(Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966)
(essay by Troy)
Part existential horror, part imaginative science-fiction, and recalling other transplant horror hybrids like Eyes Without A Face and Seconds, Hiroshi Teshigahara and Kôbô Abe’s The Face of Another examines the dread that originates from loss of identity and the fears it evokes stemming from alienation and disconnection from humanity. The story provides philosophical look at the connection between image and self, face and soul, how they shape our interactions and relationships with others. Sewn together with surreal visuals, a discordant Toru Takemitsu score, and an intelligent script, it’s an at times unsettling, at times thought-provoking, yet always stunning film.
The film revolves around Mr. Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai), his face wrapped in bandages (ala Claude Rains in The Invisible Man) after it was horribly disfigured in a chemical accident. This loss of personal identity causes him to feel exiled from society, slowly developing a monstrous demeanor and distancing himself from his wife and the others around him (whom he views are pushing away from him due to his malady). He seeks out a psychiatrist (not a doctor — he specifically states that he doesn’t treat the physically ill, he just filled “the gap in mind”) and decides to have him perform a revolutionary face transplant surgery, allowing him to have the new identity he seeks. Okuyama attempts to test his newfound identity by creating a dual life for himself, even attempting to seduce his wife as revenge for her lack of affection. Though he’s successful, it turns out that she knows of his masquerade and the ordeal only pushes her further away when she learns of his spiteful reasoning. Okuyama, realizing that his transformation has done nothing but further his disassociation, takes out his frustrations on his psychiatrist amidst a sea of blank faces in a fantastical and disorienting final scene.
Throughout, a story is developed in parallel about a beautiful young woman whose face was burned and scarred as a result of the bombing of Nagasaki. She is shunned by society, her brother being the only person who is able to (incestuously) love her despite her appearance. This tragically leads to her drowning herself in the sea. The two storylines have no direct interactions (some have posited that her story is actually scenes from the movie that Okuyama claims he saw while talking to his wife early in the film), but are obviously mirror images of each other — where Okuyama covers his face, disconnecting himself from the world, the young woman freely shows her scars, attempting to connect with society as she is, carrying herself about with a grace and sensibility that makes it all the more crushing when she meets the end she does (This look at the dual nature of identity is furthered in Okuyama’s story, as both pre and post surgery he runs through a routine at an apartment complex, testing out if his new situation changes how he is treated). Showing an inability for society to look past the obvious, Teshigaha speaks to a common through line in post-WW2 Japanese cinema, that of the horrific and traumatizing aftereffects of the war, including the loss of cultural identity and the literal/metaphorical disfigurement of its people.
If the film engages in a bit of self-absorbed navel gazing and too-knowing dialogue at times then it redeems itself entirely with it’s stunning visual elements that provide it with its bizarre, otherworldly ambiance. The first images show several floating prosthetics and a finger being removed from an artificial hand, the psychiatrist waxing philosophical about “inferiority complex in the shape of a finger.” After a credit sequence showcasing the images of hundreds of faces, we see the x-rayed image of Okuyama’s talking head explaining his situation. Teshigahara continues with the innovative touches throughout(plenty of zooms, Dutch angles, wipes, distorted shots through glass, and so forth), while also having a definitive structure to his mise-en-scene, leading to a number of memorably stylized compositions (what are you waiting for, go see the screencaps at my blog).
Of course, his greatest visual achievement is in that of the design of the psychiatrist’s office, a veritable mad scientist lair mixing baroque and minimalist sensibilities. Glass shelves and partitions with different etchings seem to slide in and out each time we visit, always a new set of items adorning them. One scene even shows a door in the office that leads to seemingly another realm, tendrils floating freely in the opening. It’s a modernist dreamscape, that feels like it is taking place in a fairytale world separate from where the rest of the movie is, adding a distancing effect that plays wonderfully into the strange aura surrounding the film.
(this film appeared on Troy’s list at #21, and Jamie’s at #2)