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Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara
Criterion introduces another major foreign film director to Region 1 DVD with Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara, a four-disc boxed set containing a trio of Teshigahara's top pictures and four of his earlier short films. It comes with a wealth of critical and academic analysis via text extras and new 'video essays' examining each film. Writer Kobo Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu collaborated with Teshigahara on these inventive, allegorical art films.
The arresting ironic allegory Pitfall toys with thriller elements, and then turns back on itself with existential questions. It's formulated as a film blanc, but with a European pace and fewer romantic options. An unemployed miner with a small son (Hisashi Igawa & Kazuo Miyahara) finds a strange deserted mining town. Gunned down by a mysterious Man in White (Kunie Tanaka), the miner returns as a ghost to witness his own murder investigation. The police soon give up but some reporters discover that the miner is a dead ringer for Otsuka, a union organizer: the killer may have thought he was shooting the controversial Otsuka, or was purposely trying to frame a rival union official for the crime. Meanwhile, the miner's ghost creeps back through the mud to the shanty town, to discover that a shopkeeper there (Sumie Sasaki) has taken money from the Man in White to mislead the police. As more bodies pile up, more ghosts assemble to view the confusing mess that transported them to their odd new existence.
Only once in Pitfall do we really know where we are: the dead miner suddenly vaults upright and becomes a ghost, via the same reverse-filming trick used at the end of Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. Most everything else treads unfamiliar ground, starting with the mudflats and dry roads where most of the action takes place. The living don't seem to have a clue as to the meaning of their lives, and mostly bide their time waiting to be moved along to the next level of consciousness. The miner discovers that he'll forever remain as he was when he died, and is assured that his desire to discover why he was murdered will soon fade. But there's more violence to come, thanks to a union rights subplot that's never fully developed.
As in the other Hiroshi Teshigahara film, what keeps Pitfall cooking are its arresting visuals and intriguingly paced storytelling. Teshigahara plays with various elements, like the little boy who shows no interest when his father dies but is keen to sneak back to the shopkeeper's house to filch candies. The movie flirts with police procedurals and a journalistic subplot, but those concerns quickly dovetail back to the main premise: against the quirks of fate, struggle is futile. The amusing Pitfall contains many near-hypnotic B&W images, such as the sight of the young boy's eye peeking through a knothole, or the literal ghost town of identical, abandoned shacks.
Woman in the Dunes is considered Teshigahara's masterpiece and is his only film to be well received by American art movie audiences. It had everything for the 1964 espresso crowd: beautiful B&W photography, a gripping story and a little sex thrown in for good measure. It was nominated for Best Foreign Film in 1965; a year later Teshigahara received an even more impressive Best Director nomination. The appeal of the disarmingly simple storyline could be expressed with the buzzwords of the day: "meaningful allegory"; "rumination on the meaning of life."
A Tokyo schoolteacher on a weekend insect-catching holiday (Eiji Okada of Hiroshima, mon amour) lingers too long in a sandy area near the sea. Some helpful locals suggest he stay overnight, and help him down a rope ladder to the shack of a gracious woman (Kyoko Kishida of Manji). The next morning, the teacher is a prisoner in a furtive community of isolated sand-dwellers. Climbing out of the pit is impossible, and he and the woman must labor all night to collect sand to be hauled out on buckets dropped on ropes from above. The teacher rebels and refuses to help at first. He fails in an escape attempt and over time falls into a relationship with the woman. As he becomes accustomed to his new life, the teacher begins to accept responsibility for fighting back the sand.
Woman in the Dunes invents an semi-plausible alternate lifestyle. Our hero has only two choices: work to keep the sand from overrunning the shack, or perish. He and the lonely woman (she lost her husband and child the year before) concern themselves with immediate issues that cannot be ignored. Their entire world is limited to a shack on just a few square yards of pit, with sand that seeps through the roof and gets into everything. The woman demonstrates that the sand is unaccountably moist and rots everything; she sleeps in the nude to keep from chafing. They awaken each morning covered with a fine dusting of sand. The pair must follow strange procedures to keep the sand out of their hair and out of the food that's dropped to them every week or so; all larger concerns are eclipsed by the constant struggle.
Woman in the Dunes delights lovers of still photography and nature studies. Teshigahara described the sand as the film's third main character and we see it behaving like a living thing. Dunes are formed into crumbling cliffs or lined with perfectly formed ripples; and always seems to be on the move, whether wind-blown or following the dictates of gravity. American viewers in particular weren't accustomed to the 'background' of a film intruding this strongly on the foreground, and surely decided that the stress on immense natural forces was a 'Japanese' quality.
Instead of finding resignation and defeat, the teacher eventually embraces his new 'wife' and his new life. He finds that he can collect pure water from the bottom of the sand pit through capillary action in a wooden bucket. He's eager to share the discovery with his peers and gain the approval denied him back in the 'big world'. Late night filmgoer discussions were divided between philosophical interpretations. Did the teacher open up to a new inner freedom afforded by an uncomplicated new life, or did he simply knuckle under to an imposed regime, as in a totalitarian society?
