a welcome change of pace for Kurosawa. It’s nominally a riff on the old Jekyll and Hyde theme but the director’s oblique approach to the subject matter means his characteristic thoughtfulness and urban chills sit side by side with a delightfully absurdist sense of humour and an unexpectedly sunny disposition toward his principal characters. The result is a charmer which tosses out riffs left, right and centre on the nature of the self and doppelgangers while spinning an entertaining yarn about a stressed out scientist who discovers that the answer to all his problems isn’t fame or fortune but a nice personable girl to go off and enjoy life with. Koji Yakusho seems to be enjoying himself playing dual roles. His amoral double who gleefully steals, kills and even takes advantage of an unwary Yuko isn’t an animal revelling in chaos but a clever figure with a clear endgame in mind. Yakusho makes his doppelganger a likeable and unpredictable figure whom we’re actually rather sorry to see brutally finished off. And as the ‘real’ Hayashi he develops a nice kinship with another lost soul in Hiromi Nagasaku’s lonely Yuka. Part of the film’s appeal is that Kurosawa really doesn’t seem all that interested in the standard good and evil duality. He plays around with it from a formal perspective by splitting the screen into separate panels when Hayashi and his doppelganger are conversing but thematically he seems more interested in ringing the changes (he never even tries to explain how or where the doppelgangers have come from). Typical of this is Yuka’s experience with her brother’s double which turns into an unexpectedly positive one. The original was a world class slacker but this new one, as Yuka approvingly tells Hayashi, spends all his time writing the novel the original brother promised to write but never did. It’s only when Yuka feels she’s being ignored by her sibling that Hayashi’s doppelganger promptly solves her problem (in another of the director’s exemplary staged scenes of casual violence) by smashing the brother’s head in with a hammer!

In scenes like this you can sense what Kurosawa is going for. The real theme of his story is about characters trying to find the right balance in their lives. The answer clearly isn’t an obsession with work which as presented here enslaves Hayasaki and Yuka’s brother and makes them selfish and indifferent to those around them. In fact everyone who desires to possess Hayasaki’s machine either loses out or loses their lives. There are some of the director’s trademark chills here – most notably in the opening sequence as Yuka encounters her brother at a downtown store then returns to her flat only to find his doppelganger in place – but Kurosawa keeps undermining the unease with comic reversals and imbues later proceedings with a sort of bonkers optimism that proves infectious. By the time we get to the third act we’re into a splendidly comic road trip as Hayasaki and Yuko find themselves pursued by former allies who want the machine for themselves with the director working in all manner of amusing pratfalls and visual gags (chief amongst them is what looks like a Raiders of the Lost Ark homage with Kimishima pursued by an enormous inflatable beachball). Amidst all this merriment Kurosawa’s point is that what really matters is possessing empathy for others, an empathy that in its own oddball way even extends to machines. The film’s last scene is a lovely bit of business as, on a clifftop overlooking the sea, Hayasaki activates his sentient chair which – free of having to obey the thoughts of a human host – comes to life and arms waving merrily tootles straight off over a cliff. It’s a wonderfully absurdist image, this mobile chair with its mechanical arms waving in the air and yet oddly life affirming with it. All that’s left is for Hayasaki and Yuka to stroll off into the sunset together. They’ve come to understand what really matters in life and so does Kurosawa. Good for him.

Retribution (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2006)

Detective Noboru (Koji Yakusho) investigates the murder of a woman in a red dress found drowned in a puddle of salt-water but the clues all point to himself as the killer. As more victims are found murdered in the same manner Noboru finds himself haunted by a woman in a red dress (Riona Hazuki) who accuses him of her death. But when the killer of the first victim turns out to be the woman’s ex-boyfriend, Noboru realises that the vengeful ghost pursuing him is connected with something else. Something to do with distant memories of a ferry trip he used to make past an abandoned riverside asylum in which inmates who broke the rules were drowned in a basin of salt-water.

I liked this hybrid of police procedural and ghost story. The director seems to be reworking plot elements of his earlier hit Cure. Once again Koji Yakusho plays a stressed out detective, once again he’s investigating a series of unusual murders and once again he finds himself at the centre of a grim, climactic plot twist involving the sole woman in his life, Harue (Manami Konishi). But Kurosawa’s notion of ghosts (for there is indeed more than one ghost here) who are vengeful and sorrowful yet capable of forgiveness toward the living is original enough to hold its own in the post-Ring wave of Japanese ghost stories. After reflecting on the film you realise the ghost – in the shape of a lady in red equipped with a piercing scream whose presence is foreshadowed by an earthquake like shaking and rumbling (interestingly, Kurosawa used a similar motif in Cure) – is really the main protagonist here but because the story is told from the perspective of one of her victims it takes a while for the penny to drop. Retribution avoids the somewhat clipped, elliptical storytelling style of Cure and for that reason alone it’s an easier, more straightforward watch. But on the other hand despite good performances and setpieces Kurosawa’s interest in the psychological aspects of his characters flounders in his effort to link Noboru’s faulty memory (on which the film’s biggest plot twist hinges) with a theme about how people are blind to changes around them. It feels too weakly conceived to really pack the oomph it needs.

