Film Review: Double Life (Yoshiyuki Kishi, 2016)

by Jason Suzuki

The act of stalking, of watching someone who doesn't know they are being watched, can potentially be a humanist or existential pursuit. It can lead to a deeper understanding of another person, their faults evoking pity. In turn this could provide answers to the question of what it means to be human. Of course this is all a bit naive as it discounts the strong element of perversion inherent to stalking. The voyeur, through this act, appeals to something more basic than intellectual endeavors. Yoshiyuki Kishi's Double Life (Nijyuu seikatsu) juggles all three of these ideas with a tale of quiet obsession set in the world of academia.

Kishi's film opens with a quote from Sophie Calle, the French author/artist who has incorporated real life instances of shadowing into her work. Her work "True Stories" served as inspiration for the Mariko Koike novel upon which this film is based. 2016 proved to be a fruitful year for Koike as this and A Capella made for two film works from her writing, and a second novel was translated for English speaking audiences, 1986's "The Graveyard Apartment."

It is Calle's book that sits on the desk of professor Shinohara (Lily Franky). A subtle glance at the book leads him to suggest graduate student Tama (Mugi Kadowaki) to take up a similar approach to her master's thesis. Like most high education students, her thesis, on the topic of what it means to be human no less, has become her life. Her live-in boyfriend (Masaki Suda) and the rest of her life can take a back seat until it's finished. She sets her sight rather close to home and picks neighbor Ishizaka (Hiroki Hasegawa), a husband/father and successful publisher. She quickly finds that he is having an affair. She follows them from cafe to diner to hotel. So confident in her plainness that she walks back and forth down an empty street to get multiple peeks at Ishizawa and his mistress fucking in an alley.

Kadowaki turned heads before with her performance in 2014's Love's Whirlpool about a group of stranger's night at an anonymous orgy. Since then she has been relegated to bit parts (the friend with little screen time in Wolf Girl and Black Prince) but found leading roles on the stage. Double Life is a strong showcase for her as most of the film is largely dialogue free, her visage perfect for the film's constant use of the Kuleshov effect. When she is forced to give a rather unnecessary motivational confession halfway through the film she is able to sell it in the moment, but plays Tama in such a way that we soon forget we had to sit through that monologue. Her silent interactions with the subjects of her thesis tell you much more than anything she can even confess. An excerpt from her thesis (spoiler: she turns in a final draft) delivered through voice over serves to further drive home the fact that she has seen much more than some extra-marital groping.

Late into the film we break away from Tama, shifting towards Shinohara. The film opens on his suicide attempt and what ensues are the weeks leading up to the opening scene. It's not spoiler to mention this as by now everyone should be able to recognize Franky even in the dark and from the back of his head. Despite being quite ubiquitous Double Life offers Franky a chance at a different kind of spotlight on his talent, much like what this film does for Kadowaki. 

A significant side-plot emerges in the form of Setsuko Karasuma as an older neighbor who spends her time monitoring the complex's garbage area with the help of a newly installed security camera. Wisely, this does not affect Tama's shadowing of Ishizaka but instead provides an added depth to this idea of watching others. Sure, the old lady wants to see who doesn't follow the rules of trash dumping, but even then, that is just as quotidian as anything else she may see from that low-quality, black and white lens. She gets brief glimpses of lives within that stationary frame, Tama maintains this access through stalking.

The film should be applauded for it quietude, which is why its more expository moments seem so unnecessary. Movies about watching are usually entertaining in their self-referentiality, but here it is the chosen form to explore self. What Tama says she has derived from her study might seem anti-climactic, no matter how poignant it may be. But other truths this film merely suggests is what is so perversely exciting.