Mr. Okuyama's (Tatsuya Nakadai) face has been horribly disfigured in an industrial accident. His head wrapped in bandages, Okuyama festers in isolation, withdraws from his job and badgers his wife (Machiko Kyo) for wanting to evade his cruel accusations. A psychiatrist (Mikijiro Hira) offers Okuyama an unethical but fascinating possibility: he and his nurse (Kyoko Kishida) will fashion a sophisticated mask that will allow the scarred man to reconnect with life and society. Okuyama instead uses the mask to create a secondary, furtive identity. Okuyama immediately overreaches: his idea of a proper use for his secret identity is to seduce his own wife, and thereby prove her to be unfaithful.
It should be obvious why international audiences didn't accept the impressively produced and well acted The Face of Another. This Sci-Fi horror show functions in a normal urban environment instead of a remote wasteland or the exotic, erotic sandpit of Woman in the Dunes. The defenders of the film refer to classical and artistic precedent for Teshigahara's inspirations, when any fan can see that he and author Kobo Abe are arranging visuals already familiar from commercial genre films. Thirdly, although it brings up many fascinating and cerebral ideas, The Face of Another is just too talky; it probably has more subtitles than the other two films put together.
The key genre connection is Georges Franju's Eyes without a Face, a gory surgery tale that implied some of the same thoughts about personal identity. We empathized with the masked madwoman in Franju's movie, where Teshigahara and Abe merely tell us that "The face is the door to the soul." Both films begin with a waltz over the title sequence, and each injects a tangential reference to Nazi Germany. Teshigahara's technical tricks are excellent -- we have difficulty deciding when Tatsuya Nakadai is wearing a full mask and when he uses his real face -- but the plot is overly mannered and predictable. Like the mad scientist of The Invisible Man, Okuyama's alienation leads to an anti-social mindset. He's determined to oppress his wife and learns nothing when he fails, so we certainly don't identify with him. Okuyama calls himself a monster and is soon behaving along misanthropic lines.
Because the emotional foundation is faulty, The Face of Another's stylistic flourishes lack impact. The psychiatrist's abstracted office set looks like a collection of glass partitions in an art exhibit, arranged to set up decorative reflection effects and optical illusions. Nurse Kishida makes the super-convincing mask from a special goo that resembles the 'synthetic flesh' from the ancient Michael Curtiz horror show Doctor X.
Teshigahara then dilutes Okuyama's story with a dubious subplot that begins as a (letterboxed) vision of a film Okuyama may have watched in a movie theater. A facially scarred young woman (fashion model Miki Irie) does piecework with her brother, suffers in public and is molested by a deranged soldier at the veteran's hospital where she washes laundry. Obsessed with Hiroshima and war -- she seems too young for her scars to have been caused by radiation -- the girl is similarly driven to erratic sexual behavior. Her story ends with a melodramatic cliché, followed by the bizarre poetic visual of her brother transformed into a tortured animal carcass by a piercing beam of light. Unlike the frightening 'atomic sunset' that concludes Akira Kurosawa's I Live in Fear, Teshigahara's shock image comes out of nowhere and doesn't elicit any particular emotional response.
Okuyama's finale combines The Twilight Zone with Jack the Ripper, as Toru Takemitsu's whining soundtrack grinds and snaps. For educated film critics, the faceless horde that crowds the sidewalks may evoke themes from surreal paintings. To genre filmgoers it simply resembles watered down Cocteau, as in the group of faceless girls in the dream art museum in Jack Garfein's 1961 Something Wild. The 'shocking' effects are too familiar, and too tame. The Face of Another verbally expresses many interesting ideas about the nature of identity, especially when the psychiatrist makes a case for anonymity as the ultimate personal freedom.
Criterion's disc set Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara departs somewhat from their older formula of presenting prime source interviews and exhibits. A lengthy video essay by critic James Quandt accompanies each film. Quandt's analytical narration is backed by appropriate images from the film, stills from other movies, word definitions, etc.. In a way, this is a good substitute for feature length commentaries, as the content is presented more compactly. Not every movie is Citizen Kane with two hours of essential comment to impart. Each disc also has an original Toho trailer.
A fourth disc contains some unexpected treasures. The new documentary Teshigahara and Abe examines the collaboration of writer and director, with input from Richard Peña, Donald Richie and Tadao Sato, and testimony from designer Arata Isozaki, writer John Nathan and producer Noriko Nomura. Even more exciting are four of Hiroshi Teshigahara's excellent short films. 1956's Hokusai covers the life and work of an 18th century woodcut artist and painter. 1958's Ikebana is a beautifully directed color movie about art and creativity that shows Hiroshi's father, a famous artist and flower arranger, at work in the academy that he founded. One impressive scene shows him evaluating his students' work. Tokyo 1958 is a rougher documentary about trends in the rebounding Japanese capitol. 1965's Ako is a compelling look at a Japanese teenager's date night with two other couples; it uses telling voiceover bites to express teen attitudes and viewpoints.
A fat booklet contains essays by Peter Grilli, Howard Hampton, Audie Bock and James Quandt, plus a Max Tessler interview with director Teshigahara. Be careful when replacing the individual disc holders in the sleeve case, as the card stock wants to snag on an anti-theft strip glued inside.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara rates:
Movie: Pit: Excellent, Dune: Excellent, Face: Very Good
Video: All Excellent
Sound: All Excellent
Supplements: Video essays by James Quandt, trailers, documentary on collaboration between Teshigahara and Kobo Abe, four Teshigahara short films.
Packaging: Four plastic and card folders in card sleeve
Reviewed: July 16, 2007
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