Still, I really enjoyed the ambition on show just in terms of shooting the ghost. There are moments (such as the ghost seemingly peeking out from behind a fence) that could strike one as unintentionally hilarious but I thought it worked really well because – succeed or fail – there’s something exhilarating about watching a director performing a hire wire act like this, trying to find new ways to depict a ghost on screen. He’s greatly assisted by Akiko Ashizawa’s atmospheric cinematography which includes some subtly off kilter compositions that evoke an effective sense of unease. And Kurosawa’s lengthy single takes really pay off in sequences such as a police interrogation in which a murder suspect starts to see something in the room that none of the others can. The scene in which our ghost first appears in Noboru’s flat – gliding toward the detective with a ghostly shriek as he dives out the way – has Kurosawa audaciously keeping the shot, with both figures just a few feet apart from each other, running and running and running. He doesn’t allow the viewer the implicit emotional release of a cut to another angle. It’s a cracking moment of delirious tension where you’re thinking “What the fuck is going to happen now?!” And I’m always amused by the absurdist tone Kuroasawa can’t but help bring to his work as when Noboru simply turns up at some seafront wasteland and pulls a bag full of evidence from a muddy puddle without any explanation as to how he knew it was there.

The director’s fondness for old and worn locations is familiar from Cure but the large interior spaces on show here (such as the police HQ) represent something newer and evoke a fascinating emotional texture. In an odd way it sort of reminds me of the original Blade Runner – this juxtaposition of modern people and technology in locations that look aged and denuded. Yakusho – looking much scruffier and unkempt here than he did in Cure – brings a volatility to his character that absolutely sells the idea he’s struggling with something unpleasant in his past. As it turns out, the root of Noboru’s short-temper is a forgetfulness that’s turned into negligence and then – as the ghost possesses the bodies of its victims – something very much worse. What that something is turns out to be a real shocker but it works because in retrospect the clues are all there. Ryo Kase (Baron Nishi in Clint’s Letters From Iwo Jima) has a minor supporting role as Noboru’s partner but of all the supporting cast the one I was most taken by was Manami Konishi as Noboru’s wife, Harue. There’s a placid, distant quality to her that immediately hints something’s not quite right but without actually giving anything away. Once you’ve seen the film her attitude makes perfect sense and it’s a quietly captivating performance.

Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 1997)

A string of grisly murders in Tokyo in which all the victims have an ‘X’ carved into their body convinces Detective Takabe (Koji Yakusho) that the killers may all have been under hypnotic suggestion. When further murders occur and a young man with unusual powers of suggestion named Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara) is arrested on suspicion his connection with an early 20th century hypnotist named Mesmer is discovered. Burdened with having to care for his mentally ill wife Takabe finds himself drawn to the derelict site of Mesmer’s experiments where he discovers the secret of Mamiya’s power and with it his own destiny.

A crafty psychological thriller this and very cunningly constructed. The first half comes on like a police procedural but once Mamiya is captured the second half  turns into this clipped, elliptically told tale with Kurosawa pushing the viewer to put the pieces together themselves. But it’s not as if the director doesn’t play fair by the viewer. He supplies plenty of clues. When Detective Takabe recoils in horror at a vision of his wife hanging dead in their kitchen it’s Mamiya who somehow knows what he’s seen and understands what it portends. Takabe’s psychiatrist pal Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) ventures the ominous suggestion that Mamiya has come as a missionary to propagate a ceremony and  missionaries, as we all know, seek converts. The introduction of a magical incantation into a contemporary setting (a tactic which predates Hideo Nakata’s much better known Ring by a couple of years) leads to a sucker punch of an ending – at least if you’re unfamiliar with the film’s opening reference to Bluebeard. It’s aided in no small part by Kurosawa’s marvellous dialogue, particularly that of the villain Mamiya, whose infuriatingly circular exchanges with everyone he encounters (delivered with maddening calm courtesy of Masato Hagiwara’s superb performance) take on the aspect of a chant, a mantra. Like the cobra’s sway it’s his way of lulling his victims into a trance so he can strike. By the time the interrogation scenes between Takabe and Mamiya come up we’re on the edge of our seat wondering if Mamiya may subliminally hypnotize Takabe into killing his comrades or worse.

As creepy as Mamiya’s performance is Cure really benefits from Koji Yakusho’s role as Detective Takabe. For the film to work it is essential we feel sympathy for this guy and in the domestic scenes with his wife Yakusho really sells the stress his character’s under as all attempts at trying to keep their relationship going founder. As a result the short fuse he displays in his encounters with Mamiya seem entirely understandable. We never doubt that this guy has anything other than his wife’s best interests at heart and once we accept that the director has us set up for a shocker of a twist. I suppose what Kurosawa is doing here is using a story about hypnotic suggestion to expose the true nature of ourselves. He’s very clever in the way he imbues the home scenes of Takabe and his wife Fumie (Anna Nakagawa, most effectively playing a character with memory loss so severe she cannot carry out simple domestic chores) with an existential chill. Another scene in which Mamiya visits a local hospital for a checkup and lulls a female GP into a trance using nothing more than a spilled cup of water is a brilliantly executed variation on the film’s theme of what’s really inside us, one that pays off here with a moment of horrific gore.

Equally striking are the settings as the action takes place in a carefully stylised landscape of urban decay. The director is excellent at using interior space and blocking the actors in the frame in ways that evoke a  distinctly claustrophobic, subterranean feel. He shoots a chase between Mamiya and the police through the hallways of a dusty warehouse and makes them all look like lab rats in a maze. And what exactly does the film’s title actually refer too? For me the most chilling aspect here is the gradual realisation of what Kurosawa is getting at. Why does Mamiya say, “There is nothing inside me” and tell Takabe that he alone grasps the true meaning of the oft repeated question he asks his victims, “Who are you?” Two pivotal moments here – both restaurant scenes featuring Takabe – in the first we see our hero so stressed out he can barely touch his food, in the second he’s polished off everything and relaxing with coffee and a cigarette. What’s changed in the interim? What burden has been lifted from Detective Takabe that he now seems so content? I think it really does send a bit of a chill down the old spine when you realise what Kurosawa is getting at.