Doppelganger (2003) Movie Review

Kiyoshi Kurosawa has built an impressive reputation as one of the best Japanese genre directors of recent years. His films, such as “Kairo” and “Cure”, tend to deal with the supernatural, or more accurately, the unexplainable, though with a focus on its psychological effects on the characters. His works display an intelligence and maturity often lacking in similar films, dealing with the complex themes of human individuality and the nature of our relationship with what we believe to be reality.

“Doppelganger” marks in some ways a departure for Kurosawa, being a more commercial and initially at least, accessible film. This is not to suggest that there is any kind of dilution of his technique or the cerebral motifs of his previous efforts, as “Doppelganger” is a fascinating film that offers the viewer far more than its deceptively simple premise suggests.

The plot follows Hayasaki (Koji Yakusho, who has been in several of the director’s earlier films), a meek scientist working on a mechanical chair designed for disabled people. Hayasaki is a quiet man who spends most of his life not getting what he wants, or having the courage to speak out. Suddenly, his existence is turned upside down by the appearance of his doppelganger, a man physically identical to him, though psychologically quite the opposite. This new arrival is confident, aggressive, and seemingly unbound by social conventions, and sets about claiming everything that Hayasaki wants but has been too afraid to stand up for. As the two gradually learn to co-exist, the doppelganger’s interference in Hayasaki’s life begins to have serious and far-reaching consequences.

At first glance, this seems like a fairly conventional plot, with similarities to a number of vacuous Hollywood efforts such as “The Sixth Day”. However, “Doppelganger” is thankfully far more complex, and spends most of its time exploring the relationship between the two seemingly identical men. No explanation is ever given for the appearance of Hayasaki’s double; in this world, we are simply told to accept that doppelgangers exist. This is quite effective, giving the film a surreal air, and nicely side steps the need for any drawn out or ridiculous justification of the film’s central events.

Also interesting is the fact that the doppelganger is not simply an evil reflection of Hayasaki, nor a straightforward tool for releasing his desires. As the film progresses, their relationship is used to raise fascinating questions on the nature of individuality, and the way human beings define themselves.

Although the film is initially played out as a thriller, it gradually becomes more abstract and more concerned with the characters themselves, as opposed to the events that drive the narrative. This may cause some viewers to loose interest, though that is not to suggest the film is either obtuse or boring. There is a fair amount of violence, including a few scenes of bludgeoning, and although none of it is particularly gruesome, this does give the film an effective hard edge.

Kurosawa’s direction is excellent, his measured style perfectly suiting the thoughtful story. He is a director who takes his time, and who excels at generating an off-kilter, unsettling atmosphere. He similarly pays a great amount of attention to the shot composition, and although “Doppelganger” is perhaps not as visually strong as “Kairo”, it is certainly a film with an impressive and distinctive look. The film is quite slow, though never boring, and it is refreshing to watch something that is confident enough to entertain and interest without resorting to cheap visceral tactics.

Obviously “Doppelganger” would be a waste of time if the acting was not of a very high standard, and thankfully Koji Yakusho is excellent in the dual lead roles. He is wholly convincing as both characters, and manages to fully engage the viewers’ sympathy. The supporting cast are all similarly effective, and like Yakusho, many of them will be recognizable to those who have seen Kurosawa’s other films.

Overall, “Doppelganger” is highly recommended, and is yet another excellent film from one of Japan’s most accomplished directors. It takes a relatively simple story and transforms it into an effective, fascinating meditation on human individuality; a lofty aim, the likes of which precious few films even dare to attempt.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa (director) / Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Ken Furusawa (screenplay)
CAST: Koji Yakusho …. Michio Hayasaki
Hiromi Nagasaku …. Nagai Yuka
Yusuke Santamaria …. Kimishima
Masahiro Toda …. Aoki
Hitomi Sato …. Takano

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