Tag Archives: Teshigahara

“The book was better than the movie”? Often, but not always.

Back to back as it were, I read Cursio Malaparte’s The Skin (La Pelle) and saw the movie adaptation made by Liliana Cavani (best known for directing “Night Porter”). I much preferred the movie, which mutes the racism, the seemingly endless dialogue in French, and the attitudinizing while showing the most grotesque scenes of the book. (The Neapolitans do not look starving, which is what drove them to sell their bodies and those of their children in reality and in what Malaparte wrote, however).


Cavani also directed the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripleys Game, which I prefer to the book. I also prefer Alfred Hitchcock’s version of her Strangers on a Train, and Anthony Minghella’s of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Wim Wenders’s of Ripley’s Game (as “The American Friend” with Bruno Gang and Dennis Hopper).

André Aciman did not quite say that the movie adaptation of his novel Call Me By Your Name was better than his book, but he did say that someone who was going to see the movie and read the book should see the movie first, and reported that the image of the house in the movie has driven out whatever he was thinking about when writing about it and that he now sees and hears the actors (Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer) when reading his dialogue. I suspect that this will be true for me when I get around to seeing the movie.


Both movie adaptations of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy strike me as better than the book. The young Elizabeth Taylor is a goddess with whom the shrewish (but then-attractive) Shelly Winters has no chance of competing with for the favor of Montgomery Clift. (I have not read Sister Carrie, but am pretty sure I’d prefer the movie “Carrie” with Jennifer Jones and Laurence Olivier to Dreiser’s novel. I have also not read Franz Werfel’s novel on which Jones’s Oscar-winning performance in “The Song of Bernadette” is based, but would surely see Jones if I ever tried to read it.)

Fred Zinnemann’s multiple award-winning “From Here to Eternity,” despite the censorship that turned Donna Reed’s character form being a prostitute into being a taxi-hall dancer (and also interfered with Deborah Kerr’s character) is definitely better than the book. I’m pretty sure the movie “Some Came Running” is also better than Jones’s book, though I have not read it.

Zinnemann also directed “Member of the Wedding,” the movie version of which is superior to Carson McCullers’s novel. Julie Harris is astounding in it, not least for playing a prepubescent girl when she was 27. Harris was in John Huston’s movie of McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, though what makes the movie stand out are the performances of Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando.

Huston made some bad movies based on esteemed books (Roots of Heaven, for instance). His final movie, based on James Joyce’s “The Dead” seems at least as good as the novella to me. And earlier movies that surpass their source material include The Maltese Falcon (novel by Dashiell Hammett) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (novel by B. Traven). (I haven’t read Prizzis Honor, but enjoy the movie Huston directed of it.) Also chalk up Huston’s movies of Arthur Miller’s The Misfits and C.S. Forester’s The African Queen as superior to their original source material.

Plus Billy Wilder’s version of Raymond Chandler’s Double Indemnity, as well as Luchino Visconti’s 1943 (Ossessione) version, the Lana Turner/John Garfield version of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and both the Joan Crawford vehicle and the more recent miniseries of Cain’s Mildred Pierce.

I liked William Wyler’s pas-de-deux of John Fowles’s The Collector and Jessamyne West’s Friendly Persuasion. Whether his multiple Oscar-winning “Ben Hur” is worse than Lew Wallace’s novel is hard to decide (not least because I read it decades ago during my childhood). Wyler’s “Carrie” I have already mentioned.

It’s been too long since I read Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth to be sure, but I suspect Wyler’s movie is better. Richard Brooks’s film of Lewis’s Elmer Gantry definitely is (with powerhouse performances by Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, and Shirley Jones).

Bette Davis was indelible in Wyler’s film based on Somerset Maugham’s “The Letter,” and I also prefer the 2000 Philip Haas film based on Maugham’s Up at the Villa. Probably also the Tyrone Power/Clifton Webb/ Anne Baxter version of The Razors Edge, a book I didn’t much like when I read it long ago. I did like Of Human Bondage, but think I prefer the book to any of the three screen versions I’ve seen.

I definitely prefer the 1939 David O. Selznick “Gone with the Wind” to Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (which I actually read once upon a time). Also John Ford’s film of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I also think both film version o Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men are outstanding.

Howard Hawks claimed that he could make a good movie from Ernest Hemingway’s worst novel. Hemingway proffered To Have and Have Not and with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Ball Hawks delivered. For that matter the later (1950) adaptation with John Garfield and Patricia Neal, “The Breaking Point,” is also superior to the book. I’d add Franklin Shaffner’s “Islands in the Stream” (1977) from the first of posthumous novels bylined “Ernest Hemingway” that he did not finish.

