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.