The cinematic New Waves that rippled all across the globe in the late 50s and early 60s took many forms. Some were nakedly imitative of the most famous progenitor — the French — while others were more overtly political or closely tied to other burgeoning artistic movements. In Japan it emerged a short half–generation after the scarring effects of the Second World War and subsequent largely benign, if spirit-dampening five-year American occupation. This trio of releases spanning the years 1962-66 made in close collaboration with writer Kobo Abe stand out as a remarkably strident and inventively eloquent attack on the rigid side which existed before.
Can another trio of films made in such a short period compare with Teshigahara’s output, which included Pitfall (1962), Woman in The Dunes (1964) and The Face of Another (1966) Seemingly tethered to nothing except his own socially conscious imagination, the films are a remarkable testament to the wedding of a rigorous, if overextended talent and a uniquely damaged moment in the history of a culture.
Pitfall, whose opening bid is a modest plea in the social realist vein, then goes off the rails with a sci-fi inspired device that allows its murdered protagonist (an itinerant miner) to rise from the dead and observe the machinations of his murder investigation. Threaded throughout with the character of an enigmatic man in a white suit who commits murders at the behest, presumably, of some unseen but nefariously well-disguised force, its mysteries are unsolved at the end of a circularly spellbinding film.
Woman in the Dunes has as its source material one of the most famous novels in Japan’s history. An everyman, wandering the dunes of a seemingly mythical land searching for insect samples to collect, is soon himself trapped at the bottom of a sand pit, captive to an oddly quiescent woman and villagers who require his labor in a Sisyphean struggle against the encroaching sand. Demonstrating a supreme visual confidence that occasionally threatens to overwhelm Teshigahara’s narratives, here it serves to make the story explode off the screen from close-ups of clinging sand granules to wide sweeping panoramas of the enslaving dunes. Swinging from mythical abstraction to fine-grained realism, it is considered the masterpiece of both collaborators and is a rare example of an adaptation not only exceeding its source material but also redefining it.
The Face of Another has as its spiritual counterpart in the west John Frankenheimer’s Seconds. Aside from sharing release dates they both present a pitch-black vision of the individual’s identity within an increasingly blank society rendered flat by an all-conquering conscience-less modernity. But while both films are visually inventive, Face is beyond anything attempted in a mainstream film. Pans, wipes and transparent sets combined with surreal elements and freeze frames, the story — also based on an Abe novel — is cunning yet unfailingly nihilistic. A man who suffered an industrial accident that disfigured him gets a mask for a face, allowing him the gift/curse of complete anonymity. By the time he pursues his formerly frigid wife in an attempt to seduce her as another man, the film has traveled a journey of spellbinding potency. Visually astounding and thematically troubling, the film falls apart (thrillingly) at moments, especially with its side plot of a woman disfigured by the nuclear bomb at Nagasaki. But really, we all should fail with such spectacular artistry.
The usual treasures from the gold standard of DVD packaging; a booklet of illuminating essays, an interview, film scholar commentary and very welcome short films.
Nearly unparalled as a New Wave filmic trilogy.