Easily the best Teshigahara film I’ve seen, and a better adaptation of a Kobo Abe novel than I thought possible. It’s a fable of a man whose face is horribly burnt beyond recognition and goes to a (very dodgy) doctor to receive a “mask” that enables him to be a new man. From there, things go strange. The film, as much as the book, takes an attitude that is somewhat reminiscent of Merleau-Ponty: without your face, you are bereft of a core component of yourself. With another face, you are no longer yourself–ontologically, not just psychologically. That is, at any rate, the position of the doctor, who proves to be just as crazy as our hero, even with his own face.
Like John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (made in the same year!), it’s about a damaged man who gets a new and improved identity. Seconds plays like an overextended Twilight Zone episode distinguished mostly by James Wong Howe’s cinematography and an uncanny-in-retrospect dying-on-the-inside performance by Rock Hudson; the plot is merely b-grade horror. The Face of Another is much deeper and more disturbing, evoking memories of Nagasaki and inhumanity from its premise. In place of Jeff Corey’s wacky mastermind, there’s a so-much-more frightening doctor who dispenses extremely unhelpful Sartre-like advice as he gives the main character his new face. (He is one of many frightening doctors in Abe’s books. Abe, a doctor’s son, finished medical school but never practiced, but there’s certainly more to the story than that.)
The film’s success is in large part due to Abe’s very successful dramatization of his novel, which turns the solipsistic interior monologue into a series of creepy scenes with just enough voiceover narration to destabilize things further. Toru Takemitsu’s music is up to the very high standards of his visceral scores for Kwaidan and The Woman in the Dunes, combining primitive, booming electronics and percussion with a psychotic waltz. And the two leads, Tatsuya Nakadai and Michiko Kyo, are astonishing. Nakadai–he of the wide, sympathetic eyes–plays down his charm to be a low-key monster. We don’t see him unbandaged until halfway through the film, but his flat, dissociated narration is constantly pulling us away from seeing him as wholly normal. When he does appear, Nakadai’s ability to seem alienated from the face in which he is usually completely comfortable is a brilliant piece of acting, possibly his best. I can’t think of another actor who could have pulled it off. Kyo does not have as much screentime as when she played opposite Nakadai in Kon Ichikawa’s The Key (based on the Tanizaki novel), but if anything, she’s even better here. She plays the moral center of the film, what allows the film to transcend its position as a precursor to countless Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa flicks.
Which leaves Teshigahara. Teshigahara throws surrealist set design, staging, and visual effects into the mix, but he ultimately can’t keep up with Abe’s weirdness and, as in The Woman in the Dunes, his direction flags to the level of the ordinary. Perhaps it’s for the best; like Michiko Kyo, he keeps the film tethered to reality. He is at his best in the first half, which vividly captures the discomfort and disgust people feel around the deformed and disabled. Superimposed onto postwar Japanese society, the theme anticipates the explicit rendering it would get in Imamura’s Black Rain, which deals with how Japan shunned the deformed survivors of nuclear bombing.