Reviewing three existential works of art by Hiroshi Teshigahara has sent Judge Roy Hrab into an existential crisis: Does he exist to write DVD reviews? Do DVDs exist for him to write reviews? Are his reviews judgements of DVDs? Are his DVD reviews judgements of him? Oh, the crushing force of existential angst!
Our review of Pitfall (1948) (Blu-ray), published January 31st, 2016, is also available.
"We don't understand! Why don't you tell us? Why did you kill me? Who was it for?" -Pitfall
"The certificates we use to make certain of one another: contracts, licenses, ID cards, permits, deeds, certifications, registrations, carry permits, union cards, testimonials, bills, IOUs, temporary permits, letters of consent, income statements, certificates of custody, even proof of pedigree. Is that all of them? Have I forgotten any?"—Woman In The Dunes
"The face is the door to the soul. When the face is closed off, so too is the soul. Nobody is allowed inside. The soul is left to rot, reduced to ruins."—The Face Of Another
Three Films By Hiroshi Teshigahara is Criterion's latest triumph and one of the most important DVD releases of the year. This box set gives a first-class introduction to a Japanese master who, unfortunately, is largely a forgotten figure in North American.
The set showcases three films, all in black and white, by one of the most unique and successful collaborations in cinema history: Director Hiroshi Teshigahara, Writer Kobo Abe, and Composer Toru Takemitsu. Together they produced a series of works that are a feast for the eyes, ears and mind.
Facts of the Case
The three films in the set are: Pitfall (1962), Woman In The Dunes (1964), and The Face Of Another (1966).
Pitfall: An itinerant coal miner (Hisashi Igawa, The Face Of Another) and his son (Kazuo Miyahara) wander Japan looking for work. They are stalked by a mysterious man in white (Kunie Tanaka, The Hidden Blade). One day the miner is told that there is a job for him and given a map to the location. It leads him to a mining town that, except for the female proprietor of a candy store, is abandoned. Following the map to its end, the miner is killed by the man in white. The miner's ghost rises, lamenting his death and searching for answers to his murder. Answers are slow to come, but he discovers quickly that he is not the only ghost in town. And there are more ghosts to come.
Woman In The Dunes: A schoolteacher and aspiring entomologist (Eiji Okada, Hiroshima Mon Amour), unsatisfied with his job and life in the big city, is on vacation. He hopes to achieve some modicum of fame by discovering a new species of beetle in the sand dunes of a small coastal village. By lingering in the dunes too long he misses the last bus back to the city. The locals convince him to stay the night at the home of a woman (Kyoko Kishida, The Face Of Another), living at the bottom of a dune. He agrees to stay. When he tries to leave in the morning, he finds himself trapped. He rages against his confinement and captors. However, the woman tells him that their survival depends on shovelling the sand into containers that are hoisted up by the villagers above. If do not shovel they will not receive rations of food or water. Further, if they do not shovel they will be buried alive by the ever shifting sand.
The Face Of Another: Mr. Okuyama's (Tatsuya Nakadai, Kagemusha) face has been disfigured horribly in an industrial accident. He broods all day with his head wrapped in bandages. He feels isolated from the rest of the world, including his wife (Machiko Kyo, Ugetsu). He feels that he has no identity. However, his psychiatrist (Mikijiro Hira, Adventures Of Zatoichi) offers a way out: a mask based on a stranger's face. Okuyama agrees, but not because he wants to reintegrate into society. Instead, he hopes to seduce his wife with his new face.
It is not an easy task to discuss the works of a filmmaker you admire greatly. There is a tendency to praise excessively, give too many reasons why the films should be viewed, and ignore flaws. I hope to avoid this temptation. Also, I think it is best to view these somewhat surreal and enigmatic films without too much prior knowledge. Further, there is discussion of the artists involved, plus analysis and interpretation of the films in the extras. So, I do not wish to get bogged down in minutiae and repeat much of what is available in the extras. Instead, I will make some general comments on the strengths of these works as a whole and then touch on the individual films briefly.
Do you ever feel like your life is not under your control and that external forces are pushing you around? Do you ever feel a lack of accomplishment from your work or that you have not produced anything tangible at the end of the day? Do you ever wonder what thoughts or feelings occur to others when they see, meet, or think of you? If you do, then you should connect closely with at least one, if not more, of the films in the set. All deal with questions of identity. Specifically, these films feature protagonists who are unsure of their identity, future and place in society. It is the theme of identity (or identity in a state of crisis) that makes these films as relevant and captivating today as when they were first released.
