Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: japan (page 3 of 5)

On Formalism: 5 Films

None of these movies merited a whole entry, but maybe we can find an interesting gestalt amongst them. I watched them in a 24-hour period last weekend in an attempt to clear my mind of impinging quotidian matters.

Dillinger is Dead (Marco Ferreri): Ferreri copped Godard and Bunuel’s provacateur attitude without putting much substance behind it. Everyman Michel Piccoli comes home from his job, puts his wife to bed, putters around the house for about an hour, then shoots his wife dead and takes off for Tahiti as the cook of a ship. But Ferreri doesn’t have the chops to move beyond the overt cinematic critique to something more interesting; you’re always at a distance from Piccoli, especially when you shouldn’t be. Godard could have pulled off an involving and alienating portrait of such ennui; hell, Bresson should have! (Am I the only person who thinks it would have been hysterical to see his non-acting and serious-serious-serious approach applied to modern domesticity?) Ferreri can’t, and the thing turns out to be a relic of the 60s in which edginess was charmingly naive and free of the tired shock tactics that Haneke, Noe, Von Trier, and others would bring to popular art film later on.

Anguish (Bigas Luna): And speaking of shock tactics, this is a film about a dentist who kills people and extracts their eyes under the hypnotic suggestions of his mother. Actually, no, that’s The Mommy, the movie that is being watched by a movie audience in Anguish while a killer stalks the theater. Then, of course, mother’s boy goes to a theater and much self-reference ensues. Were it merely a horror movie, the characters and settings would be all at the mercy of frights and gross-outs. Here, the characters and settings are at the mercy of the metafictional gimmick. Unfortunately, good horror movies know to provide payoffs every 10-15 minutes or so, and after Anguish shoots its metaphorical load in its first reveal, Luna runs out of tricks, though he tries his best.

Of Freaks and Men (Alexei Balabanov): A gang of S&M pornographers in turn of the century St. Petersburg wreak havoc on families and a pair of Siamese twins. Very formalistic, down to the sepia-toned film, it resists any but the most superficial psychologizing of its characters (the arid plot description that the link gives does not disguise any deeper depths). Spurred by dissatisfaction at what the film appears to present, I drew my own interpretation that the film is an analogy of exploitation and art film. By giving the (presumably highbrow) viewer all the signifiers of classicist, formalist “art,” it serves the same purpose as the short pornographic reels shot by the characters do for their intended audience. I’m pretty sure this was not Balabanov’s intent. Nonetheless, a beautiful final shot.

The Silver Globe (Andrzej Zulawski): Considerably chewier than the above. Based on the Jerzy Zulawski’s science-fiction trilogy The Lunar Trilogy about the colonization of the moon (published in 1903-1911!), the film was never completed due to government interference. It’s a bonkers tale of astronauts founding a primitive civilization on the moon, who then receive a later astronaut as their savior, who saves them from the hostile, animalistic bird creature civilization that is native to the moon. Fascinating but endlessly problematic, the film’s entire first hour is presented as documentary footage shot by one of the original astronauts via his helmet-cam, and everyone speaks in leaden, impenetrable metaphors. There’s much that could be construed as some sort of criticism of Communism, but the film is such a mess that its ultimate statement against Communism is the idea that such a whack film could be made in Poland in the 70s.

Street Trash (James Muro): I actually only saw the last half of this one, which probably wasn’t such a bad move. It bears all the markings of its time: 80s splatter gorefest about homeless people exploding and beating each other up. I wasn’t aware, but apparently the whole genre dried up when the Japanese banned the films after some serial killer claimed inspiration from them. Anyone have a cite? Anyway, I’m not much of a fan of splatter films because they all blend together, but this one has a few tricks. The standard schlock double irony is there (the film towards its material, and the audience towards the film), but the aggressively random plotting (mafia and Vietnam vets, but they never meet up)sends it into slightly more memorable Ray Dennis Steckler territory, even as the higher-than-usual puzzlement of the actors over how seriously to take themselves signals a death knell for the genre.

What I will say is that these films left me with little that I could take back with me as a writer, and with the exception of The Silver Globe, they left me with little that I could take outside of the realm of film itself. (The Silver Globe is something of a special case, as the movie text is mostly incomprehensible but its literary origins still show through.) So leave aside Zulawski’s film. Of the remaining four, even Ferreri’s film, supposedly about modern everyday life, is subsumed by the overwhelming sense of “Can you believe what they’re putting on the screen?!” For me, they all point out the fallacy that formalism must restrict itself to addressing the limits and variations of its own form. It cannot; instead, formalism must invoke other media and forms–real life being only one of them–in a way that is not explicitly representational. This is evidently not easy to do, but one glance at Godard and Jancso reminds me of the ever-fruitful possibility. But for formalism to comment on its own form alone: this is the point at which film becomes a fetish rather than an art.

