Sunday, February 6, 2011

Gemini Reveals Shinya Tsukamoto’s Fantasy of the Known Self

Gemini / Soseiji (1999), by Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto, is one of my favorite films of all time. On the one hand it is an intelligent and visually stunning period piece set during World War One. And on the other hand, it sparingly uses the conventions of the horror genre as a device to explore class and identity. 
Rin's amnesia sets in after washing
The narrative arch is a reunion between identical twins who were separated at birth. In this story the ideal of total self knowledge is realized through the meeting of one’s genetic double and experiential opposite. One brother (Yukio) was raised in the lavish home of his natural parents and given every advantage. The other brother (Sutekichi) was sent down a river in a basket and expected to die. He was raised, instead, in a slum by thieves. One brother is a medical doctor who wins medals for his heroic work in Europe. The other regularly steals and murders in order to survive. 
Identical but for a birthmark and their experiences of class
Shinya Tsukamoto is part of the new generation of Japanese filmmakers that have been much applauded by film fans and directors alike. Darren Aronofsky, the director of Black Swan (2010) and Pi (1998) credits being influenced by Tsukamoto's visceral style. Tsukamoto is best known, perhaps for his cult classic Tetsuo: the Iron Man (1989) which is a dystopic film about a man painfully becoming a machinic monster. A timely theme when it was released, in the tradition of films like Ghost in the Shell (1989) or Akira (1988). Or a logical next step after films that take aim at bureaucratic structures, like Brazil or The Wall. In Tetsuo the protagonist has lost control of his body. It is infiltrated by a less idealistic looking cyborg propensity than Donna Haraway ever imagined. Tetsuo in some ways offers an ugly foreshadowing of our current moment: around the clock connections to physical and virtual technologies like social networking sites and mobile devices.

Without giving away too much about Gemini, one of the most startling sequences is when Yukio becomes haunted by his own reflection. The audience sees that his image in the mirror wears a terrible grimace for a moment. On second glance his reflection corrects itself. He looks at his image in a window, then in a bowl of water, both naturally distorted, but even these upset him. In a poetic tone which foreshadows the knowledge of his twin, Yukio expresses the unease he feels, “Recently this house makes my skin crawl. Nostalgia, sadness... a shadowy fellow... sometimes our eyes meet... I can’t put it into words properly.” His face truly is haunting him--the same face with a different history is watching him.
Haunted by his own reflection
Deleuze and Guattari would agree with Sutekichi's claim that amnesia does not exist. Deleuze and Guattari would explain the process that Sutekichi and Rin (the woman who mistakenly loves both men) went through by changing clothes and forgetting their identities as a false attempt at designification. The imposition of a dirty face on the slum dweller is not erased by washing and forgetting. A washed amnesiac cannot simply resignify their position in the class system. Instead, they suggest that through a process of remembering and learning about those on the other end of the class spectrum can that structure begin to be dismantled. The film story suggests that the slum history of Rin and Sutekichi are easily uncovered--just as the crime of the twin’s parents was eventually uncovered--but the true movement toward dismantling the class system occurs when Sutekichi confronts and transforms his brother.
Confusion about which brother is which
Sutekichi's loss and subsequent recovery of his identity can be read as an allegory of colonialism: his rightful place in the family was denied him because of a mark on his skin--as is often the case in colonial encounters, when skin colour or some other mark is used as an excuse to deny the colonized equality. Ultimately, though, only when the one becomes the other, does the class system crumble. The slum dweller must have the potential to be privileged, and the colonizer the potential to be colonized (this is as far as I would take the colonial metaphor). When Yukio’s transformation is achieved at the end of the film, it is as a result of Sutekichi’s death. The binary is destroyed and a transformed unity left in the remains. 
A slum dweller does not disappear with clean clothes
I would argue that Yukio’s identity was never fixed anyway. Just as the child in his mother’s care looks into her face and imagines he sees a coherent reflection of his own identity, so Yukio looked into the Lacanean mirror and saw Sutekichi. Sutekichi’s face resembling Yukio’s so exactly, but filled with knowledge and experience so different was irresistibly there for Yukio to absorb and, thus, for him to know himself more totally.  In some necessarily incomplete way then, the fantasy of total self knowledge is embodied in one of the most underrated films of the decade.

No comments:

Post a Comment