In the realm of visual compositions these films deliver an awesome array of techniques, courtesy of Teshigahara and cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa. For example, in his essay on The Face Of Another, James Quandt notes the following methods: "freeze-frames, defamiliarizing close-ups, wild zooms, wash-away wipes, X-rayed imagery, stuttered editing, […]." In Woman Of The Dunes, Teshigahara and Segawa create a spectacular moving painting. Bodies become landscapes and the sand is given a life all its own. Pitfall is no less accomplished.
The sensory experience is completed by Toru Takemitsu's unnerving, unsettling, and jarring music. His scores are a powerful contributor to the atmosphere of each film. This is true especially in Pitfall and Woman Of The Dunes.
The acting is excellent. This is an impressive feat given the bizarre circumstances in which the characters find themselves. Hisashi Igawa creates two distinct characters (one fearful; the other initially confident before succumbing to confusion and paranoia) in his dual role in Pitfall. Eiji Okada and Kyoko Kishida share great chemistry and intensity in Woman Of The Dunes as they make the transformation from adversaries to lovers. Their roles are extremely demanding as they are on screen together, in a confined space, for the bulk of the film's 148 minute running time, but they are more than up to the challenge. The Face Of Another contains strong performances by Tatsuya Nakadai as a man whose identity is disintegrating, Mikijiro Hira as a scientist who realizes too late that he has created a monster, and Machiko Kyo as a woman who wears many masks and possesses the ability to see through the masks of others.
The films are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. The restored high-definition digital transfers are excellent. These black and white films are detailed, sharp and clear for the most part. As to be expected with films of this age, there are imperfections. In particular, there are conspicuous dirt, debris and scratches in parts of Pitfall.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono tracks get the job done. The dialogue comes through clear. More importantly, Toru Takemitsu's haunting music is not compromised.
The discs of the individual films are relatively light in the extras department. Each contains a theatrical trailer for the movie in question. While there are no commentaries each disc has a video essay by critic and festival programmer James Quandt. He gives a detailed examination of each film that, in my opinion, is delivered more efficiently than what would be conveyed through a commentary track.
I will now comment briefly on the individual films.
Pitfall: This is a ghost story and murder mystery with commentary about the exploitation of Japanese coal miners. The characters in this story, with the notable exception of the mysterious man in the white suit, find themselves extremely unsatisfied with their situations in life (and death) because, in their opinion, sinister outside forces have conspired against them. Is this really the case? Did these people choose to lead passive lives, allowing others to manipulate them? Could they not have taken control of their lives and followed their own desires? What does it take to accomplish this? Is it even possible? The film provides no answers.
Woman In The Dunes: The sand…the sand…the sand. What can I say about this work of art? This is the jewel of the set and is seen rightfully as Teshigahara's masterwork. It is a compelling and beautiful film from beginning to end. Woman In The Dunes is one of those rare films where everything (story, score, acting, and visuals) falls into place seamlessly. The story strikes a contemporary chord: a protagonist who is unsatisfied with his job and life in the city. Sound familiar? He is unfulfilled, disillusioned and alienated. His solution: to get his name in a book by finding a new species of beetle! Is happiness just a career change away? This is an escapist fantasy, not a solution to his problem. His disenchantment with his life has left him blinded by illusions. Thus, it is not surprising that his attempt to escape his urban life ends-up with him falling into a trap, putting him in a situation no different from the insects he traps in jars.
On the other hand, the woman he finds himself with suffers from no such malady. She does not question whether her situation is just or unjust. She knows what she needs to do to survive and she goes about it with quiet efficiency. She does not see herself as trapped. In fact, she very much sees herself as a member of the community. He cannot comprehend her viewpoint. He wants to get back to the world above. Yet, is not that the world that he found so unsatisfying in the first place? He wants to be "free." Yet, did he not feel confined by city life? What is the real prison: the city or the sand pit? As his "confinement" continues, he inadvertently makes an important, tangible discovery that will have positive implications for the pit he finds himself in and the village as a whole. Before long he begins to grasp a new meaning of freedom and fulfillment.
