Hiroshi Teshigahara, known for his deliveries of Kōbō Abe works, returns to the well with 1966’s The Face of Another. Based on Abe’s 1959 novel of the same name, The Face of Another is a stylized look at identity and human nature as it exists behind various masks. Some consider the film to be part of a trilogy of Teshigahara pictures, with the other two being 1962’s Pitfall and 1964’s Woman in the Dunes.
Interestingly, The Face of Another was considered to be a financial and critical failure at the time of its release. It still hasn’t quite been all that accepted in Western culture, either, which is surprising considering the picture’s haunting themes and stylish presentation. I found it to be a fantastic and eerie meditation on the meaning of identity and on how we can conceal ourselves emotionally and mentally.
Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) has been burned and disfigured in some sort of industrial accident and he wears bandages to cover the damage. Visiting a psychiatrist (Mikijiro Hira), Okuyama seeks out a mask that he can wear to get back into normal society. The mask, based on the face of another man, starts to intrude on Okuyama’s basic nature and compels him to behave differently, forming two identities in him and creating a spiritual crisis of sorts.
Okuyama doesn’t tell anyone, including his wife (Machiko Kyo), that he has the mask and goes about starting a new life. Telling his wife that he’s away on business, he rents an apartment and experiences different treatment than he received under the bandages. Okuyama eventually elects to test the bonds of his marriage and feels threatened as he discovers the cruel reality.
Teshigahara’s picture is fascinating in its imagery and its use of doubling. He elegantly weaves the tale of Okuyama with a cinematic vision of a scarred girl, drawing parallels between their escalating behaviours and provoking the audience to ask deeper questions about the meaning of faces and of appearances. Teshigahara draws thick lines with his picture and many of his points are clearly reinforced by the artistry of his sets and of his camera shows, so The Face of Another is one of his more accessible pictures.
When we consider that Teshigahara was also a designer and flower artist, the beauty of the scenery and backdrops becomes more integral to his telling of the story. The imagery of the office of the psychiatrist, for instance, is staggering in its implications. Consider the grocery-like mystique of various ears and body parts on display through clear glass along with the use of clear mirrored images in the scenes involving Okuyama and the good doctor.
Through all the design implications, The Face of Another is almost Hitchcockian in its storytelling. The use of Toru Takemitsu eerie score, including a pair of waltzes, escalates the politics of identity and allows Teshigahara the space in which to humanize his characters. There are deep implications for the masks and for the sort of “power” the doctor wields by creating these ways with which to “transfer” identity to the “face of another.”
The Face of Another is powerfully acted, with the scenes between Nakadai’s Okuyama and Hira’s doctor coming across with incredible tension. The film’s inevitable conclusion, again juxtaposed along the cinematic story of the scarred girl (Miki Irie) and her brother, feels organic and ultimately satisfying in many ways. Teshigahara’s movie, like Pitfall, speaks to what defines us as human and what separates our savagery from our compassion. At times, posits The Face of Another, it’s just the face we happen to wear.