Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Face of Another (Tanin No Kao) (1966)

What happens when a man damages his face in an unfortunate accident? His psyche is damaged too. As he walks around, with his face bandaged, he feels like a freak, looked upon with sympathy or curiosity by the people around him. He becomes irritable, suspicious, is filled with distrust; even doubts the intentions of his wife, colleagues and closest friends. He mistakes their good nature and normal behavior for pity and thus an inferiority complex and inherent cynicism seeps in. Nothing seems to have even a shred of positivity or hope.

This is what befalls the unfortunate victim of an industrial accident in Hiroshi Teshigahara's "The Face of Another" (1966). Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) who ends up with a completely disfigured face after the unfortunate incident, lives on with his face bandaged but experiences difficulty in adjusting to society, owing to being filled with negativity. He feels no one can look at him for more than a few seconds and claims the unease on their faces is very much visible. He keeps fussing about how his wife (Machiko Kyo) can't sit still in front of him and always struggles to find stuff to do, rather than be beside him. He feels she is repelled by him. Okuyama's growing insecurities about his wife, and his own inferiority complex makes him behave rudely with almost everyone around him. Even his employer (Eiji Okada) bears the brunt of his behavior over a harmless enquiry about his wife's wellbeing.

An opportunity that could open various doors knocks when his psychiatrist Dr. Hori (Mikijiro Hira) offers to make him a lifelike mask out of material that resembles human skin by virtue of its physical and chemical properties. A lot of meticulous preparation and scientific jargon later, the mask is ready. It fits like magic. Okuyama is a changed man. At least physically. But does the curing of his face, his newfound beauty, his transformation to a human from a monster really cure his tortured soul? Or does the mask make a bigger monster out of him?

"The Face of Another" is Teshigahara's final film of the trilogy of films also consisting of "Pitfall" and "The Woman in the Dunes", for all three films share the common credits of writing by Kobe Abe, music by Toru Takemitsu, cinematography by Hiroshi Segawa and direction by Hiroshi Teshigahara. The technical finesse of the preceding film is maintained, with grim black and white photography, carefully constructed frames, a deliberate pace, and a strange dissonant score rendering an unsettling and surreal touch to the proceedings.

The visuals are arresting and the play of light and dark is remarkable. This is especially enhanced in one powerful scene in which Okuyama ponders about how a faceless man is free only when darkness rules the world. And that is why the most grotesque fish live in the darkness of the deep sea. The filmmaker also experiments with freeze frames this time around that don't necessarily create a huge impact but don't distract either.

The attention to detail regarding character reaction, the mask-making process and its effect on the wearer is extraordinary. The Doctor explains a lot about the process and the chemistry behind his creation, that would lay to rest any doubts the viewer may have about how a mask could possibly replicate human skin. When it is finally ready and Okuyama test-runs the mask in public for the first time, he feels difficulty in breathing and fails to feel the wind on his face. "It's as if there is something between me and the outside world", he says. Minute considerations, like the effect of perspiration and whether it will loosen the seal of the mask, are addressed. The prosthetic makeup effects are excellent as well.

The film, apart from giving a riveting account of Okuyama's face-changing event that ultimately becomes a life changing event, offers some interesting food for thought about how such masks can hamper rather than benefit. A concern is raised that the mask can assume control of the person rather than the other way round! Dr Hori, the creator of the mask, often gets carried away as he pictures a world full of masked men, where solitude would become a normal condition and all of humanity would become perfect strangers to each other. There would be no need to be ashamed of the modern illness that is isolation! All excited about his miraculous invention, he has his own interests in the experiment on Okuyama. Okuyama rightly claims to feel like a guinea pig at one point of time.

And sure enough, Dr Hori, no matter how gentlemanly and helpful he seems almost lives like a mad doctor out to play God. He has a wife, she is mentioned at least twice by the nurse (with whom he is presumably having an affair) in a very odd manner as if she is some kind of an apparition! But the wife doesn't appear, or does she? "Your wife's listening again", the nurse says. From where is she listening? We never know. The sheer enigma of the wife's inconspicuous presence lends a mysterious angle to Dr. Hori's character. Isn't Dr. Hori already wearing a mask himself?

The set design of Dr. Hori's futuristic-looking laboratory or clinic is a sight to behold. The place seems to be right out of someone's sci-fi nightmare! Peculiar paraphernalia and interiors abound the place; large pin like projections from glass walls, doors that seem to open and reveal digital display screens or live blow-up images, large and small replicas of human body parts, like pinnae, among other things. It is almost like Dr Hori thinks of himself as a creator who dwells in his own personal heaven or hell depending on how you look at it!

The narrative branches off into an entirely disparate sub-plot about a beautiful girl (Miki Irie), with half her face charred. This part could very well be a part of a movie that Okuyama watches, for the very first scene of this thread appears as a spliced frame and in letterbox format (in a film that is otherwise in the full-frame aspect ratio) right after a scene in which Okuyama mentions going to the cinema. Of course, in Kobo Abe's novel, it is explicitly mentioned as being part of a film that Okuyama later recalls.

This sub-plot dwells on the life of this girl, who carries on with the disfigured face, is rejected by most, but for horny old men who try to take advantage of her, but never wears bandages or masks. She rather covers the disfigured side with her thick long hair. Parallels can be drawn on the lives of Okuyama and the girl in how both are tormented individuals and long for normalcy in their lives. Only it is not all hunky dory in Abe's and Teshigahara's world.

Despite some criticism that "The Face of Another" fails to match up to the greatness of his previous two films, this is yet another winner for Teshigahara that is supplemented by a chilling lead performance from the great Tatsuya Nakadai. Also watch out for brief but notable appearances by actors from Teshigahara's previous films. 

"The Face of Another" is a grim, dark, disturbing, yet a very thought-provoking, cerebral psychological thriller that dissects the human mind down to its barest, and leaves you stunned and perhaps a tad miserable.

Score: 10/10


  1. Enjoyed reading it... The trilogy on my list of films to watch...

    1. Thank you Sarvnik Kaur. Much appreciated. Hope you like this trilogy like I did.