Every so often one pops in a DVD into a player and gets a hell of a nice surprise via the images that start pouring out from the boob tube. Such was the case when I decided to watch a film of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s, from a trilogy pack, released by The Criterion Collection, a few years ago. I had seen the collection at a good price, so bought it, knowing that some time in the future, when looking for a film to watch, I would come across the three disk set and be taken. Well, I was right. The film of his I chose as my initial foray was his third film, 1966’s 124 minute long The Face Of Another (Tanin No Kao or ????). It’s a terrific film about reality, the self, ego, identity, duplication, and a few other classic themes in psychology, and one that just misses greatness because of a few minor flaws: a bit too show-offy and obvious in terms of its psychology and symbolism, a failed side story, and a few moments where the narrative fell into predictability. But, these flaws are only enough to keep it from flat-out greatness. Otherwise, the film is intelligent, well-written, well-acted, and brilliantly directed.
The film was based on a novel of the same title by Kobo Abe. Abe and Teshigahara were partners on four films in the 1960s that were, to Japanese cinema, what the French New Wave was to European cinema. The film is a mélange of cinematic daring and brilliance, yet oddly contained in the older full frame aspect ratio and shot in black and white. This only emphasizes the innovation within the classic framework.
The tale follows a man named Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai), who, as the film opens, we learn has been facially scarred in some sort of industrial accident. The opening narration is provided by his company provided, and unnamed, psychiatrist. It is a series of x-ray shots, disjointed shots of facial parts, mannekin limbs, bizarre shots of empty space, and strongly reminds one of the opening scenes from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, released just a year earlier. Parallels to that film abound, as the psychiatrist, Dr. (Mikijirô Hira), in this film, becomes almost an alter-ego to Okuyama, the way the nurse in Persona almost is subsumed by the silent actress. Also, the white office of the Dr., laden with see-through glass walls, is eerily similar to the opening scenes of the Bergman film wherein a young boy awakens and reaches out to the viewer. Additionally, the things seen within the office may or may not be real, but projections of Okuyama or the Dr., a technique that Woody Allen clearly stole for scenes in his black and white film, in scenes set in a very white apartment, Stardust Memories. Early portions of this film follow Okuyama through the city, fully bandaged, and in his darkened apartment, philosophizing with his wife (Machiko Kyo), whom he suspects is merely pretending to still care for him. The idea of the masque as liberating force soon enters the picture, as the Dr. suggests that he can craft an artificial face for Okuyama. The scarred man agrees, and they purchase the rights to a facial mold from a man they meet at a restaurant, right down to an unsightly mole on his right cheek.
The Dr. warns Okuyama that the mask may change him- a trope used in countless science fiction B films, and used in higher end fictions like The Phantom Of The Opera and Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, and even Bergman’s stab at horror, Hour Of The Wolf. The mask as the other also has parallels with The Invisible Man, and many other films wherein a character becomes invisible and loses all sense of ethics. What is interesting is that this is exactly what the unscrupulous Dr. is counting on. He is a modern and believable version of the classic mad scientist, as well as a sick Cyrano de Bergerac, and he clearly plants the seeds of personal doubt in Okuyama’s mind, even telling his nurse (Kyôko Kishida, with whom he is having an affair) that he will likely try to seduce his wife in his new guise, as one of many predictions he makes as a dime store philosopher. Okuyama decides to rent an apartment in a nearby complex, and in fact rents two- one as the bandaged man, and one with his new guise. Only the building’s superintendent’s retarded (and yo-yo obsessed) adult daughter (Etsuko Ichihara) can tell they are the same person. The Dr. suspects that because she has the intellect of an animal, she, like them, can tell who he is by smell.
