The Face of Another (1966)

The Face of Another (1966 )
The face is the door to the mind.
Without it, the mind is shut off. There is no communication.

– Mr. Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) in The Face of Another

One of my favorite Japanese films is Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another (a.k.a. Tanin no kao, 1966) and it’s getting the Criterion treatment in a fabulous Box Set of Hiroshi Teshigahara films that comes out tomorrow. This new Criterion set promises to be one of the best DVD collections of the year and I’m really looking forward to it! Criterion has been releasing some truly great films this year and I can already confirm that many of them will be finding their way onto my “Best DVDs of 2007” list, which I’ll be compiling at the end of the year when I follow-up last year’s list.

Besides The Face of Another, this new DVD set from Criterion will also include Teshigahara’s critically acclaimed Woman in the Dunes (a.k.a. Suna no onna, 1964) and a ghost story called Pitfall (a.k.a. Otoshiana, 1962) that I haven’t had the opportunity to see yet. All three films are based on the work of the Japanese author Kobo Abe who has often been compared to Kafka. Kobo Abe also wrote the screenplays and even appears briefly in one of the bar scenes in The Face of Another.

Director Hiroshi Teshigahara was a pivotal figure of the Japanese new wave and his avant-garde films helped shape the direction of modern Japanese cinema. He was born in Tokyo in 1924 and managed to survive WW2 before graduating from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1950. He came from an artistically inclined family and his father was the founder and grand master of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging). During the fifties Teshigahara was active in various artistic circles in Japan and focused his energies on painting and sculpture, as well as flower arranging before turning to cinema. These artistic pursuits served him well because the director clearly has an incredible eye and his early films are filled with creative imagery that greatly adds to the dark drama found in his films.

Few critics use the word “horror” when they’re discussing Teshigahara’s work and I think that’s a shame. Contrary to popular belief among some, “horror” and “science fiction” are not dirty words and it deeply bothers me that both genres are still maligned by many otherwise thoughtful film critics. There’s just no getting around the fact that Teshigahara’s The Face of Another is clearly a horror film, albeit a smart, thoughtful and incredibly beautiful horror film. Those familiar with great horror and sci-fi classics like Georges Franju’s brilliant Eyes Without a Face (a.k.a. Les Yeux Sans Visage, 1960), Jess Franco’s wonderful The Awful Dr. Orloff (a.k.a. Gritos en la noche, 1962) and even Don Siegel’s classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) might be able see a few similar themes running through Teshigahara’s The Face of Another.

The film begins with a man (Tatsuya Nakadai) seeking help from a psychiatrist (Mikijiro Hira) to deal with the mental anguish he’s suffering after having his face horribly disfigured in an accident. He’s unable to cope with his current appearance and in turn his marriage and job are both suffering. The psychiatrist decides to design a highly realistic mask made of experimental materials for the man to wear in order to conceal his face. Instead of helping the man deal with his identify crisis, the new mask only seems to plunge him further into despair and dire consequences follow. A parallel story plays out along with the main narrative, which tells the story of a lovely young woman who is trying to cope with her own facial disfigurement caused by the bombing of Nagasaki during WW2.

The Face of Another is a disturbing meditation on the meaning of identity in a country devastated by war and still dealing with the aftermath of the American occupation. Director Hiroshi Teshigahara uses elements of fantasy to tell his tale, but the real terrors he conjures up are often hidden in haunting metaphors about the horrors of war and its consequences, which creep into every aspect of this mesmerizing production. The film even manages to take on new meaning in our current culture where people are willing to give up their individuality by having plastic surgery in order to obtain what they consider “perfect” looks or to hide the unstoppable signs of age.

The Face of Another has an incredibly surreal quality and it’s undoubtedly one of the most amazing looking films that I’ve ever seen. Director Teshigahara and his cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa carefully construct every frame of The Face of Another and make full use of Masao Yamazaki’s stunning set designs. Last but not least, the impressive soundtrack by experimental composer Tôru Takemitsu adds another layer of depth to this complex film. The movie also features the Japanese pop idol and musical performer Bibari Maeda who gets to a sing a song in the movie.