William Faulkner was a credited screenwriter for “To Have and to Have Not” and for “The Big Sleep,” which Hawks also directed, based on a confused novel by Raymond Chandler (also with Bogart and Bacall). Faulkner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning last novel, The Reivers, with a rakish Steve McQueen, was also an improvement over the entertaining book. And Martin Ritt’s 1958 “The Long Hot Summer” distilled from Books 3 of The Hamlet (1940) with a great cast headed by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Speaking of Angela Lansbury, John Frankenheimer’s film based on Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate belongs on my list.

I count as an admirer of the novels of Jane Austen, but not as a true “Janeite.” I’ll take Ang Lee’s 1995 “Sense and Sensibility”, Patricia Rozema’s “Mansfield Park,” and the 1940 MGM “Pride and Prejudice” (adapted by Aldous Huxley with Edna May Oliver, Greer Garson, and Laurence Olivier) over the original novels.

It’s been a long time since I read Kazantzakis’s Zorba, the Greek, but am pretty sure the movie with Anthony Quinn in the title role is at least as good.

I prefer the movies Teshigahara Hiroshi directed to the Abe Kôbô novels in all three collaborations (Pitfall, Woman in the Dune, The Face of Another). I have not read the novels on which many of my favorite Japanese movies were based, though I have written here about some great Japanese movies based on major Japanese novels.

To conclude, as much as I like the novels of E.M. Forster, I like the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala “A Room with a View” (1985), and 1987 “Maurice” at least as much as the Forster novels, and the screen adaptations by Jhabvala of her Booker Prize-winning Heat and Dust and Kaylie Jones’s memoir A Soldiers Daughter Never Cries more than the books. And there are other Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala contenders (but not David Lean’s version of the greatest E. M. Forster novel, A Passage to India).

Conclusion: I don’t think there are any surefire methods to make great movies, novel adaptations or others. A great cast and a striking look help but every actor and actress I’ve mentioned has been in bad movies, and gorgeous visuals are not enough, either. My rather free association list includes great books and mediocre ones.

John Ford — who won back-to-back Oscars for directing adaptation of big books (The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley) — said it was better to expand on a good short story than to try to prune a good novel. Others have advocated adapting bad novels, but there are successful exceptions to such admonitions, as well as many, many failures (critical and commercial).


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Face of Another


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


Woman in the Dunes (1964)


Of the three collaborations between director Teshigahara Hiroshi, novelist/screenwriter Abe Kôbô, cinematographer Segawa Hiroshi (Under the Flag of the Rising Sun), and composer Takemitsu Toru, I least like the most famous, “Woman in the Dunes” (1964; the Japanese title, “Suna no Onna’” means “Sand Woman”). (It was preceded by “Pitfall“,  followed by “The  Face of Another.”)  Not only was it nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar, but Teshigahara was nominated for the best director Oscar, very, very unusual for a film not in English, especially so experimental a film. And the film won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

The meaning of the film was much debated at the time (the time of “L’Aventurra,” “L’eclisse,” “L’Année dernière à Marienbad,” and “Persona,” each of which occasioned a dissensus of interpretations). It was attacked for being fascistic and for being communistic, for showing a desire to escape from society and for showing the necessity to submit to a place, however arbitrarily assigned, in society. Though I think it is open to varying interpretation, showing “a desire to escape from society” is one with no basis.

The high school teacher and amateur entomologist Niki Junpei (Okada Eiji) — who, despite the title, seems to me the protagonist of the film. Misses the last bus and is housed below the level of the dunes near the ocean. He has less than no desire to stay on there, but is trapped. The rope ladder on which he descended is pulled up and it slowly becomes clear to him that the locals expect him to be the helpmate (and sexual partner) of the relatively young widow (Kishida Kyôko) who lives there and, each night, fills buckets of sand that are hoisted out. The sand still threatens to bury the house and gets onto or into everything.


It makes no sense to me that sand needs to be quarried from around a sunken house: there is plenty on the surface that could be collected more easily… and is no more infiltrated with sea salt that makes it a hazardous building material (as an ingredient of concrete).

The rural folk who supply the couple in exchange for the sand from the pit don masks, forming a grotesque voyeur audience for a sexual performance (in exchange for which they allow him up to look at the sea for about an hour at a time).

Eventually, the man is distracted from trying to get a message out via a crow with the technology of drawing water up through capillary motion. Unsurprisingly, the woman gets pregnant, and the man becomes accustomed to his life of absurdity and Sisyphean effort to keep digging out sand threatening to bury the house. He seems to have forgotten his life in the city (with a wife and a teaching job) and to have ceased to find his life under the eyes of rural folk demeaning. I couldn’t say whether he feels more sense of belonging in his new life than he did in his old (the old is not showed), though mindful of the high valuation of belonging for Japanese in general.