David Lynch’s Inland Empire: hypotheses and spoilers

Mr. Waggish has allowed me to write this guest post about the David Lynch movie we saw tonight. (My film criticism credentials: Explained plot of Hukkle to Mr. Waggish, 2003.)

The problem with trying to come up with a single interpretation for this movie is that this defies Lynch’s explicit intent. I’ve found a couple of other explanations that seem at least as convincing as this one, linked to at the bottom of this post. But before I advance my hypothesis about Inland Empire‘s plot, let’s clarify some terminology.

Worlds:

  • Hollywood: Nikki Grace’s mansion; Jeremy Irons’s film studio.
  • Suburbs: Susan Blue’s retro house, next door to The Phantom’s house; Billy Side’s mansion; the burlesque club; the upstairs room; Hollywood & Vine.
  • Poland: snowy street scene, horse-drawn carriages and vintage cars.

Major characters:

  • Lost Girl: sits in room 251(?) of a Polish hotel, crying and watching talking rabbits on TV. Catchphrase: “I don’t know where I am.” Head is sometimes blurred out. May be the mother of Piotrek Krol’s son.
  • The Phantom: runs a Polish circus. Walks up and down Polish streets orchestrating screwdriver murders via hypnosis.
  • Nikki Grace: an actress, played by Laura Dern. Talks in a Martha Stewart-y voice and dresses in very severe, tidy clothing.
  • Susan “Sue” Blue: a pregnant housewife; Nikki Grace’s part in the Blue Tomorrows movie. Talks with a strong Southern accent; clothing ranges from colorful and feminine (at the beginning of the movie) to a pair of black capri pants (in the middle of the movie) to a worn-out burgundy maternity blouse and black suit (at the end of the movie). May or may not have had a son who died.
  • Piotrek Krol: is both Nikki Grace’s husband and Susan Blue’s. Wildly jealous. Shoots blanks (but maybe didn’t always). Appears to have a history with Lost Girl.
  • Devon Berk: an actor, played by Justin Theroux. Dresses in bad-boy leather.
  • Billy Side: Sue Blue’s rich lover in the Blue Tomorrows movie. Generally wears a dapper white suit or a black one.
  • Doris Side: Billy Side’s wife, played by Julia Ormond. Wears either a white t-shirt and cutoffs, or a fancy black suit. Is known to carry a screwdriver around in her ribcage.

Anyway, here’s my best effort at making sense of the movie, in chronological order, do with it what you will:

Once upon a time, in Poland, there was an evil Phantom who ran a motley circus. The animal handler in the circus, Piotrek Krol, had a beautiful wife (Lost Girl) and a son. But the Phantom coveted Krol’s wife, so he hypnotized her or slipped her a roofie, had sex with her, and installed her in a hotel room where she could do nothing but watch TV for all eternity.

Luckily, it was a magical, timeless hotel room, so her TV was state-of-the-art. One of the things she could see on TV were three Talking Rabbits, who appeared as American sitcom characters but were also the manifestations of three Polish magicians (there will be a scene where the latter’s outlines blur into the former). Unlike most of the people she watched on TV, the Polish magicians could actually see her too, as well as perform limited travel between worlds.

Krol went around looking for his wife, but when he was driven up to the circus shacks, he was told by a coworker that the Phantom had vanished. Then the three Polish magicians summoned him to their chambers. They showed him his wife (Lost Girl) but he could only hear her, not see her. They told him that the man he worked for (i.e. the Phantom) was responsible, and they gave him a gun that had the power to kill the Phantom.

Krol left the circus and arrived in America, where he married Sue Blue but never really seemed to love her. He left the Phantom-killing gun in the drawer of their bedroom. At one point, they had a barbecue and Krol’s circus friends all showed up punctually at 3pm, in an ominous fashion. Neglected by Krol, Sue became the mistress of a rich man named Billy Side.

When Sue tells Krol that she’s pregnant, Krol realizes that she must be having an affair and beats her savagely. Sue goes to Billy’s house to try to get his help, but she’s confused and disheveled from the beating. Billy refuses to recognize Sue in front of his wife Doris and his son, and sends her away. She goes up to the house next door, where she sees the Phantom. He frightens her, and she picks up the weapon that’s closest at hand, a screwdriver.

Eventually, Sue ends up on the streets. The Phantom takes Sue’s shape and mingles with the prostitutes, jeering at them and at Sue. Sue catches a glimpse of her doppelganger across the street, which is scary, but she also sees Doris, disguised as a prostitute and trailing her. She’s scared that Doris wants to kill her, so she ducks into a burlesque club. After sitting there a while, she’s escorted by the woman in red lace (some kind of magician?) towards an upstairs room where one of the Talking Rabbits (who fades into invisibility, maybe because she can’t see him) and a guy with crooked glasses are sitting. In the room, she feels compelled to deliver a series of monologues that describe her own history of violence and explain a lot of the backstory having to do with Polish legends (like the fact that the Phantom has a one-legged sister). But when the guy with crooked glasses gets up to answer the phone, she sneaks back out onto the street and into the company of the prostitutes. Being a violent sort of person, she’s about to demonstrate to them how to give herself a back-alley abortion with a screwdriver, when Doris comes up, grabs the screwdriver, and stabs her.

