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Rancid Popcorn » Please To Enjoy… #6

Please To Enjoy… #6

The Face of Another (Teshigahara, 1966)

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It’s one thing to blog about underappreciated films, or poorly remembered ones, culty things or beloved garbage. Writing about things you find to be real classics, canon-worthy stuff, is altogether different. It’s daunting. I’m far too much the middlebrow to think that I’m going to observe anything particularly new in Face of Another, or even reasonably comprehend/interpret everything it has to offer. All the same, it’s got so many stunner images and ideas that I can’t imagine passing up the chance to play with it a little. And of course, to recommend it.

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To put it as straightforwardly as possible, this is the story of a professional man, an engineer, whose face has been obliterated in an industrial accident. His face is wrapped, Claude Rains/Invisible Man style. His struggle is one of identity, and anger at what has been taken from him – how now does he relate to a world in which he is a monster, how to relate in a marriage when he believes his wife also sees him as a monster? How or whether to have a career, to make accomodation or demand it from others. A path to a different future is offered by a doctor (tellingly a psychiatrist) who has developed methods by which to create a fully-lifelike prosthetic face.

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This is about as existential as narrative film is likely to get, along with Solaris and the similarly themed if spectacularly less successful Vanilla Sky/Close My Eyes. The problem of the mask is whether it’s effect is to allow the wearer to reintegrate into society, or anonymously withdraw from it, and if in fact that’s a choice. The engineer, Okuyama, feels freer with the mask, but it’s simply made him look normal – he had that before, and chose entirely different behaviors. What does a face, false or real, signify about the identity and humanity behind it? Is having a face, any face, our real face, already the perfect disguise?

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Heady stuff. What I respond to firstly in the film is it’s sympathy to and connections with Victorian (and earlier) horror – Picture of Dorian Gray, Jekyll and Hyde, Frankenstein, even Invisible Man (no not just for the bandages). Duality, self-image, and internal battles of ids and egos were so much a part of these stories, and no less here. The doctor, who enables so much, becomes reminiscent of the Dr. Frankenstein of certain film versions of the story – although he’s not actively evil, he’s unhealthily fascinated by the nihlist possibilities available to his indentity-free creation, and is hungry to live through his patient – one gets the feeling it may be a trial run for creating a new face/identity for himself.

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Okuyama’s immediate concern is the alienation he feels from his wife. Despite her protestations and unfailing consideration, he is certain she is repulsed by him; she declines his advances in the nicest possible way, so he’s probably right. She’s played by Machiko Kyo, one the key leading ladies of 50s Japan, having been the center of the story of Rashomon for Kurosawa, a handful of big parts for Mizoguchi, including the ghostly Lady Wakasa in Ugetsu, and the actress in Ozu’s Floating Weeds. This is a late non-matronly leading role for her.

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A second, parallel story is introduced regarding a girl with her own facial problems. Teshigahara introduces with a brief use of a scope ratio:
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A gaggle of young men catcall at her and harass her to turn back to them – how this sort of thing could seem anything but horrifying to women I don’t know, but it seems rather common in Japanese cinema, moreso than in American or European films. She does turn and they get more than they bargained for.

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A monster of a different kind. Her counterpointing story of deformity and alienation takes up no more than 10-15% of screentime, yet it does much for the whole film, keeping the subject grounded in reality while the more science-fictional journey and madness of Okuyama plays out.

This girl’s story, told in just a few short periodic strokes, is the real tragedy of the piece, charting her own withdrawal from hurtful society. As we meet her, she works in an insane asylum – perhaps not the most nurturing environment. Although she seems to be practiced in trying not to be hurt by the revulsion of others, her world is one of inherent rejection. She retreats to the relative safety of assisting her brother in his labors. They seem to be family-less young people, with only each other in the world. This isolation also proves unhealthy.

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Having taken his case, the Doctor and Okuyama go in search of a face donor – trolling for poor young men who might be able to listen to a pitch like “We only wish to reproduce your pores and sweat glands” without freaking. Objectively it’s not really that bad, as copying his face will produce a non-lookalike on a different skull, and it’s not like they said, “We’d like to cut your nose off.” Yet somehow “reproduce your pores and sweat glands” manages to sound infinitely creepier. This poor random kid takes their money and they’ve got their gland swag.

