Doppelgänger (2003)

There’s something bittersweet about the early-2000s boom of Japanese & Korean horror films that were imported to the United States through home video labels like Tartan Asia Extreme.  On the one hand, it’s wonderful that daring, genre-blurring films like Suicide Club & A Tale of Two Sisters were able to find an audience outside of their respective home countries.  On the other hand, those films’ American marketing often perpetuated a reductive, borderline-Orientalist perception of that era in East Asian genre filmmaking as the most “extreme, “fucked-up”, “incredibly strange” movies ever made – as if every film were a variation on the torturous Guinea Pig series.  It was a very profitable perception for Tartan, I bet, but I’m not convinced it was an entirely healthy one for the filmmakers they were platforming (not to mention other filmmakers from the region who were working in entirely different modes of cinematic storytelling at the time).  I don’t want to complain too much about the way those home video releases were marketed to Americans, though, since those vintage DVD scans are still the only commercially available copies of a lot of those films in the US two decades later.  At least they found a path to our eyeballs, imperfect as it was.

I wonder how much the commercial pressures of “extreme J-horror” marketability influenced the production of the 2003 sci-fi comedy Doppelgänger.  Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa earned international acclaim among genre fans making that exact kind of Ringu-era J-horror exports (Cure, Pulse, Seance, etc.), but with Doppelgänger you can feel him striving to branch out into other modes of storytelling.  He sets the film up as a J-horror update to Jekyll & Hyde in its first act (which landed it an American DVD release on the Tartan Asia Extreme label), but it’s a much sillier film than that early tone implies.  Doppelgänger delivers the vicious violence that contemporary American audiences had come to expect from “extreme” Japanese horror cinema, but the further it goes along the more it strays into broad slapstick comedy, gradually escalating to ZAZ-level buffoonery in its final act (including an Indiana Jones spoof involving a boulder-sized disco ball).  It’s a darkly funny film, where most of the punchlines are people’s skulls being cracked with the anticlimactic thud of a hammer.  Still, it feels like Kurosawa only establishes an eerie sci-fi mood in the opening stretch so he could get away with goofing off once all the usual J-horror boxes were checked.  

One reason it’s so tempting to speculate about Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s frustrations with market expectations is that the protagonist of Doppelgänger is also intensely frustrated by his corporate overlords.  Kōji Yakusho stars as a meek research scientist who’s developing a kind of mech-suit wheelchair for the physically disabled, providing mechanical arms for paralytics.  The profit-obsessed higher-ups at his lab’s parent company continually undermine his careful research, forcing him to conform to unrealistic deadlines that threaten to corrupt the project.  This immense corporate pressure coincides with the arrival of the scientist’s doppelgänger (also played by Kōji Yakusho), whose brash, macho confidence creates an exponentially violent competition with the kinder, original scientist.  This is the story of a creative genius driven insane by small-minded money men, eventually abandoning his scientific pursuits altogether to instead engage in a pointless war with his own psyche.  It concludes with a go-nowhere road trip into total delirium, chasing down a deliberately pointless flavor of comedic absurdism rarely seen outside a Quentin Dupieux film.  By the end, Kurosawa is basically just goofing off, whether or not horror-hungry audiences were still along for the ride.

Two decades after its initial release, the biggest hurdle to enjoying Doppelgänger isn’t so much its reluctance to deliver the “extreme” J-horror goods; it’s the film’s early-2000s digi cinematography, which makes it look like cheap TV instead of proper cinema.  Even when it’s playing with spooky sci-fi ideas in its early stretch, the film lacks any of the throat-hold atmospheric dread that makes Kurosawa’s actual horror films so intense.  That disinterest in establishing an eerie mood is only amplified by the outdated SD scans of the film that are available on DVD & streaming services, to the point where even its indulgences in De Palma-style split screens feel like music video fuckery instead of genuine experiments in form.  All that flatness in tone stops mattering once the film reveals its true nature as a farcical comedy, though, starting with the macho doppelgänger copying his source-human’s café order one table over just to fuck with him and quickly escalating to a series of deadpan murders with a hastily wielded hammer.  I could see a lot of Western audiences having the exact opposite experience in the aughts, though, popping in a Tartan Asia Extreme DVD and enjoying the early spooky goings-on, only to be baffled by the goofball pranks that followed. 

-Brandon Ledet

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