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After making his international reputation in the sixties with a series of eerie existential parables written by Kobo Abe and scored by Toru Takemitsu, and then losing it with the raw, uncharacteristic Summer Soldiers (1972), the increasingly reclusive Hiroshi Teshigahara all but abandoned filmmaking for more than a decade, concentrating instead on other artistic pursuits and passions—calligraphy, ceramics, painting, bamboo installation, opera, and ikebana (his father was founder and master of the world-famous Sogetsu School of Ikebana).
He enjoyed something of a late-life critical renaissance when he reemerged as a filmmaker in the eighties, with Antonio Gaudí, but Woman in the Dunes (1964) remained his most—almost his only—celebrated film in the West. The Face of Another (1966), like Woman in the Dunes one of the Abe-Takemitsu collaborations, continued to languish in undeserved obscurity.
While a success in Japan, The Face of Another was largely dismissed by Western critics at the time of its release, perhaps for its modernist style, which was becoming increasingly unfashionable, its “extravagantly chic . . . abstruse exploration of psychological symbolism” (Noël Burch)—a backlash that would also make Bergman and Antonioni figures of derision. The film remains little known today, even as the recent face transplant of a woman in France and international debate over the wearing of the niqab make its philosophical deliberations so timely. (The film presciently incorporates, from Abe’s novel, a remark about Arab women’s protective veils in the wife’s consideration of the power of concealing the face.)
Teshigahara’s best work, including The Face of Another, was a masterful amalgam of high international modernism—his sixties films have affinities with Antonioni, Bergman, and Resnais—and traditional Japanese fine arts. Having grown up under the militarist regime that led Japan into World War II and having witnessed the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—he made a documentary about the latter conflagration and once fainted after encountering one of its disfigured victims—Teshigahara, like so many of his peers, embraced Western philosophy, art, and politics, drawn especially to the revolutionary or contrarian: surrealism, dada, and socialism. However, his love of the art of Dalí, Ernst, Picasso, Pollock, and Mondrian—each apparent in specific images or compositions in The Face of Another—and of the films of De Sica and (above all) Buñuel did not obviate engagement with the traditions of Japanese art. Though Teshigahara and his leftist confreres partook of a postwar culture of guilt and contrition—never as strong in Japan as it was in Germany—they did not reject national artistic forms as sullied or suspect but rather sought continuities between them and contemporary aesthetics; for example, between ukiyo-e prints and expressionism. (Teshigahara’s first film was a daringly personal documentary about the nineteenth-century artist Katsushika Hokusai, he of the great, spuming Kanagawa wave that inspired Debussy’s La mer.)
The confluence of artistic forces—West with East, Europe with Japan, traditional with experimental—is readily apparent in the sinister, glittering waltz Takemitsu composed as the signature music for the credit sequence of The Face of Another. More unsettling than the composer’s nerve-scraping electronic music, which is more conventionally ominous, the strangely “inappropriate” waltz not only emphasizes Takemitsu’s and Teshigahara’s respective debts to Western culture but also introduces an important, largely unremarked incongruity in the film’s visual strategies. By employing a traditional, even antique, form—the triple-time Viennese ballroom dance, popular for more than two centuries—for modernist ends, Takemitsu inadvertently evokes a formal tension in the film between its strangely outmoded aspect ratio (the squarish Academy ratio) and its arsenal of visual innovation: freeze-frames, defamiliarizing close-ups, wild zooms, wash-away wipes, X-rayed imagery, stuttered editing, surrealist tropes, swish pans, jump cuts, rear projection, montaged stills, edge framing, and canted, fragmented, and otherwise stylized compositions. Since the late fifties, most Japanese films (though not Ozu’s) had been made in widescreen, and a mania for the Scope format was widespread, so Teshigahara’s adherence to the old-fashioned ratio, emphasized by the black-and-white cinematography, is especially striking. (His next film, 1968’s Man Without a Map, made in color and Scope, revealed a discomfort with both.) The contours of the vessel are classical, so to speak, all the more to emphasize the radical nature of both the narrative structure and visual design.
Though more conventionally structured than the Abe novel on which it is based, whose obsessional, confessional first-person narration was thought to make it unfilmable, the adaptation is also more daring. It would take an entire essay to catalog the changes made by Abe and Teshigahara in translating the novel to the screen, a project that in any case tends to deny the autonomy of both source and adaptation. But in matters both small (in the novel, the wife’s hobby is button making, not stone polishing) and large (the film transforms the minor doctor and nurse characters into central figures, to replace some of the interior monologue of the novel’s unnamed protagonist), the film is a vast improvement on the original. “Of course, you would be distracted and bored at times,” the novel’s narrator writes to his wife about her reading his journals, to which one can only reply: you bet. Frequently dull and overwrought, with an unwelcome welter of metaphor, much of it mixed (“My hopes changed into a heap of shapeless rags, like seaweed pulled out of the water”), and gaseous philosophizing, the novel is a bit of a chore. As much as one regrets the film’s excision of a couple of great (and visually potent) sequences in the book—the first involving a struggle with a tattooed man in a public bath, the second an exhibition of Noh masks—Teshigahara’s The Face of Another is infinitely more involving than Abe’s original.