After initially following Okuyama on his outings with the mask, the Dr. leaves him alone. Naturally, it is not long before Okuyama confides to his Dr. that he will try to seduce his wife. The Dr. is internally gleed that his prediction came true. He thus pursues his wife, and seduces her with ease, during one well filmed footsy scene, shot under a restaurant table. Afterwards, in his apartment, he calls her a slut for cheating on him with himself. She calmly informs him that she knew it was him all along. He does not believe her, at first, but when she reminds him of an earlier comment she made about women’s makeup being masks, he believes her claim that she thought his mask was only his way of being courteous to her sensibilities, and to rekindle their passions. Seeing his real intentions, she is hurt and disgusted, and returns home. He follows but she locks him out. He has taken a knife with him, possibly to murder her. Failing that, he wanders the streets, and accosts a woman, possibly to rape her. When arrested, the police find no identification, save for a card for the Dr.’s office. He comes to get his patient released. As they wander through their city (one we never know the name of- it is a faceless metropolis, of the sort found worldwide) at night, a crowd of faceless people wander by, and Okuyama then stabs the Dr., and is left to a bleak future; a changed man.
Throughout the tale of Okuyama is a secondary tale of a beautiful woman (Miki Irie) whose face is scarred on one side. We never know the provenance of this, but her shunning from society does not diminish her soul, unlike Okuyama. She survives some bizarre, dream-like episodes, then incestually seduces her brother and commits suicide, tangentially to scenes of Okuyama’s seduction of his wife, by walking off into the surf (a presage to a very similar scene in Woody Allen’s film Interiors, made a decade and a half later). Overall, while there are some nice touches- such as Word War Two veterans attacking her while garbled bits of speeches by Hitler are heard, the whole trope is pointless. The symbolism of the brother as a dead animal is melodramatic and downright silly, as is much of this digression, especially compared to the relatively restrained main narrative. Film experts, in the supplements for the DVD set, claim that the tale is less prominent in Abe’s novel, and is clearly referenced as a film that Okuyama sees. But here it may be an alternate universe or dream/fantasy of Okuyama’s. Whatever it is, it simply adds nothing to the film, and detracts from it, making the film seem far more self-consciously artsy in a precious way. A major reason for this is that the woman simply is a poor doppelganger for Okuyama; especially considering that many shots of the Dr. clearly position him as the internal doppelganger of Okuyama (with shots often aping those in Persona), right until his murder, which can be seen as Okuyama’s feeble attempt to rid himself of his own evil impulses. How the Dr. slowly falls out of frame even seems like ecdysis, when a snake sheds its old skin
But, there are other flaws in the film, as well. While most of the dazzling array of camera tricks work well within the narrative, some come completely out of nowhere, and are pointless- such as a shot of a woman on a bed flying over a city, via rear projection, or the Dr.’s door opening and shots of human hair in water are seen. Why? Because, I guess. Other visual elements enhance the feeling of alienation in the film by slyly not alienating the viewer, but drawing the viewer into experience the alienation, thereby using commiseration in a positive, empathetic manner. This inflicts a dreamy like feeling on many of the scenes which helps slow down the subjective experience of time, both diegetically and not.
Critics also have severely mangled the film’s reputation, which was high in Japan, but never well received abroad. First, the whole secondary tale of the beautiful girl is, aside from its above mentioned flaws, laden with misinterpretations, the primary one being that the girl is somehow a survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bombing. First, given her age, this is not likely, with over two decades’ passage. Second, the radiation scarring would not be as limited in scope as it is. Third, why do all the critics repeat that it was the Nagasaki bombing, and not Hiroshima? Perhaps the novel specifies this, but that has nothing to do with the film. It’s clear that Teshigahara was hoping this digression would aid the film, much like the beachside parable the Monica Vitti character, in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Red Desert, tells her son; but it does not. Other lesser misinterpretations of moments or cinematic tricks abound, as well. Another flaw, which like that of the pinning of the girl’s scars on Nagasaki’s atomic bombing, that evidences critical cribbing, comes from reviews that state the name of Okuyama’s psychiatrist. At least as far as the subtitles went, I heard no name, although it may be spoken in the actual dialogue. The same is true for his wife, similarly unnamed, at least as far as the subtitles tell.
