Sadly, Hiroshi Teshigahara, is not a household name in the US or even in his native Japan. It isn’t a name that particularly rolls off the tongue, but I’m going to try and say it aloud more often in the hopes that he’ll get more recognition. Teshigahara was a Japanese avant-garde director who plied his trade during the rising Japanese New Wave, alongside such better known names as Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki. His career was not particularly long or productive, but it did result in several intellectual and artistic oddities well worth a look.
I first became aware of Teshigahara when a 35mm print of his masterpiece, “Woman in the Dunes” (1964) played in my hometown during high school. I didn’t go see it, but I remember thinking it sounded interesting. Years later, I checked out a tattered VHS copy from a library and was simply amazed. In the film, an urban everyman finds himself trapped in a hut at the bottom of a sand pit with a mysterious native woman. The story is simple, but profound and powerful both as a literal and metaphoric idea. It could be described as erotic existentialism, and it unquestionably the best film ever made about sand. Including the book by Kobo Abe, it ranks with the contributions by Sartre and Camus as one of Existentialism great masterworks. It is also one of my favorite films.
Finding this or any other film by Teshigahara was formerly quite difficult. A box set was released in Japan a few years back, but there has not been a US DVD released. That is, until now. Criterion’s new box set (part of a banner month in July) is a must own item for lovers of Japanese cinema. It includes three collaborations between Teshigahara and Abe from their early careers including “Woman in the Dunes.” I was a little nervous about seeing “The Face of Another” (1966), because my expectations were so high. Teshigahara, however, does not disappoint.
“The Face of Another” is science-fiction, although what makes it an eye-opening experience isn’t imaginative ideas or special effects. Rather, the film exists within a surreal, psychological dreamscape that feels both alienating and timelessly relevant. It takes place in its own present day (1966) and reveals a fear of the growing phenomenon that was ‘changing the face of the world’ at that time: cosmetic surgery.
Mr. Okuyama is an engineer who has lost his face in an accident that takes place before the film begins. In the opening scene, he delivers a monologue about his injury while behind an X-ray screen. A series of uncomfortable close-ups show us only his jaw bone moving up and down as he speaks.
Okuyama falls under the spell of his nameless psychiatrist, a man who has coincidently developed a method for creating a realistic face from a special form of plastic that looks like silly putty. The doctor suggests that Okuyama become his first patient and eventually Okuyama agrees. It is clear from the outset that the doctor is more interested in the psychological effects than the medical, and he delivers long, heady discussions about the freedom and power of disguise and anonymity.
The two men select a down-and-out average-looking man and offer him a generous fee for permission to make a cast of his face. In the man’s nervous reaction to the idea and the doctor’s ominous reassurances, one can feel the danger in the air. Soon the surgery is completed without a hitch and Mr. Okuyama’s wears a “human mask” indistinguishable from the real thing.
Just as the doctor predicts, Okuyama’s identity is quickly subsumed by the power of the mask. He buys a new apartment and begins to lead two lives. He's disturbed by a yo-yo obsessed mentally handicapped girl who can identify him by smell (she lacks the high cognitive functions for facial recognition), but otherwise he relishes the freedom.
However, Teshigahara’s film still remains effective and troubling today. The reason lies in how the director chooses to present his story and the depth to which he is willing to explore the topic. Like much of great science fiction, the interest lies less in the inventions themselves than in their consequences. Abe (as the screenwriter) questions whether the face is really just the skin and hair of physical appearance, and implies that our personality is far more fragile than we’d like to admit. The film starts our dark and dims the lights until the dystopic finale. One can feel Okuyama’s mind caving in on him like the encroaching darkness of a fading candle; the mask entombing and smothering his psyche even as it opens up a whole new world to him.
Audiences would be hard-pressed to miss the Faustian overtones of Okuyama’s relationship with his doctor. The crafty psychiatrist is always whispering in Okuyama’s ear (e.g. "Yield to the mask. Accept it!") and ultimately sells him a second life (of sorts) at the cost of his already-vulnerable soul. In the pessimistic final scene, Okuyama seems hypnotized by the overwhelming clash of infinite freedom and inescapable fate. He makes the only decision available to an existential character in the confrontation between ‘god’ (or in this case, the devil) and its creation.
Like the X-ray from the opening seen, every thematic nuance is exposed directly to the viewer. The film is so talkative that the screenplay would read like a philosophical treatise more than a pulp novel. Okuyama and his doctor spontaneously offer surprisingly poetic and dramatic comments on their situation: "I want to extinguish every light in the world and gouge out every eye," "Loneliness and friendship will bleed into each other," "I have so many selves [that] I can't contain them all," and so forth.
The sets evince the internal desolation of the characters, and have a structured emptiness that encompasses both the depopulated exteriors and minimalist interiors. The artificial atmosphere is used for shameless artiness and it makes the viewer quite conscious of the filmmaker’s hand. Teshigahara uses a preponderance of extreme close-ups and extreme long shots (more the former than the latter), to make the focus of scenes undeniable while still depriving the viewer of sure footing.
Part of Teshigahara and Abe’s brilliance is the way they bear out their themes with impeccable detail and coverage and yet somehow deny us access to the individual elements. We never see Mr. Okuyama’s original face. We don’t get to know for sure if his wife is faithful. The doctor’s personal life and long-term goals are unrevealed. The dialog at first seems to be an explicit entrance into understanding, but ultimately it is so academic in nature that the real motivations and emotions are hopelessly obscured. Though this strategy of presentation is often quite compelling, it also means that the film is more of a message, a warning, than a fully-fleshed narrative.
Teshigahara expands the range and implications of what would otherwise be a fairly simple and straightforward message by creating a parallel story to Okuyama’s own. It is given only a fraction as much screen time, but is almost equally as fascinating. The second story follows a beautiful young girl with a disfiguring burn (presumably the result of exposure to the atomic bomb) covering one half of her face. She goes about her daily life, suffering the indignities of men (including her mentally handicapped father) who are both attracted and repelled by her. She has a close and possibly incestuous relationship with her brother. [SPOILERS here to end of paragraph] At the end of her subplot she drowns herself in the sea. Her brother witnesses her demise and stabbed by a lance of light that transforms his anguished form into a flayed bull.
As further food for thought, one can spot plenty of strong hints at a political dimension. The facial reconstruction at the heart of the plot may be a metaphor for post-war reconstruction and degradation of personal identity may be a stand in for the loss of cultural identity in a rapidly modernizing Japan. I’ll leave those themes to be addressed by those who have read Abe’s book (I plan to eventually!).
“The Face of Another” is far from straight horror or sci-fi, but it has enough of both to qualify (it is both stimulating and chilling) and to be interesting to (extremely) open-minded genre enthusiasts. I’m certain it will have much more appeal to fans or art house experimentation, ultra-modernist composition and Japanese 1960’s weirdness.