The new Three Films By Hiroshi Teshigahara DVD Box Set also includes some fantastic extras such as four short films by Hiroshi Teshigahara: Hokusai (1953), Ikebana (1956), Tokyo 1958 (1958), and Ako/White Morning (1963), a new documentary about the working relationship between Teshigahara and Kobo Abe, video essays on all three films by critic James Quandt, interviews with Japanese-film scholars Donald Richie and Tadao Sato, a booklet featuring essays by James Quandt, Howard Hampton, Audie Bock, and Peter Grilli, plus Max Tessier’s 1964 interview with Teshigahara.

If you’d like to see more screen shots from The Face of Another please visit my Flickr gallery for the film.

Important Note: My DVD captures were taken from the Eureka Masters of Cinema PAL DVD that was released in 2005 and I can only assume that the new Criterion release will look just as good, or better.

Edited to add: I also came across the original Japanese trailer for The Face of Another on YouTube which is well worth a look.

13 thoughts on “The Face of Another (1966)

  1. Jeremy says:

    Interesting post Kimberly,
    I’m ashamed to say that I have never seen any films by Teshigahara but I have wanted to for quite a while. I’ll definately put these titles in my Netflix que…thanks for the fascinating review…

  2. cinebeats says:

    Thanks! I hope you give the film a look soon Jeremy. I think you would really enjoy it. Woman in the Dunes is well worth a look too, but I prefer The Face of Another. I can’t wait to check out Pitfall soon myself!

  3. AR says:

    This looks like the sort of film I would enjoy. Thanks for the write-up! I’ll have see it at some point, though, my goodness, I’ve been getting so many good recommendations from you lately. My poor Netflix queue is already stretched to 80 films, so I’m not sure when I’ll be able to see any.

  4. cinebeats says:

    I think you would really enjoy the film AR! It truly has some of the most striking imagery I’ve ever seen and the film is beautifully put together and edited. I think you would also be really impressed with the music and sound editing as well.

    I’m glad I can help fill up your rental queue! 😉

  5. Robert Monell says:

    I never thought of relating FOA to horror, but it’s one of the most unsettling films I’ve ever seen. Mysterious, haunting in the way David Lynch is at his best. I’ve seen both FACE and WOMAN… a number of times on videos from my local library back in the 1990s. The quality was dodgy and I can’t wait to see them on this set! What I like most about his work is that each time you watch these films they seems totally different as if a new aspect takes over. They get more interesting on repeat viewings whereas I can’t watch 99% of current mainstream junk even once! These films can be watched in many different ways: as horror, allegory (social or psychological), experimental/art films or just plain journeys into unknown territory. My favorite DVD last year was Criterion’s MR ARKADIN and this could equal it just in terms of what you get. I liked WOMAN better but your blog gives me a new take on FACE… I’ll HAVE to get this. Keep up the great work. Thanks. Robert Monell

  6. Peter Nellhaus says:

    I also saw the MOC version of Face of Another a couple of years ago. Very interesting insight into Japanese identity. I saw Woman in the Dunes around thirty years ago theatrically, as well as his documentary on Gaudi who I was not familiar with before. I’m looking forward to checking out Pitfall.

  7. cinebeats says:

    Robert – Thanks a lot! I’m definitely in the minority when it comes to viewing The Face of Another as a horror film with science fiction elements. It’s really an avant-garde horror film in my opinion, but most critics refuse to use those two words in the same sentence. There’s plenty of critics who still won’t call Eyes Without a Face a horror film or stuff like Polanski’s Repulsion horror because they think the word will “sully” the films, which is just silly in my opinion. Horror can be high-minded and I think it should try to explore new territory.

    Any movie that opens with images of floating body parts in some modern looking Frankenstein’s lab as The Face of Another does is lending itself to be reviewed as a horror film in my opinion.

    I’m all about breaking down those ridiculous walls that so many critics have built up in regards to horror so that’s one reason why I like stressing the horrific elements in The Face of Another even if lots of critics disagree with me. I also hope it might inspire horror film enthusiasts to watch a film that they probably wouldn’t see otherwise. I’m someone who thinks directors like Gaspar Noé and Michael Haneke make horror films though, so I seem to be in the minority there as well.

