For most of the way (a long way! 124 minutes) through “Tanin no kao” (The Face of Another, 1966, directed by Teshigahara Hiroshi from a novel by Abe Kôbô), it seems less mysterious than the previous Abe/Teshigahara collaboration, “Woman in the Dunes,” but things become increasingly mystifying after a industrial manager whose face was scarred in an explosion gets a mask to wear. The accident and his self-consciousness (and an especially pronounced Japanese horror of visible disabilities) have made him no longer who he was. He feels that he has become a nonperson and jumps at the chance to become someone other than the man with the bandage-covered face.
From the very start (with a monologue of an x-rayed skull) I balk at the idea that there is a psychiatrist who specializes in fitting prosthetic devices on patients, and, later, that he has gone from fingers to a face with such technical success. Beyond that, Dr. Hori— played by Hira Mikijiro (who recently played the Goshirakawa emperor in “Yoshi-tsune”)—very much fits into the tradition of psychotic physicians (from Dr. Caligari to the one attempting to do something about his daughter’s scarred face in Franju’s “Eyes without a Face,” which has to have influenced this movie).
Mr. Okuyama, the man whose face is bandaged for the first hour of the movie, then masked for periods that cannot exceed twelve hours at a time (the phenomenal Nakadai Tatsuya) says that he “feels like a guinea pig.” He has very good reason to feel that way, because providing someone a new face that matches no past is an experiment for the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist has interests that seem leeringly voyeuristic, particularly in whether his patient will try to seduce the wife who has tried (unsuccessfully) to overcome her revulsion at her scarred husband. Arguably, the psychiatrist plants the idea.
Unarguably, he leers at the possibilities of a Nietzchean (nihilistic) freedom for the heretofore conventional salaryman to commit crimes, seemingly from the assumption that committing violent crimes is what anyone not held back by family, work associates, etc. is eager to do.
The mask is molded in part by the wearer’s facial expression—so that it looks more like Nakadai Tatsuya than the man from whom it was impressed, but the psychiatrist keeps saying that the mask will make the man fit it rather than the other way around. Mr. Okuyama’s life and expectations of relationships with others (including conjugal relations) have been unsettled by the accident and hideous scarring, but, unlike Rock Hudson in “Seconds,” John Frankenheimer’s movie from about the same time, Mr. Okuyama was not seeking a new existence.
It is possible that Mr. Okuyama believed that his wife (played by Kyô Machiko, star of “Rashomon,” “Ugestsu,” and “Gate of Hell”) would not recognize him. To me this was highly improbable. For one thing I recognize Nakadai’s voice (from other movies). How could his wife not? For another, his body, including its size and shape and smell were unchanged. Moreover, there were practically no Japanese at the time as tall as Nakadai. Also, Nakadai’s huge saucer-like eyes are very distinctive. Although highly improbable to me, this assumption by Mr. Okuyama does lead to a great speech by Mrs. Okuyama. Isn’t that enough justification? I think so. Similarly, a more average-looking Japanese lead might have increased the plausibility of not being recognized by his wife, but only a little, and would have sacrificed the smolder and biting sarcasm that Nakadai brought to this and other parts in the golden age of Japanese cinema (and beyond then, as the lead in Kagemusha and “Ran”).
Before the ending there is another aspect that I completely reject as being possible but don’t want to specify so as to avoid “plot spoiling.”
The viewer sees nothing and knows very little of what Mr. Okuyama was like before the accident, which makes estimating how changed he is difficult. There is also another story intercut to that of Mr. Okuyama and his remaker that involves a very pretty girl (Irie Miki) whose face is badly scarred on one side and an incestuous relationship with her brother. I think that the scarring is a residue form the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, though I don’t understand why it would have affected only one side and only her face…
There are some striking visuals in both stories, psychological complication, and some creepiness. I think it all goes on too long, even though I admire many of the images of cinematographer Segawa Hiroshi , who also shot “Woman in the Dunes” and “Pitfall”, the acting, and the ghostly Takemitsu score. (Takemitsu Tôru also scored “Woman in the Dunes” with music lacking harmonies and sounds not made by musical instruments.) The pacing is slow, even for a Japanese movie, and very, very talky, with diatribes from both the psychiatrist and from Mr. Okuyama (and quite an aria from Mrs. Okuyama). Still it is less static than “Woman in the Dunes,” which was a huge international success.
Teshigahara (1927-2001) made three more movies in the following six years (including “The Man Without a Map” based on another Abe (1924-93) adaptation of another of his novels and also scored by Takemitsu and also concerned with identity slippage and intimacy “issues,” then made no films for the next dozen (he was also a painter and sculptor), returning to shoot a nearly wordless 1984 documentary showing the extravagant works of Antonio Gaudí (who has a major Japanese following judging by the groups of Japanese who have been at La Sagrada Familia when I have), and then two historical dramas (all three with scores by Takemitsu).
©2016, Stephen O. Murray