The film is seen as the completion of a trilogy the other two films in the DVD package represent, Pitfall and The Woman In The Dunes, also scripted by Abe. The use of doublings in the film is rife, from Okuyama and the Dr., and Okuyama and the girl, to a near perfect repetition of scenes where Okuyama rents two apartments, and near identical actions and dialogue is spoken, to visual rimes and repetitions of stylized shots and décor. Other influences from film history include the 1935 horror film Mad Love, wherein hands, not a face are transplanted, and they take over their recipient, and Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, a 1960 French horror film about a mad scientist who kills women and tries to graft their faces onto his daughter’s. There are so many horror and sci fi antecedents that can be seen as having contributed elements to this film that it is no wonder the film is called science fiction (which technically it was, until a few years ago, when the first successful face transplant was done); hell one can even see elements of Grade Z horror films like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die in it. But, perhaps the most unrealized influence on the film, at least visually, if not narratively, was a 1960 episode of the American sci fi television show The Twilight Zone, called The Eye Of The Beholder, wherein a bandaged woman has many surgeries to ‘correct’ her deformation. When her face is revealed, at the episode’s end, she is revealed as a gorgeous blond, but the world she inhabits is filled with grotesque gargoyles. In many ways, this film plays out like an extended episode of that series, including the fact that the Dr.’s nurse has big eyes and a weird smile, often shot in closeups, that actually resembles the Twilight Zone gargoyles’ smile.
The acting is very good. Nakadai excelled in previous classics like Seven Samurai, When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, Yojimbo, and High And Low, and is even better here. Kyo starred in classics like Rashomon and Ugetsu, and is also very good, especially in an ironic scene where she, in English, sings Ten Little Indians, a nice foreshadowing of the Agatha Christian sinistry ahead. Mikijirô Hira, as the nameless Dr., is also good. Technically, the film is brilliant, and more importantly, daring. There really are very few special effects in the film, but the film’s technical marvels make it seem like there are many. Hiroshi Segawa gets high marks for cinematography that evinces nuance, subtlety, and daring, aside from the things already mentioned as design and decorative marvels- such as weird framing, tilted cameras, fast focus pulling, stuttered editing, jump cuts, wipes, handheld footage, dramatic lighting, darkness, rear-screen projection, still photography, and more, and the score by Toru Takemitsu (who later went on to score Akira Kurosawa’s Ran), another Teshigahara collaborator, is very good- being eerie in spots, and making profoundly good uses of silence and ambient noise for large chunks of the film. This is one of the few films where the term surreal, often so sloppily appended to any film or scene that puzzles a critic, can truly be appended, but it is a surrealism far more ‘real’ and sophisticated than the slapdash and puerile nonsense foisted by the likes of Jean Cocteau or Luis Buñuel.
The film, while it does indulge some clichés, avoids other, such as an early scene where the Dr. tells his patient to be sure not to wear the mask more than 12 hours at a time, lest his skin deteriorate. In a lesser film, you just know that the scarred man would do just that, with dire results. But not here. Teshigahara nicely subverts a negative expectation. Another positive is the portrayal of most of the scenes showing Okuyama’s estrangement from the everyday, which, with its lack of music and stopped images, invokes a similar scene in Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls, set in a department store. The use of still photos, at several key moments, recalls Chris Marker’s La Jetee. It also sets up scenes wherein one character knows something another does not, recalling Alfred Hitchcock’s old adage that horror is based in knowledge, not visuals. The classic example being a shot of an ordinary room can become terrifying if a viewer (especially with a character’s ignorance in play) knows that somewhere in the room a dead body is hidden. Similarly, a viewer is discomfited by the knowledge of Okuyama’s real identity and his darker nature, that eludes most of the film’s other characters.
As for the DVD? The actual package, 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 The Face Of Another on it contains the theatrical trailer and a video essay by film critic James Quandt on it. Overall, it is a solid video package, shown in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, although the lack of an English language dubbed track would have been a great help because a) the white subtitles blanche out against many of the ultra-white shots of the film and b) most of the dialogue is spoken in monotones, so that claims that some emotion would be lost by dubbing are moot. The booklet features a career overview by Peter Grilli, an interview with the director, and essays on the films. Teshigahara, as the features state, was born to wealth, and inherited his father’s wealthy flower-arranging business (a major art form in Japan), thus only made eight films in his career.
