THE FACE OF ANOTHER
(Tanin no Kao)
The Face of Another joins a number of other films from the late 1950s onwards that deal with surgeons engaged in facial experiments. This mini-genre began with the French arthouse hit Eyes Without a Face (1959) and quickly made its way to the province of B horror movies with the likes of Atom Age Vampire (1960), Circus of Horrors (1960), The Awful Dr Orloff (1962) and Corruption (1967). Another popular 1960s theme that plays out is that of identity and experimental processes that erode this see the likes of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), The Mind Benders (1962), Seconds (1966), tvs The Prisoner (1967-8), The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972), The Mind Snatchers (1972) and Who? (1974).
The entire film seems an existential meditation on the nature of face and identity. Kobo Abes script is constantly philosophically questioning the idea of the face and what it means to personal identity, asking some haunting questions such as how human one is or isnt depending to what extent they have a face. There are some fascinating scenes where Tatsuya Nakadai and surgeon Mikijiro Hira start tossing out ominous lines such as The mask wants to take on a life of its own or What if the mask lives on by taking over your body? If The Face of Another was a 1940s mad scientist cheapie, this would no doubt be interpreted with deadening literalness with the mask coming to life to possess its wearer but here the idea is contained amid Kobo Abes dazzling swim of metaphors. The first half of the film is an existential horror story about how a man who has lost his face feels like he no longer has any sense of identity, while the second half meditates on the mutability of identity as he discovers how the lifelike mask can allow him to become anybody he wants. Kobo Abes script is constantly exploring and playing with these ideas, making analogies to such things as the executioners mask, the hijab and the way that women wear makeup. We follow the protagonist on a journey into some fascinating and at times disturbing mental space like when Tatsuya Nakadai starts contemplating that maybe he should disfigure his wifes face as well so that she does not have to go through the pretence that nothing has changed. There is something genuinely creepy to the scenes near the end where Tatsuya Nakadai sets out to seduce his wife (Machiko Kyo) while wearing his new mask identity.
Hiroshi Teshigahara shoots the entire film in black-and-white at a time when this was becoming obsolete in cinema, possibly one of the reasons that The Face of Another was not a success in its time. One of the most striking aspects of the film is the coolly alienating modernist designs of the doctors office shelves filled with moulds of ears and hands, walls of glass with anatomical diagrams on them that are often placed between characters, hero Tatsuya Nakadai modelling himself against a glass diagram of Leonardo Da Vincis Vitruvian Man, a patient sitting in a blackened room on a giant-sized model of a heart. Hiroshi Teshigahara also throws in random surrealistic images a woman sitting on a bed while aerial shots moving between skyscrapers are back-projected behind her, the door of the doctors surgery opening onto the closeup image of a womans hair drifting in water. The film reaches a surreal climactic confrontation between Tatsuya Nakadai and Mikijiro Hira with them standing in the street surrounded by crowds of passers-by who all have blank faces. One of the more interesting aspects of the film is how Hiroshi Teshigahara gives us only partial glimpses of Tatsuya Nakadai without his bandages we only get to see him from behind or else with the camera looking down directly from above.
The film also has a B-plot about a girl (Miki Irie) who is treated badly because she has the right side of her face disfigured by a scar. We are first introduced to her walking along the street, followed by wolf-whistling teenagers before she turns and the fall of her hair parts to show her scarring. Her story culminates in a scene where she sleeps with her brother because he is the only one who treats her with kindness before she then drowns herself in the ocean. This plot is not particularly well developed, nor connected in any way except thematically to the principal scenes with Tatsuya Nakadai.
(Screening Courtesy of the Pacific Cinematheque).