Sometimes less is more. Such is the case when comparing the first two excellent films of Hiroshi Teshigahara that I’ve seen. I watched his third film, The Face Of Another, first, and the only thing that prevented that film from greatness was the gilding of the lily by adding in a subplot that made no sense and actually took away from the crispness of the film. Having now watched the filmmaker’s debut feature (his claimed masterpiece, Woman In The Dunes, is next on my agenda), Pitfall (The Pitfall or Kashi To Kodomo or Otoshiana or ???? ), a 97 minute long, black and white existential gem from 1962, it’s nice to see that he did not make that error with this film which, while in many ways as visually daring, is narratively cleaner and dramatically more powerful. It has only one minor flaw, which I will touch upon. But, in many ways, the comparison between these two films reminds me of arguments I’ve had with Shakespeare lovers who insist Hamlet, Macbeth, or King Lear are greater plays than Othello. While Hamlet is likely great, and so may Macbeth be, King Lear is not. But Othello is, and for two basic reasons: 1) it has the best villain in Shakespeare’s canon, and 2) it is, unlike the other tercet of drama, unburdened by nettlesome sidestories. It is akin to a locomotive picking up speed as it barrels down a mountainside. And so is Pitfall. It is a clean, crisp, and, yes, great film, based upon a play by Kobo Abe, and adapted by him into the screenplay.
The tale is even more steeped in Absurdism than The Face Of Another. Yet, it also has a bit of Neo-Realism in it, as well as New Wave, and surrealism, as it explores the role of the individual against the backdrop of a power struggle: in this case a struggle between two feuding unions and the corporate exploiter that seeks to destroy both. Thus, Teshigaraha called the film a documentary fantasy; and that’s about right.
The film opens with the nighttime escape of a man (Hisashi Igawa), his son (Kazuo Miyahara), and a friend of the man’s (Kanichi Omiya), from a mining camp. Early on, one gets the sense that they may be prisoners or exploited workers, as they fear bounty hunters sent after them, and refer to themselves as deserters. On their peregrinations, a man in white (Kunie Tanaka) is following the trio, snapping photos from afar. Only the boy seems to notice this, although he does not alert his father, nor the friend. The men dream of social justice and joining a union, and then land in a port for itinerant workers. They are given menial work, and witness the beating of a worker who tries to flee. Then, the man with the son is offered a job elsewhere. He says goodbye to his friend, and he and his son traipse over a barren, industrial landscape, near a marsh. They come upon a ghost town, and a lone woman (Sumie Sasaki) who sells candies. As they enter, tracking shots of them presage a very similar scene in Bela Tarr’s later film, Satantango.
As his son wanders amongst the reeds, the father is suddenly stalked by the man in white. The man soon lunges at the father, stabbing him to death, and leaving him in the marshes. The son reacts indifferently to his father’s murder, calmly plundering the dead man’s pockets, then taking off. Meanwhile, the candy saleswoman has seen the murder, and the white assassin comes to her shack, gives her a large sum of money, and tells her to give false details about the murder. It turns out that the details are designed to throw suspicion of the murder upon one of two union officials for rival unions in the local mining company. The other union official (Hisashi Igawa) turns out to be a doppelganger for the dead itinerant miner with the son. After police grill the woman, and she gives false details, they suspect the union official who fits the description. But he has been warned by the doppelganger union official, who suspects a company plot to exploit the union rivalry for its own benefit. This is clearly the ‘outer’ story of the film, and the assassin is clearly a company hitman/stooge. And, he then kills the candy saleswoman, after she has done her part in obfuscation. When the doppelganger union official comes upon her body, the other union official sees him over her body, and believes he has killed her. The two union men quarrel, and eventually kill each other in the marshlands. The doppelganger drowns the other union official, who has mortally stabbed him. All the while, the ghosts of the candy saleswoman and the miner with the son have futilely watched the goings on, along with dozens of other ghosts from the ghost town- including a full frontally naked little boy ghost; presumably the dead the company has exploited. With the two union officials dead, the man in white exclaims that his job has gone perfectly as planned. The two ghosts harangue him as to who he is and why they were killed, but he cannot hear them and drives off. Meanwhile, the last living person in the marsh is the boy, who seems more affected when he sees his dad’s doppelganger die than when his father died. Nonetheless, this does not prevent him from pillaging this dead man’s pockets, either. He is a natural born thief, it seems, and, the cinematography seems to point to him as the heir apparent to the assassin in white. The film ends with a tracking shot of the boy running through the ghost town- a counterpoint to the earlier entry into the town with his father, and then out into the barren landscape. He seems doomed. Alive, but as doomed as all the others in that place.
The film has many nice touches, from the screenplay by Abe to the camera work in the film. As example, the candy saleswoman’s plight is probably even sadder than that of the itinerant miner with the boy. She longs to leave the town and join her lover; whose letter she awaits. But, then the murder occurs, and she lies about the killer; either for the money to hasten her departure, or because she knows she can do nothing. But, before she is killed by the assassin, she is forced into sex (possibly raped- it’s questionable because shots seem to suggest she enjoys the attention) by a cop (Hideo Kanze) investigating the first murder. This is when the film’s weakest moment occurs. It’s not that a cop would rape a woman (that’s very believable), but he cowardly runs away when the white assassin shows up. Is he ashamed of what he is doing and trying to hide? Is he killed, off camera, by the assassin? Does he not realize the man at the door could be the killer? Is he somehow in cahoots with the man in white? The cop’s actions simply do not make sense. Nonetheless, after she is dead, the letter from her lover arrives, yet, as a ghost, she cannot materially pick it up. Then she wails, and is harangued by the ghost of the dead miner, who cannot believe she lied about his murder. And when the white assassin leaves on his motor scooter, it is her, not the miner’s, ghost who follows after him the longest, for, while the miner had no real prospects for improvement; she, indeed, was mere hours away from actually improving her lot.
