The names Hiroshi Teshigahara, Kobo Abe, and Toru Takemitsu loom large among Japanese intellectuals of the late twentieth century. Each in his own right was an artist of peculiar genius, each resisting easy classification in conventional categories: Teshigahara as filmmaker, designer, flower artist, potter, calligrapher; Takemitsu as composer, poet, musical theorist, philosopher; and Abe as novelist, playwright, director, theater innovator. Individually, they transformed every area of artistic endeavor they turned to, and they are among the small handful of Japanese writers and artists who have had a significant, lasting impact on international culture.
In the mid-1960s, these three artists came together in a series of extraordinary film collaborations that shocked their more conventional countrymen and instantly won enthusiastic response abroad. Through work intended principally for Japanese audiences, the three struck a chord that harmonized unexpectedly, but perfectly, with the sensibilities and existentialist instincts of the international avant-garde. Their four films—Pitfall (1962), Woman in the Dunes (1964), The Face of Another (1966), and Man Without a Map (1968)—set Japan center stage in the intellectual discourse of a world seeking answers to questions about identity, human existence, and the alienation of modern man in urban society. The first three of those landmark films are collected in this box set.
Although Teshigahara, as director, was responsible for organizing and unifying these collaborations, it is otherwise difficult to distinguish absolutely the separate contributions of each of the three artists. To say that Abe wrote the screenplays, Takemitsu composed the musical scores, and Teshigahara provided the imagery is too simplistic. Each of the three challenged, provoked, and enhanced the work of the others. They’d all known and admired each other since the late 1950s. Teshigahara had asked Takemitsu to produce concerts of contemporary music at Sogetsu, his family’s avant-garde art center, in Tokyo, and in 1959, Takemitsu had produced a superb musical score for Teshigahara’s debut film, José Torres, about a Puerto Rican boxer in New York City. Even before Abe’s Woman in the Dunes first appeared, in 1962, as a best-selling novel, both Teshigahara and Takemitsu had recognized its potential as a film and begun planning the unique aesthetic that might sustain the transfer from printed page to screen. Abe had worked earlier with Takemitsu on radio dramas and seen how the composer’s soundscapes brought unexpected emotional depth to his words. When they all finally came together on Pitfall, Teshigahara’s innate tendencies toward overexpression were quickly reined in by the austerity of Abe’s vision and the sere understatement of Takemitsu’s sounds. Each artist involved himself deeply in the work of the others, and none of them hesitated to criticize or reshape the work of the others in order to strengthen it or give it deeper meaning.
“He gave me much more than just music,” Teshigahara reminisced about Takemitsu, shortly after the death, in 1996, of the composer who provided the music for every one of his feature films. “He gave me ideas and energy and a kind of trust that never failed. He was always more than a composer. He involved himself so thoroughly in every aspect of a film—script, casting, location shooting, editing, and total sound design—that a willing director can rely totally on his instincts.” Much the same was said by and about each member of this triangular collaboration. Both Abe and Takemitsu had strong visual instincts, as revealed in their private sketches and designs, and they were not hesitant to advise Teshigahara on the look of the films. (Abe later went on to devise unique theatrical works that abandoned language and verbal communication, relying entirely on movement, visual stage patterns, and soundscapes.)
Abe, born in 1924, was the oldest of the trio and in a sense initiated the collaborations by first penning the texts on which the films were based. Pitfall, the earliest of the films, emerged from sketches for stories that were still percolating in the writer’s mind. Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another were both based on best-selling novels of the same names, which were transformed into films almost immediately after the books were published. Teshigahara was three years younger than Abe, and Takemitsu, born in 1930, was the youngest of the three. Teshigahara was perhaps the most “Japanese” in heritage and upbringing. He was the son of Sofu Teshigahara, a painter, sculptor, calligrapher, and the creator of the highly innovative Sogetsu flower school. Born into a family of considerable wealth and influence, which traced its antecedents back to the aristocracy of medieval Japan, Hiroshi Teshigahara was a highly educated intellectual whose artistic instincts might be called hereditary, albeit honed by the devastating turmoil of World War II.
Abe and Takemitsu came from very different backgrounds than Teshigahara, and the two of them shared the experience of being reared outside Japan, in the vast wilderness of Manchuria, during the 1930s period of Japanese colonization. Like other Japanese writers and artists born or raised in China or Manchuria during that era, Takemitsu and Abe exhibited a kind of freedom and self-confidence that was not shared by Japanese who grew up in the much tighter, socially constrained circumstances of the Japanese Islands. In Manchuria, one could gaze out over vast terrain, with almost nothing blocking a view of the distant horizon—something that was virtually impossible in the densely populated and mountainous geography of Japan. The magnitude of that Manchurian landscape seemed to set them free.
As young adults, both Abe and Takemitsu had been sent back to Japan to be educated, but the frontier life had spoiled them for conventional schooling. Both were bored in school and followed paths of self-education far different from what their parents had envisioned. Abe was pressured by his physician father to enter medical school at Tokyo University, but he failed his examinations and boldly told his professors that he had no intention of ever practicing medicine. Though he chose to pursue literature as a career instead, his medical studies did seem to have an influence on his writing, which is informed by a kind of scientific precision and an analytical quality in which ideas are operated on with the sharpness of a surgeon’s scalpel. Takemitsu, who was supposed to follow in the footsteps of his businessman father, was ill during the war years and the immediate postwar period and could not attend school. Tubercular and lying for years in sickbeds, he read voraciously and listened constantly to radio broadcasts of all types of music. He was intensely inspired by American jazz, broadcast by the U.S. occupation forces in postwar Japan; self-taught in musical composition, he always claimed that his only real teacher was Duke Ellington.
