Criterion Sunday 395: 他人の顔 Tanin no Kao (The Face of Another, 1966)

This black-and-white science-fiction fits into that genre of masked men exploring the depths of their morality that we got from both Hollywood (in for example 1933’s The Invisible Man), and from arthouse films like Eyes Without a Face at the start of the decade. This Japanese work certainly seems aware of those, along with an unexpected hommage to La Jetée with a series of evocative still images, and indeed I think it’s Marker’s science-fiction which looms the largest in some of the bleak atmospherics of this film. A man has had some horrible facial disfiguration as a result of an unspecific industrial accident and continues to work for his company with a full face wrapping, until a doctor suggests a face transplant (shades of Face/Off there). Needless to say, along with losing his sense of identity, our protagonist (played by Tatsuya Nakadai) seems to be slowly shedding any sense of groundedness in human morality, which makes for increasingly awkward interactions and threat. The director uses a full panoply of techniques, including some fantastic framing and staging of scenes with multiple characters, a lot of set design involving mirrors and glass walls, and at a formal level, structuring repeated scenes that play out both before and after his face transplant. It all burns away at a constant chilly intensity and makes for an unsettling experience.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Teshigahara 勅使河原宏; Writer Kobo Abe 安部公房 (based on his novel); Cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa 瀬川浩; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Mikijiro Hira 平幹二朗, Eiji Okada 岡田英次, Kyoko Kishida 岸田今日子; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 21 January 2021.

Criterion Sunday 394: 砂の女 Suna no Onna (Woman in the Dunes aka Woman of the Dunes, 1964)

It’s remarkable to me that this film resulted in two Oscar nominations, given the kind of pabulum that usually translates to success in the mainstream awards shows. Still, perhaps it just jelled with something in the era that was looking for works of art that expanded the mind and challenged one’s consciousness of how things are. In part I suspect the film’s success is to do with how fruitful and open the metaphorical and allegorical readings can be, given the film’s minimalism in terms of plot. Even at two-and-a-half hours, there’s very little to recount at that level: a man who is a schoolteacher in Tokyo (Eiji Okada, his character unnamed until the very end of the film) takes a few days’ off to go looking for rare insects out by the sea, but finds himself kidnapped by villagers who put him down a big hole in the sand dunes to help a woman living there alone (Kyoko Kishida, also unnamed). Her only activity seems to be digging out the sand that builds up every single day and which threatens her home and her life, an evidently Sisyphean task with no apparent end. For his part he goes through all the stages of dealing with his situation, eventually sort of settling into some rationalised existence.

Now, whether you want to see this as a metaphor for post-war Japanese society, or indeed for the human condition in some more vaguer sense, or for the exploitation of human resources under capital (there’s also a side-plot about the sand being used as cheap and illegal building materials in the outside world), or perhaps you can see the hole as being a sort of feminine lair, or about traditional folk wisdom versus the rigorous scientific approach of the man — all these readings seem to be in there. The film is filled with beautiful shimmering monochrome surfaces, capturing sand implacable in its movement, bodies moving with a sort of eroticism under the grains of sand, sweat and fear moving towards a calmer zen. It also seems to me to be something of a horror film, with the woman as a wraith-like figure, possibly supernatural, and again there are shots and suggestions that seem to support that too. In any case, it’s a masterful film that derives much of its power from its simple and charged set-up, so endlessly reconfigurable.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Teshigahara 勅使河原宏; Writer Kobo Abe 安部公房 (based on his novel); Cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa 瀬川浩; Starring Eiji Okada 岡田英次, Kyoko Kishida 岸田今日子; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 26 May 1999 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Thursday 28 January 2021).

Criterion Sunday 312: 異聞猿飛佐助 Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke (Samurai Spy, 1965)

Masahiro Shinoda is a filmmaker who makes distinctive pieces of work, and as such has a place at the forefront of the Japanese New Wave (amongst which Oshima and Imamura are probably the best known exponents). His 1969 film Double Suicide has already come up in the Criterion Collection, and it’s an odd kabuki-like performance piece that belies its gruesome title (and I confess it rather confounded me). You would think that the period swordplay chanbara film genre would be more straightforward — and there are indeed some bravura sequences of action and fighting — but Shinoda has a lot of the same visual style, cutting up the action into vignettes and rendering some sequences like abstract works of art in all their monochrome style. Unlike say the Samurai trilogy of Inagaki, or some other key texts set in this era (at the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate in the early-17th century), the fighting isn’t noble and elegant, but rather can be bloody and brutal, with hidden daggers and throwing stars (usually more the province of the less-exalted shinobi or ninja warriors), and protracted fight sequences that lack the grace of some other Japanese works. Still, there’s plenty of style and you can see throughlines to a lot of modern cinema in the way Shinoda stages his action, even if the historical details and names can get a little overwhelming (though I’ve found it necessary to pause to do a fair bit of Wikipedia research at the start of most Japanese period films). This is one of the more striking examples of the genre.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masahiro Shinoda 篠田正浩; Writer Yoshiyuki Fukuda 福田善之; Cinematographer Masao Kosugi 小杉正雄; Starring Koji Takahashi 高橋幸治, Eiji Okada 岡田英次, Tetsuro Tamba 丹波哲郎, Misako Watanabe 渡辺美佐子; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 April 2020.

Criterion Sunday 196: Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

When people think about pretentious French movies, I think this is somehow the Platonic ideal they’re thinking about, an ur-text of reflective voiceover, alienated detachment and pain, the possibility (and impossibility perhaps) of cultural rapprochement following imperialist aggression, opening as it does with the conjoining of bodies under the ash of nuclear fallout. It is, as has been far more eloquently expressed by commentators far more engaged than I am, about the complex interplay of memory and desire, but it is also aggressively modernist in its construction and the way it engages with the viewer, so unlikely to be for all tastes. I first watched it 20 years ago, and I’ll watch it in another 20, and I can only hope to catch up with what it’s doing by then.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alain Resnais; Writer Marguerite Duras; Cinematographers Michio Takahashi 高橋通夫 and Sacha Vierny; Starring Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada 岡田英次; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 February 2018 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1997).