Of course, there are no answers, and aside from the material basis of the tale (the union-union and unions-management struggles), the film’s existential weight falls squarely on the shoulders of the white assassin. Yes, he’s a management gun (or knife) for hire, to be sure; but in the larger context, he may be a force of nature, or is posited as one. The boy, it seems, is the other key character. He and the assassin are the pieces of bread that sandwich the narrative. The boy may be what the assassin once was- an innocent quickly inured by hardship and violence, and steeled into doing whatever it takes to survive; including murdering innocents for the profit of others. As mentioned earlier, the child seems doomed. If not to that fate, then surely to loneliness, for no mention is made of a mother. He will likely end up a ward of the state, in an institution, and learn the tricks of the trades of criminality. It’s also worth noting, that while voyeurism is a key to the film, much of what takes place is an interpretation through the boy’s eyes (at least the non-ghostly stuff, since there is no indication that he can ‘see dead people’).
The film is daring, not only narratively, but technically, employing many styles: using real documentary footage, using reverse emotion photography, and numerous other technical feats that all serve the story- there is no ostentation, only utility (unlike, say, the films of Jean Cocteau). And this makes one wonder why so many films are so straightforward and dull, visually, when the very usage of such techniques actually complexes a rather simple narrative quite dramatically. Some critics have carped that the film is not that realistic in its depiction sof its characters; especially the dueling union heads who end up killing each other. But, as someone who has spent decades in such labors, the film is depressingly accurate in its portrayal of how easily a dastardly company can pit labor interests against one another. In fact, I would say, that in the less philosophic aspects of the tale, the film is amongst the most realistic portrayals of unionism going; in many ways more so than even a film like Norma Rae. And the portrayal of the company-hired assassin recalls that other great corporate malfeasance film, Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well, while the ironic bleakness recalls Kon Ichikawa’s Fires On The Plain.
The DVD package, from The Criterion Collection, Three Films By Hiroshi Teshigahara, comes with a fourth disk of supplements, the main feature of which is a documentary about Teshigahara and his Kobo Abe’s lives and collaborations. There are also four short early documentaries by Teshigahara, none of which presage his fictive films. They are: Hokusai, Ikebana, Tokyo 1958, and Ako. The actual disk with Pitfall on it contains the theatrical trailer and a video essay by film critic James Quandt on it. Overall, it is a solid video package- with a few early blemishes, shown in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, although the lack of an English language dubbed track would have been a great help because the white subtitles blanche out against many of the ultra-white shots of the film. The booklet features a career overview by Peter Grilli, an interview with the director, and essays on the films. Hiroshi Segawa’s cinematography is very daring, and the scoring, by Toru Takemitsu, is always apropos to the scene, underscoring emotions, never exaggerating them, and often adding to the scenes with an askewness to what is seen, which throws a viewer into a different state of mind, aiding the feeling of alienation many of the characters feel.
This alienation is at its greatest when one realizes that the first two murders of the miner and the candy saleswoman are incidental to the real ‘meat’ of the film. And, in this way, Teshigahara is offering up his version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, wherein the character the viewer presumes is the film’s main character, is not. He is merely a plot device, whose raison d’etre is left hanging. The same cannot be said for his son, who witnesses four murders and the brutal sex between the cop and the candy saleswoman. In this way, the film also neatly sunders the convention of a close father and on the road, as portrayed in such films as The Bicycle Thief and Il Grido. That both of those films were influenced by documentary forms, as was Teshigahara’s work is no coincidence; as is Teshigahara’s will to break with the tried and true.
Pitfall is a film that is great because it is daring, it does not bite off more than it can chew, it provides a strong narrative, but leaves enough mystery for the viewer to cogitate on through multiple viewings, is technically strong, in all areas, and provides solid enough acting (never great) that its just mentioned framework of excellence never frays. It provides a narrative for those drawn to plot first films, yet also has a philosophic heft that works on many levels- from the existential to the ethical, and touches upon identity, the layers of the self, and what is and is not private and is and is not evil. It may be a bit less daring than Teshigahara’s later The Face Of Another, as well as lacking in as much razzle-dazzle and narrative complications, but it is also less flawed, and this latter quality is why it stands taller as a great work of art than the later film. However, both films evince an undeniable fact- Hiroshi Teshigahara was a force of great talent and achievement in Japanese and world cinema, and the world of art, and that at large, is poorer for his absence, and the absence of his creative descendants. Hence, sometimes less really, and only, is less.
Japanese director with a background in flower arranging and fine art, whose second film, the surreal Woman of the Dunes, proved an international success in 1964 and won two Oscar nominations as well as the Grand Jury prize at Cannes. Teshigahara made his debut three years earlier with the strange satire Pitfall, and directed a further four films, including the detective story The Ruined Map, before retiring in the early seventies to concentrate on ceramics and experimental film-making. He returned to directing in 1989 with the period drama Rikyu, while his final film was 1992’s Goh-hime. Teshigahara died of leukemia in 2001.