The Face of Another

Original title
Tanin no Kao
Japanese title
  • 他人の顔
Running time
124 minutes
11 May 2005
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Well you've got to take your hats off to those folks at Eureka. Having already forged themselves an enviable reputation with a string of gorgeously packaged releases from the silent period, the company has now added a handful of classic Japanese titles to their Masters of Cinema roster, beginning with two films by internationally acclaimed auteur, Hiroshi Teshigahara - the ghostly Pitfall (Otoshiana, 1962) and The Face of Another, one of the director's most compelling and beautiful-looking works. Both come packaged with crisp new transfers, accompanying essays, and an elucidatory commentary from renowned Asian film expert Tony Rayns.

With neither film having ever received a proper airing in the UK before, these releases augur great things for the future from the company. Next due up on the schedule is Sadao Yamanaka's legendary Humanity and Paper Balloons (Ninjo Kami Fusen) from 1938, whose overseas premier release represents an incredibly daring but highly welcome attempt at shedding light on this period of early Japanese cinema with one of the era's most important titles, one that I'm sure few other distributors would have the balls to put out.

And it most certainly doesn't end there. According to the Eureka website, 2005 is going to be their "Japanese Summer", with a grand total of 12 films including Imamura's The Profound Desires of the Gods, Shinoda's Assassination, and works by Keisuke Kinoshita, Akira Kurosawa, and Kaneto Shindo, many receiving their first ever release in the UK in any way, shape or form. What better way to take advantage of the DVD format, one might ask?

These first two releases from Teshigahara are especially welcome, as much for the films themselves as for the significance of those involved in their production. Often lumped in as part of the Japanese New Wave of the 1960s, director Hiroshi Teshigahara stood apart from the movement, if indeed it ever was a movement. Although he was active around the same time that Oshima, Imamura, et al. were making their finest independent works, and he dwelt on similar themes and subject matter, he didn't come from the same studio system background as these other figures.

The son of Sofu Teshigahara, founder of the Sogetsu School of ikebana, which revolutionised Japan's traditional art of floral composition by absorbing ideas from the field of modern art, Hiroshi Teshigahara was active in various artistic circles during the 1950s, and not only within the field of film. Cinema was something that developed from these other artistic activities, which included drama, painting and sculpture, with all of his films produced outside of the major studios and by his own company, Teshigahara Productions. After the lacklustre reception of his 1972 film Summer Soldiers, he turned away from cinema and back to these other forms for almost two decades.

Like all of Teshigahara's best-known works, Face of Another is based on a story by Kobo Abe, one of a string of four films from the 60s on which the director and writer worked closely together. Though all of Abe's novels have been translated into English, in Japan he is probably best known for his short stories. As anyone who has read the anthology "Beyond the Curve" will have noted, Abe tends to write using a cryptic, allegorical and highly solipsistic style that doesn't seem to lend itself naturally to screen adaptation: Outside of his collaborations with Teshigahara, his work hasn't been widely filmed. Kihachiro Kawamoto made an atmospheric collage animation of the short story A Poet's Life (Shinjin no Shogai) in 1974, but for most of the projects his name was attached to, Abe wrote specifically for the screen. He contributed the script for Masaki Kobayashi's Thick-walled Room (Kabe Atsuki Heya, 1953) and was one of the credited co-writers of Kon Ichikawa's A Billionaire (Okuman Choja, 1954). In 1980, Abe also directed a few self-produced 16mm short works of his own, the films The Elephant's Offspring Died (Shizou wa Shinda) and Time's Precipice (Toki no Kishi).

It is no real surprise that Pitfall, Teshigahara's first collaboration with Abe was not an adaptation of one of the writer's novels, but of a TV drama he had written. The three films after that, Woman in the Dunes (Suna no Onna, 1964), The Face of Another (Tanin no Kao, 1966), and A Ruined Map (Moetsukita Chizu, 1968) were all adapted for the screen by the author himself from his own novels.