    A Bravo TV special from a few years ago about horror films (sorry, but I can recall what it was called) really impressed me by daring to mention Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies in a program that also covered films like John Carpenter’s Halloween and Argento’s Suspiria. I come from the same school of thought I guess.

    Peter – It must have been wonderful to see Woman in the Dunes during its theatrical run. It seems strange to me that it’s the only film that got the director any attention in the US from critics though. Obviously that’s changing but the change has been slow.

  8. cinebeats says:

    Fascinating and fantastic catch! Tatsuya Nakadai was known for his very expressive eyes. He seemed to use them in a similar way that Kabuki players did.

    Also, many thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment. I came across your blog a few days ago thanks to a post by Neil over at the Bleeding Tree blog and added you to my blog roll right away. I really enjoy what you’re doing here and I look forward to reading your further thoughts about the film since it’s one of my favorites.

    I finally watched Teshigahara’s Pitfall a few weeks ago for the first time and it knocked me over. I really loved it! I’ve been a little disappointed with the American reviews I’ve recently seen for Teshigahara’s films. A lot of reviewers seem to be overlooking the deeply etched political themes he’s expressing in them. Even the Criterion commentary offered on the Pitfall DVD overlooked some obvious ideas he was clearly expressing about the American occupation after WWII, etc. I’m not sure if this lack of understanding is due to a limited understanding of Japanese history and social conditions after the war, or if critics don’t understand how politically motivated a lot of fifties/sixties era Japanese directors like Teshigahara were. I want to write more about this topic myself and share some further thoughts about Pitfall soon.

    It’s great to see others writing about his films! I enjoyed your post about Pitfall a lot.

  9. Film Walrus says:

    I just took the jump from your Top DVDs of 2007 post and was a little surprised that the Teshigahara box set didn’t rank higher (it would have been in my top 5). Great review; an excellent celebration of a Japanese director who managed to out-existential an art film culture that saw its share and then some. I think I like “Woman in the Dune” a wee bit better than “Face of Another,” but it was the latter one that I also reviewed (http://filmwalrus.blogspot.com/2007/09/review-of-face-of-another.html). Judging from your 2007 DVD posts and your link sidebar, I suspect we have simular tastes 🙂

    I completely agree with you labeling this as avant-garde horror and find it odd that critics get squeamish about fessing up to the combination. Two of my other favorites “Possession” (1981) and “The Hourglass Sanatorium” could also be safely listed in that category.

  10. cinebeats says:

    Thanks Film Walrus! I should point out though that my list isn’t in any numbered order (If you read it you’ll find that the films are listed alphabetically). I made this clear in my introduction post, but you may have missed it. I only added the numbers to keep track of the 30 films on my list, but I should probably remove them.

    I enjoyed your review of the film as well. I really need to see Woman in the Dunes again since I haven’t seen it for many years and I think I was maybe a little too young to appreciate it fully. Possession is a long time favorite, but I’ve never seen The Hourglass Sanatorium. Thanks for mentioning it! It seems like something I’d probably really enjoy.

  11. Film Walrus says:

    Whoops, I should have caught the alphabetic ordering sooner (darn my failing pattern recognition skills). Reading blogs in reverse-chrono order is not always good for the health.

    Anyway, great batch of DVD selections by any savvy standards. Pass along any more canindates for “avant-garde horror” if you think of them. (Surely almost everything by Lynch could count? What about Jigoku? I sense a list coming on…)

  12. cinebeats says:

    No worries! I decided to remove the numbers today so they won’t confuse anymore people. You’re not the only one who has been confused.

    Avant-garde horror is a sort of passion of mine and there are probably hundreds of films I could come up with, but I can recommend just exploring my blog archives, last years DVD list, etc. and you’ll probably come across some films that will interest you if you haven’t seen them yet.

    I’m considering starting a new blog where I can write about modern films or just focus on horror cinema. If there were only more hours in the day!

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