Monday, May 14, 2012

Hiroshi Teshigahara | Tanin no Kao (The Face of Another)

facing in
by Douglas Messerli

Kōbō Abe (screenplay, based on his novel), Hiroshi Teshigahara (director) Tanin no kao (The Face of Another) / 1966, USA 1967

In postwar Japan a formerly wealthy businessman, Okuyama (Taatsuya Nakadai), has been disfigured with burns to his face during an industrial accident.  His head completely wrapped in bandages, not unlike the James Whale's 1933 classic horror film, The Invisible Man, lives with his wife within a now cynical relationship, where he feels tortured by her supportive comments but obviously distracted behavior and her refusal to cease motion while around him. She, in turn, understandably feels as if she too were a victim in this horrible accident, as he poses impossible-to-answer questions and muses on philosophical issues such as the contention that the face is the door to the soul. "Does he still have a soul?" he ponders. And who is this being who was he before his identity disappeared to some around him—his partner's secretary greets him as if his face were not hidden behind bandages, while others who encounter him turn away in horror and disgust?

     But the true theme of Teshigahara's and Abe's collaboration is concerned less with "invisibility"—although it remains a subtext of this work—as it is with the definition of a human being through his face, or to put it another way, the film asks the question who is the person behind his or her face. His wife attempts to explore that issue through a discussion of why women wear makeup. It is not, she declares, in order that they present an appealing look to the outsider, but, in the manner of ancient cultures and the remnants of those values in Arab culture, it is rather an attempt to hide behind the face, a kind of mask to keep the true being protected within out of a sense of humility, a reverence for the inner self.

     Okuyama gets an opportunity to test that idea out when his psychiatrist, Dr. Hira (Mikijiro Hira), suggests that he can fashion a mask that, fitted to Okuyama's face—not only the facial contours, but the sweat glands, the various pores of the individual facial makeup. Encountering by accident a man in a small cafe (Hisashi Igawa) the two offer him money to borrow his face, recreating it to match the dimensions of Okuyama's facial structures.

     Unlike Abe's original fiction, Teshigahara creates a double tale—indeed his entire story is based on a series of doublings—by taking us, bit by bit, through the relationship of a Nagasaki-born woman whose beautiful face has been horribly disfigured on one side by the results of the Atomic bomb, and her supporting brother (Kakuya Saeki). The beautiful woman, who hides her scars behind her long hair, works in a home for World War II veterans, most of whom have lost their sanity to their wartime experiences, and she, herself, is haunted and terrorized by the possibility of a new war breaking out, fears which she had her brother discuss. Unfortunately, he suggests, one only recognizes that a war exists after it has started.

     Dr. Hira, meanwhile, has grown fearful of the possible effects of the mask he and his nurse are concocting, and demands assurances from his increasingly bitter friend, Okuyama, that he will keep the doctor abreast of all of his emotional responses to the mask. The relationship between the two—wherein the Dr. suddenly takes the role of a kind of brother, father, advisor, guide, and policeman to the increasingly dangerous Okuyama—links Teshigahara's film with Georges Franju's Les yeux sans visage (Eyes without a Face), where Doctor Génessier plays a kind of anguished creator-confidant to his own Frankenstein-like daughter, Christine. That the doctor and his patient's first outing after the creation of the mask takes place in a Japanese-German pub, where a chanteuse sings German songs of the loss of love and longing points out the strange war-time pairing of the two countries and the horrific results it has had upon the culture as a whole, linking the mask of Mr. Okuyama even more closely to the unmasked girl whose face has been scarred by the bomb triggered to end the War.

      Although we might have feared that Okuyama was intent, once the "face of another" had become his own, on doing violence to his own wife, we soon discover that his "plot" does not involve physical assault as much as it does a psychological revenge, entailing a plan to seduce his own spouse.

      Dr. Hira, meanwhile, has developed even more general concerns regarding the results of such a facial transformation, fears that a man might, under the influence of the face, become someone else or that, able to live without an identifiable past, might be led to commit unspeakable acts or crimes not previously thought of. In a sense, all of this occurs in The Face of Another as Okuyama, having obtained two nearly identical apartments in another building—one of his bandaged self, another for the new man-in-the-mask, sets out, as a stranger, to test his wife's faithfulness. His seduction is all too easy, as within a few hours after following her, she not only accepts his sexual insinuations, but readily joins him in his second apartment for a sexual rendezvous. Disgusted by his apparent success, he confronts his wife, who quickly counters that she has known who he is all along, and thought only that it was merely an open attempt at game-playing, a kind of sexual masquerade which might bring them back into a loving relationship. The fact that he might actually have meant to deceive her, she declares, disgusts her, drawing an end to their already fraught relationship.

     Okuyama's attempts to later return to their house, where she sits, resistant to his attempts to enter, reveals that as the new "man with the mole," he can never go "home" again. He is now a new being who must act out the inner behavior of that beast.

     For, of course, with a new, seemingly unrecognizable face, he must look to whom he was perhaps all along within, not at all the socialized industrialist of old, but a horribly destroyed and psychologically altered being, a man capable of even more perverse acts.

     So too has the young woman with a scar, on vacation with her brother, come to realize that within she is not at all the beautifully demur woman hoping to hide her facial blemish, but is a passionate, lusting animal, who demands that her brother kiss her, resulting in an intense incestuous coupling in which, it quickly becomes clear, that her brother loves not her apparent beauty as much as he does her hidden scars, symbolizing the woman calling him from within. Their illicit encounter demands a kind of expiation, which she accomplishes by walking into the surrounding sea to drown, while her brother calls out to her unable to prevent the results of his acts.

    Similarly, Okuyama, now rejected by his seemingly faithful lover, looks within, resulting in an attempt to rape an unsuspecting woman. Arrested, he is saved by his psychiatrist who lies to the police, claiming that he is an escaped mental patient.

     Throughout the film, the director has presented the viewer with strange images and events. The many scenes in the psychiatrist's clinic in which body-parts float in diagramed positions mid-air, the bizarre behavior of the superintendent's yo-yo-loving daughter, the ever-present Western-loving affectations of the entire populace, the several near-repetitions of events  (such as Okuyama's two visits to obtain an apartment, the attempted rape of the woman with a scar and the later attempted rape by Okuyama), and Teshigahara's several cinematic devices—blurred, stopped, tilted and sped-up images) now coalescence into a kind of surrealist film, as Okuyama's mad inner self is projected onto the society at large, the busy streets filled with men and women with masks instead of faces. Finally, as in the Franju work and the later Almodóvar tribute to Franju, La piel que habito (The Skin I Love In), the victim, as Okuyama has always declared himself to be, must exact his revenge: he unflinchingly plunges a knife into his former friend's body, abandoning his being to the self he has discovered by facing in.

Los Angeles, May 13, 2012

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