The second of their collaborations, Woman in the Dunes, had been a huge international smash upon its original release, though for some reason, this follow-up, The Face of Another, failed to capitalise on its momentum and was curiously never widely circulated outside of Japan. It seems strange, because it is certainly the more entertaining work, retaining and pushing into new directions the refined aesthetic sensibility that made Woman in the Dunes such a success within a narrative whose intentions are far more straightforward.

Its basic setup, of a man whose face is disfigured beyond recognition in an industrial accident, and who finds his personality changing when he is provided a new one, is a powerful one, though for modern audiences now potentially so dulled by overuse it has become something of a horror cliché, due to the likes of the sadistic surgical nightmares of Jess Franco (Cries in the Night, 1962; Faceless, 1988) and John Woo's more recent action film Face/Off (1997).

But it's easy to forget that when George Franju and his writing team first stumbled upon the basic idea for Eyes Without a Face (1959), the idea of stealing someone else's face and transferring it to another person must have seemed something of a surrealistic masterstroke.

Rather than milk it for all its sensationalistic aspects, The Face of Another delves deeper into the psychological and philosophical ramifications of the premise, of how this small space situated above the neck serves the multiple purposes of a proof of one's identity, a means of conveying one's emotions and an interface with one's fellow beings, mediating between the mind behind it and the outside world.

The film focuses on how this tragic accident which leaves Mr. Okuyama (Nakadai) in all other ways unharmed, but effectively devoid of an identity, significantly alters his relationships with everyone in his daily sphere. As he sits in an armchair in his marital home, his face bandaged like the invisible man, his wife (Machiko Kyo, on loan from Daiei) is tense and fidgety in his presence, unable to read his expressions, while his boss (Okada) can barely stand to have him in the office.

Then he is given a plastic makeover using a prosthetic visage cast from a man seen eyeing the cake stand in a coffee shop, in an ironically similar scene to that in which the young Hitomi Nozoe is selected as the face of World Caramel in Yasuzo Masumura's corporate satire Giants and Toys (1958). To the outside world, Okuyama now is effectively a different person, and so he sets off with the aim of trying out his new face to re-seduce his alienated wife.

It should be pointed out that with their slow pacing and lengthy dialogue scenes, Teshigahara's movies seldom seem particularly concerned with getting from A to B as efficiently as they might, and can prove heavy-going viewing for some. This is particularly evident in Woman in the Dunes, the very nature of whose plot effectively grounds it in one location with only two characters for most of its running time.

Though certainly as painstaking in its staging, The Face of Another never feels quite as stretched as its predecessor due to the fact that its narrative is centred around the physical and psychological metamorphosis of its central character, as reflected in the subtle shifts in his relationships with his wife, his psychiatrist (Hira) and his glamorous assistant (Kishida) and the secretary (Muramatsu) at his office, whose reactions to his flirtations seem heavily dependant on her perception of who he actually is. The main story is also counterpointed by scenes from a film Okuyama has just watched about a young girl (Irie) whose face is hideously scarred as a result of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, which soon form an alternate strand to the main narrative.

Aside from its though-provoking commentary on the nature of identity and society, The Face of Another is well worth seeking out purely as a beautiful piece of cinema, with its unorthodox composition and framing of shots heightening its jarring, disorienting mood. Teshigahara and Abe are joined by avant-garde musician Toru Takemitsu, Hiroshi Segawa, the cinematographer on all of their collaborations, and art director Masao Yamazaki. The contribution of the latter is especially manifest in the scenes shot in the psychiatrist's clinic, where the space is divided up by a panoply of transparent and reflective surfaces, with the furniture moving and the light changing between shots to create a sense of infinite shifting possibilities within this single location. Shot through panes of glass, etched with anatomical drawings that look as if they have been lifted from the sketchbook of Francis Bacon, and through bottles of colourless liquid sitting upon towering minimalist translucent shelves, each one topped with a glass head, these scenes are as stunning as anything from Woman in the Dunes.

The Face of Another is undeniably a classic of 1960s cinema, and we can all let out a cheer that it has finally made it to DVD. It is a great-looking, highly intelligent and unique piece of work that admirably encapsulates the progressive spirit of the times. If the rest of Eureka's Masters of Cinema releases adhere to the high standards set here, then the summer of 2005 is going to be a very special one for Japanese film fans indeed.