Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Writer: Kōbō Abe
Cinematographer: Hiroshi Segawa
Producer: Tadashi Ono
by Jon Cvack
I got my first taste of director Hiroshi Teshigahara about a decade ago with Woman in the Dunes. Knee deep in my philosophy program, I was blown away by the 2+ hour existential drama involving a man and entomologist who fails to collect a particular type of beetle he was searching for, leaving him stranded in the middle of a desert, heading into a deep sand pit for shelter where he meets a strange woman who traps him inside. It’s unnerving and eerie mood has always stuck with me.
Watching the Criterion’s video essay by James Quandt, he introduces Pitfall as a extensive cross genre piece - serving as Ghost Story, Murder Mystery, Investigative Procedural, and Social Realism, swinging from genre to genre with increasingly rapid pace.
The story begins with the Coal Miner, Otsuka (Hisashi Igawa), who’s working his way across the countryside with a young boy and one of his colleagues. Their hunt is reminiscent of the Grapes of Wrath, as they bounce from job to job, finding whatever work they can. Throughout the film, we get the sense of exploited workers who function as no more than replaceable cogs. Union busters are scattered throughout the land, using whatever means necessary to prevent labor from organizing. Otsuka and his crew are hunted by a “Man in White” (Kunie Tanaka) who murders Otsuka, possibly mistaking him for one of the Union Leaders of an opposing mining company. Otsuka then resurrects as a ghost, doomed to wander the land, meeting other ghosts in the process. Meanwhile, local authorities discover the body, and so begins a manhunt for the murderer responsible. The Man in White then kills the only witness to Otsuka’s murder, and when a pair of Union Leaders discover the dead body, they end up blaming and then killing one another as they argue who about should take responsibility. The Man in White then cruises off in a motorcycle, with the Young Boy crying, stealing a few bits of candy from the Witness, before breaking down in tears. Suffice it to say, I would need to watch this movie a few more times to fully understand everything that happened.
Per the usual viewing habits, I stopped the movie halfway through, continuing the next morning and I’d swear I put on a different film with how rapidly the tone and genre shifted. Given Teshigahara’s New Left politics the film is clearly about the superfluity of workers within a capitalistic system. It seems as though the Man in White serves as a type of Union Buster, hunting those across the countryside who hope to organize and fight for their rights. Quandt mentions how the film was created during the boom period of Japanese Industry, as they were on track to far exceed their post-WWII expectations, bringing Western practices to the country in the hopes of lifting everyone up, swinging too far toward the unregulated market, and like early 20th century American labor, allowed workers to operate in extremely dangerous conditions, with the government failing to do anything about it.
I’m not sure if any of this is accurate, and the moment I start discussing labor relations within a capitalistic system all my words feel far too heavy handed, facile, and insufficient. The film crosses so many genres, many of which are Western in nature - such as the murder mystery/film noir and investigative procedural - that I was wondering if maybe their inclusion and complete shift in tone was a commentary on Western Ideals as well; where even though the story started with two men and a boy wandering the countryside in search of work, poor and hungry, we then shift to a more exciting and less cynical tone; possibly highlighting how superfluous these workers and their plights are regarded by those rising to the top in the new Japanese economy. While the narrative gets lost in abstraction at points, for anyone interested in cerebral or existential cinema, it’s worth checking out.
BELOW: Highly recommend checking out James Quandts' video essay before seeing the film
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