by Stephen Mullen
Science Fiction can come in many forms. There are the big world building SF stories imagining whole worlds different from ours, however rigorously they might work out how they got to be different. Think Metropolis, Star Trek, Brazil, Children of Men. There are smaller world building exercises, where something alien or some invented technology is dropped into the world, and we see how the world reacts: think The Thing from Another World, or Under the Skin, or Midnight Special. But there is another type that isn’t, really, about world building at all. In these stories, something is changed – technology, usually, something that doesn’t exist in fact – and it is used to tell an intimate story, about a small group of people, with no direct implications for the world at large. (Though with indirect implications, maybe.) The Face of Another, a 1966 film by Hiroshi Teshigahara, from a novel by Kobo Abe, is this kind of story. It is science fiction because of one detail – the face itself – a detail used to justify what is mainly a psychological study, with horror overtones.
The story is this: a man (Okuyama) is burned in an accident, his face ruined, forcing him to wear bandages the rest of his life. He broods, alienated from his wife, his co-workers, everyone. He has a doctor, a psychiatrist who dabbles in science (making prosthetics) who says he will make him a face that will look exactly like a real face. He does so, all the time speculating on how this different face will change Okuyama’s psyche. Okuyama puts it on, and starts establishing a second life – but his ultimate intention is to try to seduce his wife with the new face. He tries it and it works all too well – he is horrified at her unfaithfulness. (He has made himself jealous.) When he confronts her, though, she says she knew all along, and thought he knew – thought this was a shared masquerade, to get past the complications of his bandages. She thought he was being considerate of her. (He is not considerate of anyone.) After that, whatever claims he had to sanity are gone – he attacks a woman in the street, and when the doctor bails him out, put him out of his misery – and then? Good question. This story is intercut with another story, a young woman with a terrible scar on her face, probably from Nagasaki, though half of her face is beautiful. She suffers and becomes increasingly anxious about the coming of another war, until she pulls her hair back and walks into the sea.
This is presented more as a psychological thriller, or horror, than as science fiction. It’s themes are mainly from horror – bodily integrity (and its loss); questions of identity itself; the sense of the darkness inside us being given an external form, that turns on us. The Self and The Other is one of the great themes of horror, and the main theme of this film. Its precedents are familiar horror situations – doppelgängers and Faust type stories – doubles, tempters and tempted, the chance to become someone else. The science fiction here essentially replaces the supernatural or psychological motivations of classic horror – Okuyama doesn’t go mad (as in Dostoevsky’s The Double) or make a dealt with the devil (as in Faust) – he gets a prosthetic face. This is, in fact, a rich tradition within science fiction itself, especially early science fiction. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau all tell stories that feel closer to gothic horror than to science fiction, and explore themes associated with horror, while using technologies as the justification for their marvels. All involve doubles, secret identities, divided selves, tempting, corrupting figures, bodily monstrosity and so on – as does The Face of Another.
It has all of it in fact – with the Doctor serving both as Okuyama’s doppelgänger and his Mephistopheles. It’s a double function (of course it’s a double function) that recalls the plot of The Student of Prague, where the devil takes the student’s mirror image for his own purposes, and foreshadows works like Bad Influence and Fight Club (though Fight Club resolves the double/tempter back into one character), and especially Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Doppelganger. (A film definitely influenced by this one.) The doctor enables Okuyama to live a double life; he urges him to take advantage of it, though he imagines the freedom as corrupting. He pushes Okuyama to act, and begins to seem to urge him to act out his (the doctor’s) desires. The doctor come off even more sinister than Okuyama – he is a Dr. Jekyll who is not willing to swallow the potion himself; he pushes Okuyama to act out his own darker urges, while keeping himself out of it, trying to eschew responsibility for what he pushes Okuyama to do. Though as doubles it’s hard to say who is corrupting whom – the doctor allows Okuyama to follow his worst instincts while telling himself the doctor put him up to it – as much as the reverse. But that constantly switching perspective is what the film is about.