Many critics, as stated, muddled claims about elements of the plot, but also dwelt excessively on the ideas of what the film’s theme(s) were, without commenting on whether or not the film’s themes are successful. As example, a major weakness at the end of the film, right before the Dr.’s murder, is the horde of faceless people. As symbolism it is far too heavyhanded (as compared to the lack of character names in the film), even if it thematically fits. A better technical approach would have been to show the murder as ordinary people walked right by. That and the dramatic use of darkness, seem out of place with the subtler and more apropos razzle-dazzle and Absurdism that dominates the film. That Okuyama likely suffered from mental ills before his accident is clear, and that the Dr. is exploiting his patient with the hope that he can mass produce his invention, is equally clear. It is the dance between these two that is the core of the film, and their banter is the film’s true music. Yet, while most then contemporary critics whiffed on the film, due to not being engaged by its power and daring execution, I came across a recent review of the film that, to the bad critic’s credit, admits his flaws, however unwittingly. The review begins:
Sometimes, in the course of considering what I want (or need) to say about a movie I’m reviewing, I’ll have a difficult time of it. Sometimes, I suck it up and eke out a review that might not be very good but that has at least one intelligent and original thought in it. Other times, like right now, I’ll be tedious and self-indulgent and make the review more about me than about the movie. But let me tell you a trade secret: anytime you read something that purports to provide an opinion, you’re reading autobiography. There is no such thing as objective criticism, particularly when it comes to movies. At the same time, movies become “great” or “classic” because enough people have agreed on the wholly subjective criteria for what makes a “great” or “classic” movie. Of course, there are those whose power lends considerable weight to this agreement. If Roger Ebert, for example, deems a movie “great,” the pronouncement carries more authority than if I, for example, deem a movie “great”. Ebert gets books published, books called The Great Movies. I, as it happens, do not.
The only thing wrong with this view, of course, is that it is 180 degrees from the truth. The real trade secret is that, yes, there are objective criteria by which to judge a film, or any other work of art; and those that claim there are not are just trying to cover up their own flaws and limitations: that they cannot be objective! The mythic Postmodern claims to the contrary all fall of their own illogical heft. This film is near-great precisely because of its bevy of excellence weighted against a few minor (or major, depending on your parallax) flaws. The critic, one Matt Bailey, in fact, contradicts his own claim for the provenance of greatness when he first claims it is by public acclamation, then backtracks and admits fame carries clout. Of course, decades hence, when no one cares of his nor Ebert’s comments, the films they weigh in on will remain, and their excellence, or lack, will still be as objectively able to be weighed. Opinions can be subjective, but not all are. It’s the error in making an imperative claim that damns most critics like Bailey. That, and emotionalism, which he reveals in his next paragraph.
The reason I’m waxing solipsistic is that I feel I have failed as a critic. I watched Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another and read about it and thought about it, yet ultimately failed to connect with it. It sits before me, a work of fearsome intellectual rigor, a dense piece of philosophical art, but I remain unmoved. Or, rather, not moved enough. There was one moment in the film, near the very end, when I felt that the film had leapt from the scaffolding of cold psychological analysis to take flight in the skies of illogical emotion, but it was only a small hop in the air.
Look at how he writes of his intellectual and emotional failures, yet does not recognize them. The key to objectivity is putting aside biases, which are borne of emotion. Finally, the worst solecism Bailey commits, which, most critics do, but only he is unwittingly kosher with admitting, is his claim that, ‘anytime you read something that purports to provide an opinion, you’re reading autobiography.’ This is an error along the lines that all art is biographical. The latter obviates imagination and the former intellectual cogitation. Opinions are personal, but rarely autobiographical- because most opinions come from things unrelated to the trivia of the diurnal. A more apt quote would be Oscar Wilde’s, ‘A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction.’ Even more apt would be Wilde’s claim: ‘An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty.’ Clearly, Bailey, like Okuyanma, has lost himself within the film. Like the main characters, he is over-philosophizing. Fortunately, film lovers do not need the Matt Baileys of the world to provoke them, but the Okuyamas? Yes. Therein the rub, and The Face Of Another is good for a callous worth having.
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.