Japan in the late 1940s and early 1950s was a harsh terrain, still devastated by nuclear holocaust and by the fire bombings that had reduced most Japanese cities to ashes. The world in which Abe, Teshigahara, and Takemitsu came of age as expressive artists was not one for which they had been prepared by their forebears or by any social legacy. The values of prewar Japan had been utterly discredited by their nation’s defeat, the society emasculated by foreign occupiers for the first time in Japanese history. The so-called democracy that was being layered onto the Japanese body politic by temporary American rulers seemed ill fitted to a culture that had never valued individualism or freedom of expression. They wandered forth into a strange new world that had no identity of its own and was distorted by poverty and foreign occupation. Everywhere were symptoms of an existential dilemma on a vast national scale. In retrospect, it seems hardly surprising that the compelling themes of Japanese artists of the day were those of alienation, the search for identity, and the struggle for survival in a wasted landscape—or that their styles and languages of expression should have been so austere, desiccated, and severe.
The three films in this collection pose essential questions but provide few answers. Who am I? Why does one live? What is the nature of this thing called society that surrounds me? Where am I going? What is the value of my work? My relationships? My existence? These are the issues that the protagonists of these films grapple with, and they struggle alone, without a benevolent deity or a comprehending society available to provide solutions. How is the viewer of these films to respond to such characters, in such situations? Are they real, we ask ourselves, or are they mere devices in a larger allegorical universe? Are they flesh and blood or ghosts from another time and place? In the opening sequence of The Face of Another, the protagonist is introduced through an X-ray image of his face, speaking in a recognizable language but utterly detached from reality and asking questions that cannot be answered. His identity is further called into question when we realize that his bandaged visage is not his own face but that of another person, grafted onto his head. Who then is he? Is he the man whose face was burned from his body, or is he the personality of the new face, or is he some grotesque amalgam of the two?
In Pitfall, the “hero” is continually in flight from some unknown pursuers—or is he fleeing a crime, or the memory of his own misdeeds? We’re never sure. In Woman in the Dunes, an archetypal man and woman labor together at the bottom of a sand dune, continually digging sand, supposedly in order to protect some unseen village nearby. What is the society for which they sacrifice themselves? And why do they obey its dictates? When they attempt to resist their “fate,” they quickly realize that escape is impossible. Are these people Japanese or somehow universal? Is the environment of their lives any recognizable place? Or is it the tortured mental landscape of Sartre or Kafka or Camus? And where, ultimately, does the viewer stand in relationship to these spectral figures?
Abe, Teshigahara, and Takemitsu were in total accord in their vision for Woman in the Dunes. While making the film, Teshigahara frequently commented that the film had three main characters, not two: the man, the woman, and the sand. Decades after completing the film, he repeated: “The sand has its own identity . . . And without Toru’s help, we never would have been able to realize this fully.” Takemitsu’s music for Woman in the Dunes relies almost totally on a string ensemble, first recorded and subsequently rearranged and distorted electronically for desired sound effects. The sounds, alternately shrill, harsh, and menacing, form a perfect soundscape for the austere allegory of Abe’s narrative. But this “composed” music is only part of Takemitsu’s unique contribution to the film. The weird environment is the dominating quality of the film, and, recognizing this, Takemitsu gives life to the sand through sound. It is there at all times, even when a scene seems completely silent. The soft, barely audible sizzle or hiss or patter of sand—dripping, shifting, and constantly in motion—inhabits every moment of the film, as it does every moment of the protagonists’ terrifying existence. And it is through the subconscious quality of sound that the woman’s persistent reply to the man’s fearful questions—“It is the sand”—develops its total, all-enveloping meaning.
Similarly, in the scene where the man is forced to rape the woman for the sadistic pleasure of the onlooking villagers, Takemitsu uses the hypnotic drumming of the villagers’ Onigoroshi-daiko (demon-killing drums) to create a sound sequence that is as terrifying as it is dehumanizing. The drums, visually appropriate to the festive environment of the scene, take on a character far more important than their narrative identity. Deafening in its aural force and overpowering in its ritualistic, barbaric monotony, it is the sound of the drums that reduces everyone—the characters and onlookers in the film, as well as the spectators in the theater audience—to a common bestiality.
The music for Pitfall, although produced out of the straitened circumstances of an extremely tight budget, is no less innovative or harmonious. For some passages, Takemitsu’s score calls for only a single musician, playing a “prepared piano,” which produces sounds like none ever heard before in film music. The result corresponds perfectly with the film’s picture of severe hardship and deprivation in Japan’s impoverished coal-mining society. Similarly, in The Face of Another, Takemitsu’s incisive electronic music accords well with the icy visuals (the light in many shots is captured through glass or refracted in mirrors and cold reflective surfaces) of Teshigahara’s aesthetic scheme for this film about lost or artificial identity.
Viewing these three Japanese film masterpieces together, it is clear that they spring from an ideal collaboration of three extraordinary creative artists working collectively almost as if they were a single body and mind. Has the existential dilemma so pervasive in world literature of the twentieth century ever found more compelling expression than in these films by Hiroshi Teshigahara, Kobo Abe, and Toru Takemitsu?
Peter Grill is president of the Japan Society of Boston. A Japan specialist, writer, and documentary filmmaker, he was a close friend of Toru Takemitsu's and Hiroshi Teshigahara's during the last decades of their lives.