Friday, June 28, 2013

Pitfall (Otoshiana) (1962)

Few films make you smile with its delightfully wry humour and at the same time punch you in the guts with its sheer intensity. Hiroshi Teshigahara's debut feature film "Pitfall" AKA "Otoshiana" (1962) is one of those films. Set against the backdrop of the Japanese mining industry in the 1960s, and its segregation into various factions and unions based on dissenting ideologies or differing loyalties to the powers that be, "Pitfall" dwells on the life (and death) of a simpleton mining labourer (Hisashi Igawa) who lives an almost wandering life with his little son. He moves from employer to employer, is a self-admitted deserter, but wishes to earn good money with his hard work.

A mining job offer in a nearby village, that lands in his lap in a rather strange and seemingly easy manner, leads him to an almost deserted place, with not a single soul nearby to even ask for directions. After finally stumbling upon a sole being in the entire town, a shopkeeper woman, he is led to a route across the desolate village, where he is pursued and murdered by a mysterious man clad in a white suit! It all takes a deliriously weird turn when the protagonist rises from the dead, and his ghost, a restless soul comes into being, in order to seek some answers….

Teshigahara, with a screenplay by Kobo Abe, adapted from his own novel, makes an earnest attempt to create a sense of foreboding and an eerie emptiness, shot on an isolated location of empty dwellings. While visualizing Abe's story must've been a mighty challenging task, Teshigahara, with his inborn visual panache, captures bleak desolation and creates unsettling atmospherics like very few filmmakers manage, let alone, in a debut feature. There are long languid shots, full sweaty close-ups which were later improved upon in the follow up to this film "The Woman in the Dunes" (1964). Almost in equal doses are quick jump cuts, especially in the scenes focusing on the ghosts. All this amidst an almost metallic, discordant score by Toru Takemitsu that adds to the dreary mood. Once in a while the mood is lightened up with dark humour.

Teshigahara fuses neorealism with surrealism in a blend so homogeneous, neither aspect comes across as misplaced. The two facets meld seamlessly in this strange yet familiar tale, full of characters who are flesh-and-blood real, as well as their own, otherworldly ghostly selves who make appearances in the story's critical junctures. Just as the protagonist's ghost appears, he begins to see several people in the apparently empty village; but these people are his own kind; lost souls, the spirits of the oppressed dead, mostly miners, who probably could never rest in peace! It's a world right out of a classic ghost story set in contemporary times, where the dead and the living cohabit - an idea explored much later in films like "The Sixth Sense"(1999) and "The Others"(2001), albeit in the Hollywood culture of gimmicky story-telling. This in itself instantly catapults "Pitfall" to a status of a film way ahead of its time, a bold move, especially for a debut feature!

The character that triggers all the action, the mysterious killer appears more than once, in a single costume, like Death itself, rides a moped, delivers his lines in a deadpan voice and speaks through his droopy eyes. Who are his employers? Or is he his own?  Then there's the young son. The aimless, cold, kid, who prima facie doesn’t seem to share any special connection with his father. He just tags along. Initially nonchalant, he wanders about skinning innocent frogs and peeping through holes. It is only towards the end that he appears to be affected by the happenings around him. Always a mute spectator, his eventual breakdown scene highlighting his tiny visage is heartbreaking! The kid is terrified and puzzled. 

So are the ghosts of those killed. It is the kind of mystery, the solution to which one cannot see coming from a hundred miles away. As the mystery unfolds for the viewer, a complex plot surrounding union tiffs and conspiracies hatched by the brass comes to light, but does the ghost of the protagonist ever find out the truth behind his killing? "I will never be able to rest in peace until I find out", he laments. And indeed so; for who would gain from killing an insignificant labourer who's also a stranger to the place?

But Teshigahara is more interested in the inherent confusion and vagueness that results from the gaps between classes, their motives, the lack of communication and the purpose of their existence. He has said that this film is a documentary fantasy. He couldn't have described it more aptly. It is a strong statement on the exploitation of the poor and helpless at the hands of the powerful. In the beginning, some stock footage of real life mining disasters and accidents is shown in its painful entirety. The footage appears out of place, almost out of nowhere, as the protagonist ponders over the kind of life he is doomed to live. But it is not without purpose. The essence of this unique and complex story stems from this very musing. The relentless questioning by the ghosts, despite knowing that no living being can ever hear them, is a metaphor for how voices of the oppressed go unheard. Questions are never answered. Wishes are never fulfilled.

In the end, what "Pitfall" brings out is the futility of extreme human actions. If death is the end to everything, we all have the same destiny. What is gained through elaborate scheming and cutting throats? But it is usually too late to regret. Rifts, rivalries and several corpses and ghosts later, Teshigahara takes us towards the film's inevitable culmination with an ironic image; the shot of a bandana with the word "Unite" written on it, drowning down in the marsh….

Score: 10/10

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