“Doppelganger” (2003) – A.J. Hakari

While all of the hottest Japanese horror directors have a certain degree of independent style, you could consider Kiyoshi Kurosawa the artsiest of the bunch. From what I’ve seen of his work, the man doesn’t go for the “long-haired ghost” routine, preferring to pack his chillers with a much darker and more intimate atmosphere of impending dread. Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) likes to absorb his viewers before moving in for the kill, a storytelling method that his film Doppelganger takes to heart. Though it falls apart big-time in the third act, the first two are nothing short of incredible, emanating an aura of menace while intriguing the mind with the heaviest set of concepts this side of a philosophy class.

Ambitious inventor Michio (Koji Yakusho, from Babel) is on the verge of the greatest medical breakthrough in years: a chair that can act as an artificial body for paralyzed individuals. Unfortunately, he and his team haven’t quite managed to capture human complexity in mechanical form just yet, and with investors breathing down his neck and demanding results, Michio’s world is a mighty stressful one. But the worst is yet to come, for when Michio comes home one ordinary evening, he finds himself face to face with none other than his own double (also played by Yakusho, natch). Right from the start, this mysterious twin proves to be Michio’s complete opposite; whereas the real Michio keeps his feelings bottled within, the twin has no qualms about acting on his deepest, darkest impulses. In no time at all, the double’s actions start to tear apart Michio’s life, forcing him to find a way to destroy his troublesome doppelganger without destroying himself.

My first exposure to Kurosawa’s world of sinister cinema was Pulse (the original, not the dreary remake), and I can’t say I was too impressed. As chilling as certain moments were, the flick’s vibe was too drab, lethargic, and all-around humorless for me to truly appreciate. Thus, Doppelganger turned out to be a very pleasant surprise, for Kurosawa displays a much more playful tone here that I dug right off the bat. He tackles some pretty cerebral themes with his story, but he doesn’t forget to have fun with it, setting up a sort of twisted “Odd Couple” dynamic between Michio and his more outgoing double, with the latter doing what the former has only ever dreamed of doing. Things get even more intriguing when the line starts to blur between who’s who, a whole new layer of suspense smoothly integrated into the production.

But this is only half of the equation, as Doppelganger spends the other half of its time engaging the viewer’s mind with an array of thought-provoking themes. The duality of man is Kurosawa’s focus here, specifically in the realm of emotions and how we look at ourselves. For as much trouble as Michio’s twin gets him into, he can’t bring himself to fully shatter their bond, as the twin technically is him, only embodying all those emotions he tends to suppress. For the first hour or so, Kurosawa has a ball exploring the relationship between the two characters, as do we in watching them interact. But as Doppelganger winds down to a close, Kurosawa suddenly and randomly forgets what kind of movie he’s making, as all those tantalizing philosophical queries are tossed out the window in favor of a climax in which numerous characters fight for ownership of the miracle machine. Going from seeing a man literally fighting with himself to a dark screwball comedy may sound goofy on paper, but it’s even more awkward when Kurosawa actually goes through with it onscreen.

A flawed denouement aside, Doppelganger remains an all-in-all absorbing watch, thanks mostly to Kurosawa’s subtle direction and Yakusho’s commanding and distinctive turns as both Michio and the titular twin. It’s not the festival of frights that the DVD cover promises, but it has a brain and unique style that make it worth a watch no matter what your genre preferences may be.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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