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The transformation sequence begins. It is fascinating and quite the technical achievement – it’s a surprisingly convincing illusion, and Teshigahara doesn’t use many cuts – he keeps it right there in front of you.

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At around this time we get our first real view of the actor in the mask, Tatsuya Nakadai. A huge star, he’s a familiar face to anyone whose paid any particular attention to Japanese cinema in the last half-century. Westerners know him as the lead in Ran and Kagemusha for Kurosawa, the owner of the Sword of Doom, Human Condition, When a Woman Ascends The Stairs, Samurai Rebellion, the woodcutter in Kwaidan. He’s indelible for me from the first film I saw him in – Yojimbo, as Toshiro Mifune’s gun-toting nemesis. He’s an actor of great force yet great subtlety, and quite able to project charisma and cool when the part calls for it.

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Trying out various facial hair appliances. Searching for the personality to go with the face.

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Out for a test drive. Here is where the Doctor begins attempting to exact his real price – he wants the emotional details, all of them – what are you feeling, what are you thinking, what does this face make you want to do? Experimental observation, sure, but it’s quite nakedly beyond that. An unhealthy desire to live through his patient and his newfound freedom. For this mask, ostensibly made to allow him to participate freely in society, is also the means to societal freedom – no one knows him, he can go anywhere, do anything, not be identified. Normal social controls don’t apply. The Doctor encourages him to explore the possibilities, and report everything.

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Trying out a smile.

Our man begins to chart out a course – a double life. He rents not one but two apartments in the same building, posing as different people. He needs two because his mask has to come off for part of every day to avoid complications – this allows him to arrive bandaged, change into his mask and slip down the hall to apartment number two. This is the apartment he’s tricking out as his bachelor pad. It’s the multiple-dwellings version of the Mullet – business in the front, party in the back.

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Shopping at the department store for the accoutrements of a second identity. He’s having a great time. Is there any greater sign of independence than buying your own silverware?
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You could have done a version of this with the Doctor as the main character, with a different beginning/endpoint. He’s clearly a man with an agenda, flexible morality, and a lot of secrets (the affair with his nurse not particularly one of them).

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The first time they went to the bar together, Okuyama was sullen, pensive, ill-at-ease. The Doctor was gregarious. Okuyama has taken to his secret life, at a rate and depth that alarms even the ethically vague Doctor. Their moods have reversed as Okuyama’s confidence takes off. Seated at the table, they’ve literally changed places.

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Plan: Seduce own wife with second identity.

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Successful. Too successful. Fury at how quick she was to commit adultery.

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At the same time, a second encounter is occurring: while Okuyama’s alienation has generated anger with the world and a sense of being wronged, the scarred girl is enveloped by sadness and loneliness. She throws herself at her rather introverted brother. Both couplings beget tragedy and violence, one directed outward, one inward.

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Without identity, he feels immune from the controls of society, although if he were paying attention he’d notice that it really doesn’t make that much difference. The empowerment he feels is mostly psychological.

There’s so much to play with and chew on in this film. There are layers I can’t begin to analyze properly, so I won’t even try. Take some of these images presented apropos of nothing I understand:

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The Doctor’s office (always an artificial Brechtian-looking place anyway) with a door open showing a giant head of hair blowing.

And this. Before:

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After:

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Teshigahara’s most famous film is Woman In The Dunes, which, like Face of Another, is based on a novel by Kobo Abe and adapted by the author. For whatever reason, that film didn’t resonate with me as this one does. Perhaps it’s to do with a greater reliance on “in your face” symbology and allegory, perhaps it’s simply because Face tugs so insistently at my fondness for classic horror. Regardless, this gets a strong recommendation.

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2 Responses to “Please To Enjoy… #6”

  1. What a great double feature this would make with John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS. Since they were produced in the same year (1966), curiosity reigns as to who was influenced by which, if at all. Chilling film — nice write-up! This would have made a great entry in our “EFFIGY” series at DESTRUCTIBLE MAN. Keep ’em comin’!

  2. Darrell says:

    Thanks much Bro!

    I have yet to see SECONDS. I have the disc, but it has inexplicably sat in the unwatched pile for literally years. I see it’s now OOP and fetching more than a few $ on Ebay and the like, but I’m a patient man. I’ll get around to it. Maybe this’ll even make me vault it near the top of the in-house queue.

    While writing, it did occur to me that this was flirting with the edges of a Destructible-land subject.

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