Pitfall (Otoshiana)

Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Screenplay: Kôbô Abe
Stars: Hisashi Igawa (Miner / Otsuka), Sumie Sasaki (Shopkeeper), Sen Yano (Toyama), Hideo Kanze (Policeman), Kunie Tanaka (Man in White Suit), Kei Sato (Reporter), Kazuo Miyahara (Miner's Son)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1962
Country: Japan
Pitfall: Criterion Collection DVD
PitfallLike Akira Kurosawa, Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara was also a painter--in fact, his 1950 degree from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music was in oil painting--and it shows in his films, which are filled with rich imagery and evocative allusions and correspondences that are more dreamlike than rational or logical. Influenced as much by surrealists like Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel as he was by his own cinematic background in documentary filmmaking, Teshigahara forged a unique place in Japanese cinema in the 1960s, marrying his avant-garde sensibilities with a taste for genre experimentalism.

Teshigahara's directorial debut Pitfall (Otoshiana) demonstrates many of his stylistic and thematic tendencies, albeit often in nascent form (it is also marked the first of four collaborations Teshigahara would have with writer Kôbô Abe). The film is fascinating to watch even if it doesn't entirely hold together; it plays as a primer, an experimental work, in which Teshigahara was trying out his sensibilities on feature-length celluloid, immediately pushing at boundaries and challenging conceptions. The film is at once a mystery, a fantasy, and a social statement, with each dimension coming into sharper relief depending on how you view it.

The story begins simply enough with a coal miner (Hisashi Igawa) and his young son (Kazuo Miyahara) looking for work. Teshigahara immediately roots the story in the social reality of labor, with the dangerous of coal mining and the exploitation of workers depicted with a combination of fictional scenes and disturbing documentary footage. The film opens on a moment of unease, with the title credits fading in and out over scenes of the miner and his son escaping an unknown threat.

The miner receives word that he is wanted for a job, and on their way he and his son stop off to ask for directions in what appears to be a ghost town--everyone having left since the local mine closed. They find one woman (Sumie Sasaki) who stills lives there, tending a candy shop and waiting for her friend to send for her. Meanwhile, the miner and his son are being inexplicably followed by a mysterious man in a white suit (Kunie Tanaka) whose increasingly close proximity to them signals mounting danger.

From there, Teshigahara orchestrates an increasingly elaborate series of events, beginning with a sudden and violent murder, which leads to other murders and a police investigation that reveals that the miner has a doppelganger in a union chief who looks exactly like him (also played by Hisashi Igawa). In this doubling, we can see one of many instances in which Teshigahara is playing with one of his favorite themes--the fragile nature of identity.

Meanwhile, the film verges into the realms of the fantastical as each murdered character becomes a ghost who watches the events of the physical world unfold, but is unable to interact directly with the living. These ghosts become like ethereal audience surrogates, asking questions of the living characters and trying to intervene in the action, but with no impact. In some of the film's most stirring moments, these ghosts shout at the living in desperation, trying to get some sense of understanding as to what has happened to them, and in their cries we can hear echoes of our own confusion and frustration. Like all great artists, Teshigahara is not interested in easy answers, but rather in posing difficult questions and challenging us with ambiguities. As a result, he frequently subverts the expected; for example, while the miner's son would typically be a symbol of innocence, here he is an ambiguous figure who reacts to violence with a strange lack of emotion, which is all the more frightening when we consider that he may have more in common with the film's brutal killer than any other character.

While the narrative in Pitfall can be at times confusing, with detours that seem to serve little purpose in the larger narrative (such as a rather violent sexual encounter between the shopkeeper and a local policeman), the sharply rendered black-and-white visuals are consistently haunting and memorable. Teshigahara treats the screen like a canvas to be filled with evocative images and striking compositions, which are underscored by his repeated allusions to themes of voyeurism (the man in the white suit watching the miner and his son, the little boy watching the shopkeeper's sexual antics through a hole in the wall, the ghosts watching the investigation into their own murders). There is something uneasy underlying the entire film, and watching it is not unlike stepping into a dream in which not everything makes perfect sense, but every detail commands your absolute attention.

Pitfall Criterion Collection DVD
Three Films by Hiroshi TeshigaharaPitfall is available exclusively as part of the Criterion Collection's four-disc box set “Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara,” which also features The Woman in the Dunes (1964) and The Face of Another (1966), as well as a bonus disc of supplements. The supplemental disc includes Four short films by Hiroshi Teshigahara: Hokusai (1953), Ikebana (1956), Tokyo 1958 (1958), and Ako/White Morning (1963); and a new documentary about the working relationship beween Teshigahara and Kôbô Abe, including interviews with Japanese-film scholars Donald Richie and Tadao Sato. There is also an insert booklet featuring essays by James Quandt, Howard Hampton, Audie Bock, and Peter Grilli, as well as Max Tessier's 1964 interview with Teshigahara.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioJapanese Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Video essay by film critic and festival programmer James Quandt
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$79.95 (box set)
    Release DateJuly 10, 2007

    Like the other two films in this box set, the new high-definition transfer of Pitfall was made from a 35mm composite fine-grain master positive and is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (slightly windowboxed). All three films look extremely good, although the transfer for Pitfall is marred from time to time by black specks on the screen that appear to be dirt on the camera lens. They are a bit distracting at times (at first I though a fly had landed on my screen), but not terribly so. The black-and-white image is slightly soft, but still very well detailed, which brings out all the nuances of the film's stark landscapes. The monaural soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print. The result is excellent, with beautiful attention to composer Toru Takemitsu's unconventional musical score (most of which was recorded on a “prepared piano,” which creates some extremely weird and evocative noises).
    Like the other discs in this set, Pitfall contains an excellent video essay (20 min.) by film critic and festival programmer James Quandt, who dissects it visually and thematically, using plenty of stills and clips as evidence to place the film in relation to some of Teshigahara's other works. Quandt's analysis is rigorous and intriguing and adds a great deal of insight. Also included on the disc is an original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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