The Face of Another (Tanin no kao)

The Face of Another
(Tanin no kao)
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Screenplay: Kôbô Abe (based on his novel)
Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai (Mr. Okuyama), Machiko Kyô (Mrs. Okuyama), Mikijiro Hira (Psychiatrist), Kyôko Kishida (Nurse), Eiji Okada (Mr. Okuyama's boss), Miki Irie (Facially scarred young woman), Minoru Chiaki (Apartment caretaker), Etsuko Ichihara (Apartment caretaker's daughter), Hisashi Igawa (Man with a mole), Eiko Muramatsu (Secretary)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1966
Country: Japan
The Face of Another: Criterion Collection DVD
The Face of AnotherThere is a great deal of rumination about faces in Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Face of Another (Tanin no kao)--what they are, what they represent, and, most importantly, what happens in their absence. “I wonder if losing one's face deranges one's senses?” asks the protagonist, Mr. Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai), a man whose face has been literally burned off in an industrial accident. At one point he describes the face as the door to the soul (and, because he now lacks one, his soul must be closed), and at another point describes it as simply “a few dozen square inches above the neck covered with a layer of dough.” He wants to tell himself the latter is true, but he is convinced of the former.

Like Teshigahara's previous films, his experimental first feature Pitfall (1962) and the art-house sensation Woman in the Dunes (1964), The Face of Another is a rumination on the nature of identity, which Teshigahara sees as fluid and ever-changing. Working again from an adapted novel by Kôbô Abe (the third of their four collaborations), Teshigahara mixes melodrama, science fiction, and horror to explore the connections between our exteriors and our interiors, showing that, contrary Descartes, not only are they not separated, but are intrinsically bound. Teshigahara underscores this physical/spiritual connection with an impressive array of evocative imagery in which surfaces are broken, images reveal themselves to be mirrors, and people are connected through transparent dividers. Moreso than any film I can think of, The Face of Another presages the thematically similar, if more abjectly gruesome, works of David Cronenberg.

The story takes place in a modern urban environment (the first for a Teshigahara film). We are introduced to Mr. Okuyama in a most unconventional way: as a moving X-ray, thus immediately challenging the separation of interiors and exteriors. We are literally looking into him--through him--as he explains how his own overconfidence led to his face being terribly disfigured. Later, we see him with his face completely bandaged, with only his eyes and mouth visible, immediately bringing to mind a number of images from both classical and contemporary fantasy, from the Universal classic The Invisible Man (1933) and all its many sequels and remakes, to Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face (1960), to Sam Raimi's comic book-inspired Darkman (1990). Teshigahara also supplies a second protagonist, a young woman whose face was scarred as a child in the bombing of Nagasaki, but the connection between these two characters is tenuous at best, and frequently forced.

Mr. Okuyama's psychiatrist agrees to a radical, experimental procedure in which he will model a prosthetic mask for him to wear over his scared visage, thus giving him a face again, albeit one modeled on a complete stranger. It is crucial that he is being given another person's face, which essentially turns Mr. Okuyama into a non-entity--a nobody. The crux of the film is the question: How does having someone else's face affect one's persona? Or, as the psychiatrist puts it, “Are you wearing the mask, or is the mask wearing you?”

The answer supplied in The Face of Another is a disturbing one, indeed. While at first Mr. Okuyama is content to explore the world around him with his new face, he soon begins to feel a sense of liberty (perhaps estrangement?) from the conventions, mores, and laws that would otherwise socially bind him. At one point, he decides to seduce his wife (Machiko Kyô), who has grown cold to him since his accident. He is partially motivated by a desire to see if can succeed in this duplicity, and he is partially motivated by sexual vengeance--to lure her into pseudo-adultery as revenge for his own perceived rejection.

Having the face of another frees Mr. Okuyama from responsibility because he is no longer a single person who has an existential connection to his deeds. Rather, he is a free-floating entity that exists outside the physical, free to do as he pleases because at any point he can simply remove the face. He's an actor of sorts, and it can't be coincidence that the procedures used to create his new face not only play like a behind-the-scenes special effects documentary, but that the room in which they are performed looks like nothing so much as an empty theatrical space, with all the medical equipment, desks, and constantly shifting clear plastic partitions being props that can be wheeled on- and off-stage.

Of course, it's not that simple, and if the descent of Mr. Okuyama isn't quite as unnerving as it should be, it is largely because he is a rather unlikable character from the start (note the casually cruel way he treats his wife in their first scene together). In fact, to a certain extent the film's underlying meaning is minimized by the fact that Mr. Okuyama's eventual crimes feel like extensions of the warped personality with which he enters the film (early on he says that he would like to either extinguish all the light in the world or gouge out humanity's eyeballs so that his disfigurement could not be seen). The face/mask does not so much change him as it allows him to evolve. In this regard, the film is particularly fascinating in relation to our current online world, in which everyone is free to adopt new personas, identities, and dispositions under cover of screen names and avatars, leaving us with the question: Does this truly free us to be someone else, or does it simply allow us to tap unimpeded into our own hidden recesses?

The Face of Another Criterion Collection DVD
Three Films by Hiroshi TeshigaharaThe Face of Another is available exclusively as part of the Criterion Collection's four-disc box set “Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara,” which also features Pitfall (1962) and Woman in the Dunes (1964), 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 The Face of Another was made from a 35mm composite fine-grain master positive and is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (slightly windowboxed). The digitally restored transfer is excellent throughout, with strong contrast that do full justice to the harsh images of the psychiatrist's office, as well as solid black levels in the film's many darker scenes. The monaural soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print and sounds clean and clear throughout.
    Like the other discs in this set, The Face of Another contains an excellent video essay by film critic and festival programmer James Quandt. In this 25-minute essay, Quandt dissects the film visually and thematically with plenty of stills and clips as evidence and also places the film in relation to some of Teshigahara's other films. Quandt's analysis is particularly enlightening because The Face of Another has often been critically dismissed and undervalued, even among Teshigahara scholars (Quandt must be one of this film's few champions because he also wrote the essay in the insert booklet). 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)

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