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Friday, 3 August 2007

The Face of Another (1966) Hiroshi Teshigahara

There are two names I know here, both actors: Tatsuya Nakadai and Machiko Kyo. Nakadai was the gunfighter in Kurosawa's Yojimbo, and returned in a different role for Sanjuro. He also had major parts in Kwaidan, Samurai Rebellion, Kill! and The Sword of Doom. After Kurosawa fell out with Toshiro Mifune, he got even more prominent roles in the master's work, in films like Kagemusha and Ran that I haven't yet seen. Kyo is probably most famous for her memorable role in Rashomon, but I saw her first in later films like Gate of Hell and Ugetsu, where she became a personal favourite.

However there are other key names I don't know. Hiroshi Teshigahara only directed eleven films over a 33 year period but four of those teamed him up with writer Kobo Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu. Their greatest collaboration is apparently Women of the Dunes, made two years earlier and which was nominated for two Oscars, not just Best Foreign Language Film but also Best Director for Teshigahara. Up until now the only one of his films I've seen was a documentary of sorts on Barcelona architect Antonio Gaudi, which was fascinating but far more for Gaudi than the director.

Teshigahara was an ikebana specialist, an artist working in the Japanese art of flower arranging, which is a strange talent to bring to the job of a film director but a telling one and one that apparently leads him to work with a lot of closeups. We open with Mr Okuyama's face, as seen through X-rays, while he explains how his face was destroyed. Then we meet his wife, Mrs Okuyama, as they argue about his self consciousness in refusing to take off his bandages. The shots are so close up that we don't even see her whole face at once for a little while. Teshigahara is focusing on visual details just as he wants us to focus on Okuyama's psychological details, and these visuals remain striking and innovative as the film runs on. We see things through other things or from through store security camera footage, stills or changes in sound and lighting.

Nakadai is superb as Okuyama, projecting his feelings visually even though he doesn't have the benefit of a face to act with, thus matching the achievement of Claude Rains as the Invisible Man. We do see his eyes though, which are the mirrors to the soul they ought to be. At points his despair shines through them. Soon he persuades his doctor to fashion one for him, not as a means of returning to society as himself but as someone else.

Angered by his wife's rejection, he begins to lead a double life. He keeps the bandages on when around those he knows, perpetuating the thinking that his face is gone forever. However with the replacement face, he takes on the persona of someone else entirely, progressing up to the ultimate goal of seducing his own wife. 'I am who I am. That can't change,' he says, but of course that's not the case. Naturally the age old question addressed in every film about masks comes into play: as he changes, are the changes caused by himself using the mask or the mask using him?

The mask metaphor is everywhere in this film. There's talk of women using makeup to hide their faces, Arab women wearing coverings, songs about change. Even Mrs Okuyama's hobby is polishing gems, prompting her husband to wonder whether a gem's real face is when it's rough or polished. Even those without masks or the need for them get into the act and we're forced into wondering about how we can be different people whether our masks are real or imaginary.

Most obviously there's an additional subplot about a young girl who is beautiful but for the right side of her face which is horribly disfigured, but there are so many telling incidents that it's going to need a few viewings to get clear everything that Abe and Teshigahara were telling us. It's notable that while his wife apparently doesn't recognise him, a mentally handicapped girl does and after only seeing him twice. There are a lot of films about masks in the west, but usually they're about the same change and there's rarely any real psychological exploration. This one is deep and layered and worthy of many viewings, I'm sure.

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