Because Teshigahara’s aesthetic interests were well-known (he was also a potter and took over the ikebana school of his father when his father died), the ravishing images have been credited to his eye rather than to that of the cinematographer of this and his other two Abe adaptations (plus “Tokyo 1958”), Segawa Hiroshi. There are memorable compositions throughout the movie of sand in closeups and in longshots.

The Criterion edition includes the 147-minute long cut (Teshigahara supervised a shorter cut to 123 minutes for international release), four earlier Teshigahara shorts — Hokusai (1953), Ikebana (1956), Tokyo 1958 (1958), and Ako (1965) — and a documentary that includes American explicators of Japan Donald Richie and John Nathan (the latter wrote the screenplay for the 1972 Teshigahara drams “Summer Soldiers”).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Teshigahara’s “Pitfall” (1962)


The mid-to-late 1960s were a time when regard for cinema as Art was at its height, and there was endless discussion of what “Persona,” “L’aventurra,” “Last Year at Marienbad,” “Woman in the Dunes,” etc. meant. Not just what they meant but what happened was, I’m told, discussed at cocktail parties (I was too young to drink and did not live anywhere near where foreign-language films played).

“Woman in the Dunes” (1964)was the second film that Teshigahara Hiroshi (1927-2001) directed based on experimental writings of Abe Kôbô (1924=1993). Its international success brought attention to their first collaboration, “Otoshi Ana” (Pitfall, 1962), a mystifying, surrealist mix of ghost story, murder mystery, paranoid thriller, leadership rivalry, documentary about coal mining in Kyushu, and more. In one scene there is a corpse, two ghosts, and two murder suspects who will kill each other and soon become ghosts. Plus there is an Imamura-like rape by a policeman of the woman who witnessed the first murder.

Teshigahara had made some documentary shorts (four of which are included in the four-disk Criterion edition of the first three Teshigahara/Abe feature films), but in “Pitfall” seemed to have some of the enthusiasm for a new toy (cinema) that Orson Welles displayed in making “Citizen Kane.” As in “Citizen Kane,” there is some notable deep focus, albeit outdoors rather than indoors.

“Pitfall” was based on a stage play rather than on a novel, though it is intensely cinematic, mostly taking place out of doors. And the indoor shots are anything but straight ahead, with shots down through the rafters (also reminiscent of Imamura’s 1950s movies about women who persevere through rapes). There are very unusual pans and lots of tracking shots and jump cuts (in vogue from the French nouvelle vogue). Etc.


Though much remains mysterious, there is a plot. A poor man (Igawa Hisashi) with a young son (Bicycle Thief, anyone?) who has been working in a coal mine demanding the end of unsafe and illegal practices flees, takes another job hauling coal or something onto a ship, and, with his pay, is given directions to a jobsite—a ghost town left from a closed mine surrounded by slag heaps.

Before he gets there, he is knifed by the Man in White (Tanaka Kunie), who drives a white motorbike, as the son (Miyahara Kazuo) watches from the bushes. Also watching from a wooden house from which she sells candy (don’t ask to whom!), is a woman (Sasaki Sumie). The killer gives her money and instructions on what she is supposed to tell the police she saw happen.

The ghost wants to find out why he has been murdered and the second half of the movie suggests that the murder was part of a union-breaking (or at least disuniting) plot. The Man in White returns and kills again and the boy watches two more deaths. The boy, btw, was the first person to notice the Man in White, though the killer never seems to notice the boy, even when nearly running him down in the ghost town.


And only the viewer and other ghosts can see or hear the ghosts, so the question “Why?” is unheard and left to the ghost to interpret.

I’m not sure “Pitfall” would appeal to most fans of ghost stories. It is rather cerebral for a murder mystery (with the whodunit question never in doubt: what is in doubt is the why and who may have planned the first murder). Takemitsu Tori’s percussive music adds to the eeriness. As do shots of various creatures, including a frog that is skinned alive, feral dogs on a slagheap, a scorpion caught on a hook, a snake, and dead and dying ants.

Abe’s fascination with doubles, mistaken identity, and lost identity are central to the movie. One leading character even has two doubles (both played by the same actor as the original, who has all the volition of a pinball).

The disc (in addition to the disc in the four-disc Criterion set of Teshigahara shorts and a two-hour documentary about Abe and Teshigahara, together and separately in various artistic endeavors) has an excellent analysis by James Quandt of the visual techniques along with an interpretation of the ending that convinced me. There is also a trailer. Neither should be viewed before grappling with the wonders of the movie, which runs 97 minutes (that includes fairly lengthy closing credits).

Despite my general aversion to sci-fi aspects, my favorite of the Teshigahara films I’ve seen (four feature-length ones and four short ones) remains “Face of Another” with the great Nakadai Tatsuya. (I was bored insensate by his 1990 “Rikuyu” and underwhelmed by his 1984 documentary on Antonio Gaudi.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray