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PAUSE: Under the Mask of 'The Face of Another' (1966)

by Dani Buckley 2 years ago in movie review
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Somewhat buried between the titanic monoliths of the samurai films of the '50s and '60s, 'The Face of Another' is a film overlooked by many viewers. But in reality, it is a frightening film with plenty of psychological queries to ponder long after its credits. Complemented by stunning visuals and great acting, this article explains how 'The Face of Another' is not one to miss.

Picture credit: medialifecrisis.com

In a vein similar to French cinema's haunting horror masterpiece 'Eyes Without a Face', Hiroshi Teshigahara's seedy psychological study taken from the novel by Kōbō Abe, unflinchingly explores the loss of identity in the most extreme ways possible. Sadly, the film has not received as much recognition as its French counterpart, but it is renowned instead as something of a hidden gem in Japanese cinema. In the age when Kurosawa was delivering hit after hit with Mifune at the helm, it was easy for a film like 'The Face of Another' to become lost in the misty haze of the samurai epics. This film is in dire need of wider recognition. With exquisite cinematography, phenomenal acting and insidiously arresting moral conundrums, this article takes a deep dive into the film in the hopes of bringing wider recognition to Teshigahara's forgotten masterpiece.

Following the life of a man named Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai), who was horribly disfigured in a factory accident, 'The Face of Another' depicts the melancholic turn of a man who has been cruelly cut off from society. His blank bandaged face is a barrier to everyone else. To him, he is perceived as a monster. He is cold and irritable when conversing with his wife, as he explains that he has lost the innate ability to communicate sincerely with his peers. His boss, his wife - they insist that they don't care about the mask, but within Okuyama is a feeling of deep separation. A chasm exists between him and the rest of society. This societal ravine is so deep that Okuyama is driven to enlisting the help of a psychologist (Mikijiro Hira) to create a mask from that of a stranger. He is to have a new face entirely.

Running alongside this more major story is small interludes depicting a girl (Miki Irie) with a heavily scarred cheek. She first appears as part of a film Okuyama is watching. Then, our vantage point merges with the lines of the projected celluloid, and we are privy to her struggles. The unnamed girl, it is implied, was disfigured by a bombing at her home-town of Nagasaki. All the while she is met with expressions of disgust and alarm when she passes, or the wind blows her hair back to reveal her scar.

Seeking and receiving validation of her once-beautiful appearance by only her brother, the girl's tale is a solemn one. She laments she was beautiful once, while society rejects her for her current appearance, which is perceived as bizarre. In the same manner as Okuyama's mask, the girl's disfigurement acts as a barrier restricting her ability to communicate with those around her. The loneliness of being an appointed outcast is heavy, and the strain of society siphoning itself off from her because of her appearance takes its toll.

Picture credit: razna.tumblr.com

Nakadai's acting is phenomenal in the role of Okuyama. His initial cold and irritable disposition, forced to see the world through the eyes of a man now siphoned from human reciprocation, is a subtle but mesmerising, and even chilling portrayal of one in utter despair. His melancholia at the loss of his appearance hardens him into a shell which is slowly coaxed from its hostility at the prospect of restoring his appearance, even if it is with a stranger's identity.

Known primarily for his roles in Kurosawa's samurai classics, such as 'Yojimbo' (1961), 'Sanjuro' (1962) and 'Harakiri' (1962), Nakadai adopts a more subtle approach in his quiet, brooding take portrayal of Okuyama's solemn tale. Unlike his brazen samurai heroes and villains, Nakadai's Okuyama lilts in piques and pitfalls of curiosity and melancholy. Even behind his mask, his eyes are a giveaway to the utter agony he feels at his newfound societal rejection. His monologues lamenting at his now windowed view of society are nothing short of chilling, and are delivered with such gravitas that it both makes you sorry for his horrific situation, and frightened of where the film might take such a broken man.

Okuyama's earnest desire to reclaim his identity, borne from sheer desperation, mingles brilliantly with the doctor's dark desire to see this potentially dangerous experiment come to fruition. Okuyama spends time trying to convince the doctor to perform the experiment, but it appears that he doesn't require as much convincing as we might initially suspect. Ethically, he knows the consequences on Okuyama's behaviour may be severe, but his curiosity is always bubbling below the surface, presented in a wry smile or a pondering glare. Hira does this with an eerie ease that makes one question his intentions in helping Okuyama at every turn. The itch to see the fragility of the human condition and its sub-ordinance to the outward shell is a striking component of Hira's portrayal.

Miki Irie as the unnamed girl is also phenomenal. With a simple look, she is able to convey the sweetness of the girl supplanted, consumed and ultimately overcome by a deep despair at her current condition. Earnestly, she interacts in a kind manner with those in the town who encounter her, but always these moments are soured when they see her scar. Irie's face, blending from momentary hysterical bliss at the memories of her home in Nagasaki to disappointment at yet another stolen look at her cheek from a stranger, conveys a heartbreaking level of emotion even in a single frame.

