The Face of Another (1966)
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Writer: Kobo Abe; based on Tanin no kao by Kobo Abe
Cinematographer: Hiroshi Segawa
Producer: Hiroshi Teshigahara
by Jon Cvack
Face of Another closed out Hiroshi Teshigahara’s trilogy, where I first started with Woman in the Dunes (1964) years and years ago, if not in college, where I think I fell asleep the first time, invited a friend for the second, where he then fell asleep and I finished, not entirely sure of everything that happened, but fascinated by the plot of a schoolteacher missing the last bus home, finding a room down inside a dune pit, where he then gets stuck with a crazy young widow. After a first round with the trilogy, Pitfall (1962) is my least favorite, though still a powerful film examining a small mining town and involving a young boy, some union leaders, and a ghost. While none of the films are perfect, with great and challenging ideas that never go exactly where you hope, there is a distinct voice behind them.
Watching a video essay (linked below), film scholar James Quandt, I learned that director Teshigahara came from a diverse artistic background, creating extraordinary work in everything from painting and pottery to bamboo modeling and traditional architecture. It makes the work make all the more sense, as with this Quandt breaking down each reference we see an extraordinary range of influences, from Magritte’s "The Lovers" to Dali and his surrealism.
The story involves Mr. Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) whose face was grossly disfigured in an industrial accident, now determined to do spend whatever means necessary to fix it. He works with Dr. Hira (Mikijirō Hira) who works out of a bizarre minimalist office, with glass walls and strange anatomical sculptures, with tools and equipment sticking out of random places. Mr. Okuyama is out of his mind, wanting to use the mask to seduce his wife Mrs. Okuyama (Machiko Kyō) who he’s confident finds him absolutely hideous.
The film then cuts to a B-story, following a beautiful and unnamed woman (Kunie Tanaka) whose face is half disfigured due to the Atomic bombing of Nagasaki, where she attracts boys until they see the other side of her face, deriding her and running off. Completely overwhelmed and embarrassed by her disfigurement she has an unwavering fear of another atomic bombing - with imagery straight from Terminator 2.
Eventually Mr. Okuyama gets the mask, with Dr. Hira warning him of what it could do, allowing him to lose all sense of morality - which in fact happens as he reintegrates himself into society, successfully seducing his wife (or so he thinks), amongst other women.
Like Woman in the Dunes, the ideas behind the story are a bit more interesting than the actual story, as for all of its references, it falls into what I discussed just prior with The Castle (1997) - in that it’s relying on the understanding of third party elements to fully appreciate the story.
Even the Quandt mentions that none of the films from the trilogy provide solid narratives, as they often get lost in style in order to make up for poorly constructed plots. It was great to watch Nakadai move from a cloth mask to become an actual human, all while he expressed his excitement and malevolent plans and intentions. Perhaps a few more viewings would help to fully appreciate the details, but except for the wife and the awkward moment where he believes he seduces her until she admits she knew the whole time, there was little that helped to build up to the climax.
The second story is fascinating as well, providing an intriguing portrayal of damaged beauty, and the ways in which self-consciousness can take on other meanings, but ultimately the story doesn’t get anywhere beyond the fantasies. I would have appreciated seeing more of a struggle between disfigurement with no means to remedy it like Mr. Okuyama, and how she would continue on, rather than leaving a more ambiguous conclusion about another nuclear holocaust.
Personally, I saw the film as far more an experimental reflection of post-Atomic Nagasaki, with everyone attempting to fit into a new world and economy, all while tens of thousands were destroyed, with millions still dealing with the effects. Rather than attempting to devise ways to brush aside the history (the bombing happened 20 years prior to the film), it was important to accept the deformities. In some ways I wished, for as uninspired as it would have been, that the film could have had the young woman and Mr. Okuyama meet, and without falling in love or anything romantic, they simply appreciated each other for a moment - even if the same conclusions occurred. As is, the story’s so cynical, though given the time frame, perhaps deservedly so.
Hiroshi Teshigahara’s trilogy has been one of my favorite film series I’ve visited in a long time, up there with Bergman’s Glass Darkly and Rosselini’s War Trilogy, and while not as great, are films I’m sure I’ll revisit soon enough.
BELOW: Another great Criterion essay (which I recommend watching before the film)
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