Teshigahara is a stylist, and the film’s themes are given rigorous formal treatment. It is a film about masks and doubles, about reflections and reversals, about unstable identities, and it is made up of all those things. Doubles: Okuyama and the doctor; Okuyama and the scarred girl. Repetitions: scenes – Okuyama arriving at the apartment, first with his bandages, then with his Face, encountering the super’s daughter, then her father, in just the same way, touring the rooms in just the same way; situations – arriving at his boss’ office, scenes with his wife; shots – Okuyama facing the camera with his wife behind him, then his wife facing the camera with Okuyama behind her. Scenes, shots, situations repeat, reverse, reflect one another. This is most consistent and extreme in the relationship between Okuyama and the doctor, of course. Every device appears: the two as doubles of one another, as parts of one another, overlapping, as mirror images of one another, either specially or in color (one in white, the other black, which happens repeatedly); scenes are repeated – they go to the beer hall twice, where they talk and drink – while reversing their positions (right and left) and their suits (Okuyama wears dark, the doctor light the first time, they reverse it the second time) between visits.
They are the strongest pairing in the film, but not the only one. Okuyama is linked to the scarred girl; all the women – Okuyama’s wife, the doctor’s wife, his nurse, the boss’s secretary – form a series of displacements of one another, visually, structurally. They haunt the film – recognizing Okuyama, not recognizing Okuyama, flitting around the edge of the frame (the doctor’s wife tucked off in the back of the frame as he and the nurse talk and flirt), erupting, now and then, into something fully uncanny. No one is quite who they seem – or quite who they are. (Though some are more aware and accepting of this than others.)
Finally, all this style does one more thing – it makes the film look like science fiction. This is especially so in the doctor’s office, with its glass shelves and windows and reflections, its floating body parts and instruments, its shifting perspectives, its pristine futuristic strangeness.
But it extends the look to the rest of the film as well. Okuyama’s apartment, his office, the airport where they buy his face, the streets of Tokyo, all have a similar alienating modernity. It’s a look common in films of the 1960s – as if filmmakers discovered the modern (and modernist) city, and found it as surprising and foreign as any science fiction city. The idea of the contemporary city as a kind of science fiction setting appears in many ’60s films – sometimes explicitly, as in Alphaville or the shots of Tokyo in Solaris – sometimes implicitly, as in Antonioni’s city scapes, or Playtime, or any of a host of stylish thrillers. They emphasize the alienating modernity of the glass and steel city, making it as sterile and alien as the future everytown in Things to Come. The sense, which is very strong in this film, especially in the doctor’s office, is that actual science fiction would be almost redundant. The world itself is already science fiction – they don’t need complex world building to create an alien world: they just need to show the streets and offices and people as they are. (Maybe with some extra floating ears…)
This was, of course, especially true in Japan, in Tokyo, a city wiped off the map twice in the first half to the 20th century (by the 1922 earthquake and World War II), and rebuilt twice, more modern and ambitious than before. And a population rebuilt as well – remade after the war, a country and culture largely reimagined after the war. That sense of alienation runs through so much of post-war Japanese films and literature, giving it tremendous power. The nation itself had to confront who it was, what its identity was, what was real and what not – and find ways to enact the new selves it was supposed to inhabit. That tension – the sense of human beings as aliens – it embodied (very literally) by Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance as well. In the bandages, he has to act with his body and his eyes; with the mask, he has to perform both the performance of normality and the fact that it is a performance, that his face is a mask. The way he moves – his control of his face – the way he sits, while he is being fitted for the mask, is one of the most alienating physical performances on screen. He’s an alien, as off, in everything he does, as a robot or space man – he is fantastic.
And so, to end, with one more note, about one more bit of doubling. There are two stories in the film – and the second story, of the scarred girl and her brother, looks quite different from the strange modernism of Okuyama’s story. She moves along older looking streets, through older parts of the city. The psychiatric ward where she works is old and shabby, with none of the modernism of the Doctor’s rooms. When she and her brother leave the city, they go to the sea – they walk on the beach, they explore caves, they stay in a conventional looking seaside resort. They are contrasted with the new Japan of the doctor and Okuyama – but they hardly fare any better. She carries the scars of the wars, dreading the next war, losing herself and coming apart as surely as Okuyama does. There is no comfort in the old, any more than the new; no sense that authenticity will save you any more than masquerading will.