Teshigahara's cinematography is surreal throughout the film - both beautiful and disturbing. In the film's final scenes, the psychologist accompanies the newly masked but still despairing Okuyama through the streets. The film weaves within what we can suppose is a fine barrier between the states of dream-like visions and conscious reality. We are never entirely sure. These two worlds collide in this final, haunting sequence, when a sea of citizens all bearing the same almost featureless mask engulf the two men. The freakish imagery of these faces, lacking all definition and individuality, serves to illustrate the doctor's point: that, when entering society, everyone bears some sort of mask. The person emerging into the outdoors on the workday commute is not the same person who returns home, weary and worn from the world's stressors.

The faces are utterly chilling, and contribute to a serial display of frightening imagery peppered throughout the film by Teshigahara. Okuyama's mask alone is enough to instill an uncomfortable feeling. We can understand that which he is experiencing, as we ourselves recoil from his stark complexion. Teshigahara plays to our psyches here. Cleverly, he reduces Okuyama's face to the least human it can appear without total monstrosity, through the bandages. The angular gaps for eye-holes and skewed mouth do not register as human in the slightest. He is made to be devoid of all that which appeals to our cognitive recognition of faces; that which helps make us human. His bandaged mask is strikingly similar to the sea of warped faces at the film's conclusion. It is as though their individuality, which Okuyama was forcibly ridden, has melted away in their assimilation into a crowd. Their eyes are small superficial holes in the skin, their mouths thin lines barely creating a visible impression, and their noses consist of small ridges protruding a centimetre or two from the surface. They are all the same. All bearing a mask. Thus, Teshigahara's frightening imagery drums home the eloquent point of the film with artistic resonance.

Picture credit: LiFO.

Further frights occur when we are first brought inside the psychologist's office. It is a bizarre set-up, with a circular feel as if being in a cylinder, whilst the walls never close, opening the set up to be almost endless. This vastness of the place is helped by the doctor's glass illustrations. The stunning but unnerving visual of Okuyama peering through the glass, the illustration's black marks dotted around his blank face foreshadowing his risky experiment, is one of the film's finest moments.

There is also the almost unspoken of but occasionally alluded to question of curiosity: what lies beneath Okuyama's mask? For the first half of the film, we hear him lament to his wife about how he has 'lost his face' and has 'no face left', thus qualifying him as a monstrosity. This leads the audience to developing that natural, if a little perverted, morbid curiosity about the extent of Okuyama's injuries. What is the damage that has made him so wrought with despair? But Teshigahara is crafty in the way he chooses to allude, rather than to reveal, to us the picture of Okuyama's facial destruction.

In a sweeping motion during the casting of Okuyama's face, we catch glimpses of mottled skin and mangled flesh. Never too close to lose the illusion, but at such a distance where Teshigahara is able to lead us to our own horrific conclusions. Thus, our own minds are left in the dust to justify the woeful despair at which Okuyama approaches life following his accident. This allows us to empathise, but also fearful of the impending experiment. If he is so deeply broken by the removal of his identity, what will the consequences be when it is restored, or, more accurately, replaced?

The format of the film is also strange and utterly unique. Not an anthology, nor having its two stories interlock in any significant way, both serve as effective and illustrative narratives in showcasing the value of one's face in human society, one which we tend to take for granted. When one's identity is forcibly removed, in the case of both Okuyama and the girl, the mental implications are disturbing, and Teshigahara chooses to explore these fearlessly.

The two stories, twinned thematically but never converging, also propose divergent paths based on the predicament of losing one's identity in different contexts. For both characters, Teshigahara displays in divergent but equally frightening scenarios how one's psyche is broken down and made susceptible to reinvention when one's outward identity is destroyed, altered or removed. For Okuyama, the transformation we see in the film is an outward one; his new mask gives him the courage to plot, and to extent allows him to move freely within society once more. But he is somewhat imprisoned by his mask. Its limitless in interaction also grants unknown bounds of personal change, which isn't entirely what a desperate Okuyama hoped for. For the scarred girl, the transformation she endures from her facial disfigurement is internal. Unable to bear the way she is shunned, gawped at and altogether ignored by her peers for the way she looks, she is tormented and longs for her past. Her relationship with her brother is drastically altered, and she questions him over and over again if he remembers home and when she was beautiful. She becomes utterly fixated on a life before the disfigurement, and the perception which society has bestowed on her in the present of being beautiful.

These parallel stories also work extremely well as parallels, despite being unrelated. While Okuyama's tale is gripping, it is also long-winded and his process of acquiring a new face is long-winded. Just when one might begin to flag, the injection of the girl's story is a refreshing upwind to keep you tied to the film and interested in just what is happening. It adds another valuable layer to the tale, as well as anchoring the audience to the film by diverting their curiosity elsewhere, if only momentarily. The horrors of these two characters splicing one another's story lines ultimately makes the viewing more bearable without dampening the powerful statement of the film itself.

Picture credit: Cinebeats - Wordpress.com.

'The Face of Another' defines thought-provoking cinema. Not only does it make you ponder the grotesquely shallow value society places on appearance, but it presents to twinned cautionary tales on the fragility of the human mind when its link to society is severed. One becomes a stranger, the other, too trapped in her own tiny village bubble to hope of meeting a psychologist with a desire to create masks for the faceless, is driven to melancholy. Overall, this film is a haunting realisation of the utter unbending sovereignty society holds over the mind. It may sound like a cliche to say that this is one of those films that 'really makes you think', but there is no truer statement for a film like 'The Face of Another'.

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About the author

Dani Buckley

My life revolves around horror and film.

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