What would happen if you lost the face you recognize as your own and had to replace it with a new one? Would you have an identity crisis or simply become a different person? Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara ponders this unusual dilemma in The Face of Another (1966, Japanese title: Tanin no kao).
Teshigahara received international acclaim in 1964 for Woman in the Dunes which was an art-house hit in the U.S. and the only film of his to receive a wide theatrical release stateside. Just as absorbing and visually dynamic was his subsequent film, the rarely screened The Face of Another, which explores the concept of identity in a storyline that crosses into science fiction territory and bears favorable comparison to John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966) but also Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960), with its haunted, masked protagonist.
Based on a novel by Woman in the Dunes author Kobo Abe, The Face of Another opens with Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai), a wealthy chemist, being treated for his horribly scarred face, which was recently disfigured in an explosion. Until the doctor (Mikijiro Hira) can successfully render the prosthetic mask that will become Okuyama’s new face, the patient lives a faceless existence, his head swathed in bandages with visible openings only for his eyes, nose and mouth, giving him the appearance of a burn victim. Argumentative and full of self-loathing, he temporarily leaves his wife and takes a separate apartment in preparation for the surgery.
Once Okuyama is fitted with his artificial face, his mental state becomes increasingly anxious and paranoid, driving him to test his new identity in bizarre ways. Passing himself off as a complete stranger, he sets out to seduce his wife whom he suspects of infidelity. Their subsequent affair ends with a surprising revelation for Okuyama but it also propels him to sever all ties between himself and his surgeon/psychiatrist who has been closely monitoring his erratic behavior.
Adding an extra layer of unease to the proceedings is a parallel storyline about a nurse in a psychiatric ward whose face was badly scarred in the bombing of Nagasaki. Shunned as an outcast, the girl’s intense loneliness drives her into an incestuous affair with her brother, the only person who accepts her as she is, and the consequences are tragic for both.
The shadow of the atom bomb hangs heavily over The Face of Another and was a topic Teshigahara was well versed in, having worked as an assistant to leftist documentarian Gumio Kamei on It Was Good to Live, a 1956 portrait of Hiroshima A-bomb victims, as well as his own documentary on atomic bomb testing, The World Is Terrified (1957).
The Face of Another also shares a similar visual aesthetic with such French New Wave films as Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) in its depiction of alienation in contemporary society. In addition to the issue of personal identity, cultural identity – particularly Japan’s – is explored in scenes such as the one in which Okuyama and his psychiatrist visit a Bavarian bar. As they sip German beer from tankards, they are serenaded by a Japanese cabaret singer (Bibari “Beverly” Maeda) performing a German song.
This is one of many disorienting sequences in a film that is accompanied by an ironic music score by Toru Takemitsu to provide a striking contrast between what we are seeing and what we are hearing. Much of the time the cold, clinical atmosphere of the surgeon’s office and Okuyama’s anonymous wanderings along crowded city streets are accompanied by Takemitsu’s lush orchestrations which are sweeping, romantic and very Western.
Takemitsu had collaborated before with Teshigahara on the music scores to Pitfall (1962) and Woman in the Dunes and would work with him a total of four times including this feature and The Man Without a Map (1968).
Novelist/screenwriter Kobo Abe was also a four-time collaborator with Teshigahara, working with him on the same four movies that Takemitsu scored. All three men shared an interest in the avant-garde and experimentation with their own mediums.
They were also bound together by their World War II experiences and a fascination with exploring Japan’s identity in the post-war years and the impact of Western society on it. As Toru Takemitsu once stated, “Because of World War II, the dislike of things Japanese continued for some time and was not easily wiped out. Indeed, I started as a composer by denying any ‘Japaneseness.'” This very sentiment is treated in the form of an allegory in Teshigahara’s The Face of Another.
Unfortunately, few American critics responded favorably to The Face of Another. Most of them were put off by the film’s chilly exterior and the unsympathetic protagonist played by Tatsuya Nakadai, who is best known to Japanese film buffs as Toshiro Mifune’s opponent in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and the same director’s later Kagemusha (1980).
Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote, “…It talks too much and too foolishly for its own good, like someone who can only be reassured by the sound of his own voice…As fiction it’s too fanciful to be seriously compelling and too glib to be especially thought-provoking.”
The reviewer for Variety didn’t warm up to it either, stating, “This disconcerting combination of the arbitrary and the elegant does not make for empathy and, further, the “moral” is not (as in Woman in the Dunes) dramatized…The film is static and ice-cold, and it is just this combination which creates an interest which might be described as morbid…And this is, perhaps, all that the creators intended.” Even in Japan, The Face of Another was unfavorably compared to the director’s previous success, Woman in the Dunes.
More than 55 years later, however, The Face of Another is recognized by many film scholars as one of the major Japanese films of the sixties and certainly one of Teshigahara’s key achievements. Among the many admirers is Jaspar Sharp, who points out in his Midnight Eye essay, that “Rather than milk it for all of its sensationalistic aspects, The Face of Another delves deeper into the psychological and philosophical ramifications of the premise, of how this small space situated above the neck serves the multiple purposes of a proof of one’s identity, a means of conveying one’s emotions and an interface with one’s fellow beings, mediating between the mind behind it and the outside world…It is a great-looking, highly intelligent and unique piece of work that admirably encapsulates the progressive spirit of the times.”
The Face of Another has appeared on DVD in various forms over the years. Eureka!, a U.K. distributor, issued a DVD release of it in their Masters of Cinema series in March 2005; The disc, which has since been discontinued, included a 16 page booklet/essay by David Toop, audio commentary by Tony Rayns and other extras. In July 2007 The Criterion Collection released the DVD box set Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara which included The Face of Another with Woman in the Dunes and Pitfall. It is now out of print and commanding exorbitant prices from sellers on the internet. Teshigahara’s extraordinary 1984 documentary Antonio Gaudi, however, is still available from Criterion on Blu-Ray and DVD and is a mesmerizing introduction to the famous Catalan architect.
*This is an updated and revised version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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