Gemini director Shinya Tsukamoto was about 30 when he made his most infamous film, Tetsuo, which featured a man turning into a kind of scrapyard monster, complete with gigantic revolving hydraulic penis.
Ten years later in 1999, nudging 40, here he is calmed down a touch, but not that much if the opening shots of Gemini – maggots crawling in meat, bedraggled rats feasting on what looks like an animal head – are anything to go by.
Don’t expect restraint, in other words. Though there is a lot of taste and gorgeousness on display in Tsukamoto’s camerawork in early scenes as we meet a kindly noble doctor, his parents and beautiful amnesiac wife in Japan somewhere in the mid-late 1800s.
Tsukamoto then upends this genteel scenario with one plot lurch after another – the father dies suddenly, then the mother, then a beastly twin or doppelgänger turns up, throws the kindly doc into the well and takes the wife for his own… and she’s not as against that development as you might think.
Unlike Tetsuo there’s no stop-frame animation, but Tsukamoto gets about three quarters of the way there with camera movements. In the tranquil world of the “good” doctor we bathe in serene scenes of almost Ozu-like calm, beautifully composed and shot, Tsukamoto even using the grain of the film (remember real grain?) to suggest a painterly high tone. And then, suddenly, it’s as if the director has let his inner animal loose with a camera that’s jittery, swinging around wildly, colours exaggerated to the max. Shakycam on a washing machine on a spin cycle. Discordant and very loud music punctuates the action.
Early on comes the key scene where “good” doctor Yukio (Masahiro Motoki plays both roles) is asked to treat a woman from the slums whose baby is suffering from the plague. She’s at the back door. At the front door is another request – the mayor has fallen onto a stake after drinking too much. Self-inflicted injury.
Yukio can’t treat both and so, being a snob, he opts for the mayor. It’s around this time that the twin/brother/doppelgänger (all is eventually revealed but it doesn’t matter that much which of those it is) arrives, like some eruption from the doctor’s unconscious.
It’s Jekyll and Hyde to an extent – the scientist and the brute – but then so was Tetsuo. Doubles is one of the themes Tsukamoto likes to revisit.
Stuck between the two versions of the same person is the beautiful wife, Rin (Ryo), “amnesiac”, she says, which isn’t true, and playing a game that is beyond the wit of both men. Of all the characters in this film she’s the most enigmatic and most worth watching because she sits between the calm and the monstrous as a key to the whole drama.
Fans of Tsukamoto’s mad style won’t be disappointed. In the more disturbed moments he dives into the lurid – plot, character, acting, camera, lighting, approach to realism, even hair and make-up – like a man possessed.
However, I don’t think I’ve seen a musical number in a Tsukamoto film before, and he gives us a genuinely charming one in Gemini, with all the performers smiling in a That’s Entertainment way as if to say “it’s all just a bit of fun”. Which is about right. This is a highly enjoyable piece of gonzo escapism.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020