As in his other three adaptations of Abe works, Teshigahara searches for (and mostly finds) visual analogies for Abe’s abstract prose. Setting, atmosphere, and visual design are paramount. (Metabolism architect Arata Isozaki and Masao Yamazaki were responsible for the film’s amazing design.) The theme of unmoored identity and fragmented consciousness finds its equivalent in the opening images of isolated limbs and in the truncated, neocubist shots of lips, fingers, back of the head that introduce Machiko Kyo as the wife. The mirror imagery so prevalent in Abe’s work, derived in part from an ancient Japanese origin myth, gets refracted in the film’s insistent images of glass. The doctor’s baroque office, a theater of cruelty shot with a roving camera through glass partitions, shelves, instruments, beakers, and bric-a-brac to achieve an abstract, graphic quality, anticipates the extreme mise-en-scène of Fassbinder’s extravagant “glass period” and its emphasis on interior space as a kind of vitrine in which every frozen emotion finds its icy image reflected, fragmented, distorted, multiplied in a mirrored surface of glass, Lucite, or metal. Alleviating the often blunt, obvious dialogue—“The face is the door of the soul”—there is throughout Teshigahara’s film a keen attention to design, pattern, and texture; for instance, the stippled glass of the apartment superintendent’s office juxtaposed with the herringbone tweed of Okuyama’s coat, or the inverted v of the staircase shot, which redeems that overworked trope.
The film retains the theme of bifurcation from the novel—Okuyama’s being “cuckolded by [his] own self”—through the doubling of settings, images, incidents. (Note that both Abe and Teshigahara ignore or suppress the conspicuous oppor-tunity to explore the theme of doppelgängers, as Okuyama’s face is modeled on a man who continues to exist with exactly the same visage.) The replay of Okuyama renting the apartment and his encounter with the yo-yo–obsessed daughter of the superintendent is the most obvious example of this doubling, but everywhere in the film one finds echoed, reiterated, or duplicated items and events that embody the central theme of Okuyama’s double existence. The Viennese waltz and the German song (called “Waltz”) delivered in the München beer hall (both signifiers of European culture but also of war anxiety, far more marked in the film than in the novel). The two apartments Okuyama rents, one for his bandaged self, one for his “face of another.” The scarred woman being sexually accosted by an old soldier in the psychiatric hospital and Okuyama’s flailing attempt to assault a woman at the end of the film. The doctor’s office, with its graphic partitions and blank walls, contrasted with Okuyama’s home, with its Tokyo-moderne mélange of pom-pom–ball curtains and traditional Japanese dolls. (Both spaces are arenas of infidelity, the first one actual, the second one planned.) The harshly lit wall of lockers near the beginning of the film and the hallway through which Okuyama pursues his wife near the end. The proliferating sea of faces under the film’s credits and the Magritte-like mass of featureless people that suddenly spills out onto the street.
The catalog of doubles and echoes extends much further, but suffice it to say that the most important twinning in the film is that of the main and secondary narratives, of Okuyama and his new face and the Nagasaki victim and her forever scarred one. Relegated to a short coda in the novel, the second story is so boldly and insistently interpolated into the Okuyama narrative in the film that it becomes more than mere counterpoint. One could contrast the two stories, their settings (which extends to the meteorological, one summery, the other winterish) and protagonists (one innocent and altruistic, the other cynical and solipsistic), but the importance the film assigns the second narrative suggests that Teshigahara is searching for a way to intensify his critique of Okuyama, whose fetid stream of consciousness in the novel suffices as damning commentary. It should also be noted, given the previous discussion of aspect ratio in the film, that Teshigahara first introduces the image of the girl (in ways reminiscent of an Imamura heroine) in letterboxed widescreen, before reverting to full frame, perhaps to signal that her story is the film that Okuyama tells his wife about. (Its status is less ambiguous in the novel, where it is clear that the second narrative is a film called One Kind of Love.)
Whether the film successfully incorporates this second narrative into the main one is debatable, but in a work whose lineage runs from The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, perhaps Dark Passage, and certainly Eyes Without a Face through the contemporaneous Seconds and Persona to such recent examples of the cinema of facial transmutation as Face/Off and Time, the daring with which Teshigahara interjects his secondary narrative into the first, without signal or segue (other than the initial wash-away wipe), suggests how singular and audacious The Face of Another was and is. It’s one of those unnerving works that looks both dated and more modern than modern. Like the paintings of James Ensor, which it seems to invoke, The Face of Another too clearly sees the skull beneath the skin, the dissembling of flesh, life as a vast masquerade.
James Quandt is senior programmer at the Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto. He is the editor of critical anthologies on directors Robert Bresson, Shohei Imamura, and Kon Ichikawa and has written on such filmmakers as Pedro Costa, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jean-Luc Godard, Tacita Dean, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Hong Sang-soo for Artforum magazine. He was recently awarded the Japan Foundation Special Prize for Arts and Culture.