The Face Of Another: This work is quite different from the previous films in that it tackles themes of identity in a very direct and explicit manner. It is set in the city rather than the more symbolic and exotic settings of the previous films, making The Face Of Another), at least on the surface, more realistic. Further, there are no subtleties regarding the crisis of identity: the protagonist's face is burnt off and he receives a new one. The dialogue between characters focuses heavily on issues of identity and the figurative masks people wear. Overall, the gloves off approach used in The Face Of Another makes it perhaps the most powerful, difficult and uncomfortable film in the set because the ideas cannot be escaped. Who is in control: the mask or the person behind the mask? Can the two be separated? Is there anything behind our facades or are we all members of a faceless crowd without our masks?
The Supplements: The set comes with a fourth disc containing 152 minutes of supplementary material, including a documentary, Teshigahara and Abe, recorded for Criterion in 2006, featuring interviews with Donald Richie and Tadao Sato. The documentary examines Teshigahara's family background, his many artistic pursuits (for example, flowering arranging, painting, sculpture, calligraphy) and his working relationship with Abe.
However, the real items of interest on the supplemental disc are four early short films by Teshigahara:
Hokusai (1953): A documentary on the work of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), a wood-block artist. The film presents various works by Hokusai accompanied by music, singing, narration and subtitles. It is an interesting and engrossing short.
Ikebana (1956): This short gives some history and basic information about ikebana, the centuries old Japanese art of flower arrangement. The film then presents an inside look at the Sogetsu School of Ikebana, eventually focussing on the artistic pursuits of Sofu Teshigahara, Hiroshi's father and founder and grand master of the Sogetsu School. It gives an excellent look at the many forms of art that Hiroshi would have been exposed to while growing up, which clearly played a role in developing his gift for visual composition in film.
Tokyo 1958 (1958): This is a short film that Teshigahara made in collaboration with eight other Japanese filmmakers. It is about what the title suggests: Tokyo in 1958.
Ako (1965): A quirky film that was commissioned by the National Film Board of Canada. It follows the comings and goings of a teenaged Japanese girl and her gang of friends over the course of one night.
Criterion closes out the set with a booklet that contains: a series of essays by Peter Grilli, Howard Hampton, Audie Bock, and James Quandt; the text of a interview with Teshigahara by Max Tessier; the casts and credits for the films; some stills; and, information about the transfers. It is a good read. The essays present further details and analysis of the films, complementing Quandt's video essays and the documentary. The interview presents Teshigahara commenting on filmmaking, his films, Abe, and Japanese society.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I do not expect these films to have universal appeal. While visually and technically rich, these are films of ideas rather than action. The stories cannot be described as particularly linear or realistic. The endings offer little closure. As a result, some will no doubt see these works as pseudo-intellectual, pretentious, frustrating, and even tedious.
Also, the films are not without flaws. Specifically, I find the incorporation of the labour politics theme in Pitfall to be abrupt. Similarly, the parallel, secondary storyline in The Face Of Another is more of a distraction from the main action than anything else.
One issue I have with the extras is the limited amount of information about the subsequent films by Teshigahara. He made a handful of films after The Face of Another, including the brilliant Rikyu (1989). The booklet states that Teshigahara's later works are "more solemn and far less sensual" than his earlier films, but does not elaborate. More information about his change in style and his later films more generally would be appreciated.
This is a must see for lovers of film and art in general; an excellent treatment of three important artistic works. The addition of Hiroshi Teshigahara's films fills a major gap in not only the pantheon of Japanese masters represented in the Criterion Collection, but also within the spectrum of works of the Collection as a whole.
Not guilty! However, the court implores the good people at Criterion to return to this courtroom in the near future with additional Teshigahara films, specifically Man Without A Map, Summer Soldiers, Rikyu and Basara—The Princess Goh.
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Scales of Justice, Pitfall
Perp Profile, Pitfall
Distinguishing Marks, Pitfall
• Video Essay by James Quandt
Scales of Justice, Woman In The Dunes
Perp Profile, Woman In The Dunes
Distinguishing Marks, Woman In The Dunes
• Video Essay by James Quandt
Scales of Justice, The Face Of Another
Perp Profile, The Face Of Another
Distinguishing Marks, The Face Of Another
• Video Essay by James Quandt
Scales of Justice, The Supplements
Perp Profile, The Supplements
Distinguishing Marks, The Supplements
• Documentary: Teshigahara and Abe
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