As she bleeds to death while her prostitute colleages flee screaming, Sue stumbles for a few feet and then pitches against a wall where some homeless people are sitting. In her dying moment, as she watches the homeless woman’s lighter flame, Sue has a Mulholland Drive-style vision that spins the street sign she saw (“Hollywood”) into a fantasy where she is a glamorous movie star named Nikki Grace.

In this fantasy, she’s living in a mansion resembling Billy’s well-appointed apartment. She has servants and a caring butler, and her husband Krol is just a shadowy figure in the background. However, the first hole in her fantasy appears when she gets an unexpected visit from Grace Zabriskie, who tells her that she has a part in an upcoming movie, but that the movie has a murder in it. Zabriskie also tells a Polish story about a boy (Krol?) who left a house (Poland?) creating his own reflection, and that’s how evil (the Phantom?) first came into the world. In this story, there’s also a girl (Sue? or Lost Girl?) who got lost in an alley behind a marketplace (Nikki’s stage set? Sue’s burlesque theater? Lost Girl’s hotel?) but found the road to the Palace (heaven? Lost Girl’s hotel?).

The movie is called “On High In Blue Tomorrows,” and it’s the story of Sue Blue’s life until a few seconds past the point of her death.

During the first script reading, Nikki finds herself disproportionately moved by the story. They hear a strange noise in the background, and Devon goes to investigate. The strange noise turns out to be Nikki herself, knocking around in her own fantasy. Jeremy Irons tells them that the movie is based on a Polish story called 47 and that it’s a remake of a movie that was never completed because the stars died in mysterious circumstances. (We never see the putative original movie; I think it is simply Sue Blue’s real life.)

Despite (or maybe because of) fantasy-Krol’s threats, Nikki and Devon find themselves oddly drawn together, and they end up having sex in a motel room that strongly resembles Sue and Billy’s bedroom. Fantasy-Krol watches and then vanishes for the rest of the fantasy. (The fact that he vanishes at this point is what makes me believe that Hollywood is a fantasy and the Suburbs/Poland are the reality.) When Nikki and Devon have sex, this catapults Nikki back into “the movie” (Sue Blue’s life story), which she experiences as having happened the day before when she was filming a scene of the movie and then got lost during the filming.

When lost in the remake of her own life, Sue has flash-forwards into her own future. She’s visited by a mysterious debt collector. She sees her fellow prostitutes hanging out in the comfortable living room, and one of them tells her how to obtain more visions into the future by burning a hole in a slip, with a cigar, while wearing the debt collector’s watch. Through the slip, she can see the day of her own death, and watch herself delivering monologues to the man wearing crooked glasses.

Finally Sue sees herself die on the street, and she reverts to her Nikki persona, but can no longer fully accept the fantasy. She finds Krol’s gun and wanders to room 47, where she shoots the Phantom, who dies with Sue’s face on. This unlocks the door to Lost Girl’s hotel room; Nikki comes in and kisses Lost Girl, allowing LG to reunite with her long-lost Krol as well as with Billy Side’s son, who may have been Krol’s and Lost Girl’s son under a spell.

Nikki takes her place in front of LG’s TV, but soon finds herself in Purgatory, which looks an awful lot like Billy’s mansion after all, where she dances with the Phantom’s sister (one-legged blonde), Niko (the monkey-owning, holey-vaginaed, blond-wigged dying Japanese junkie/prostitute), and a host of other Lynch extras.

Other compelling interpretations:

  • Beyond Hollywood – Hollywood is real, Phantom is pimp of a white slavery ring; Doris Side and screwdriver girl are two different characters played by the same actress.
  • Thoughts on Stuff – the 47 story is a repeated curse orchestrated by the Phantom, till Nikki Grace breaks the cycle.
  • Cinemathematics – the Lost Girl is a prostitute and this is all a fantasy based on a TV show that she watches in her hotel.

— Mrs. Waggish

Inquest on Left-Brained Literature

Excuse me while I get all Franco Moretti on you readers here. I work among engineers, and many of them are voracious readers who, nonetheless, have little connection to any prevailing literary trends. Rather, there appears to be a parallel track of literature that is popular specifically among engineers, which I’ll call “left-brained literature” for lack of a better term. The provisional definition of the term is simply those books that fall into the category of my having empirically observed them being read by a multitude of engineers with a literary bent. My conclusions are tentative, but I think that it’s valuable just to construct this sort of list.

I’m excluding all genre science-fiction from the category, because I don’t find it particularly revelatory. I’m interested in that subset of “mainstream,” “non-genre” fiction (these relative terms having been established by social consensus), and within that set, which novels of some notoriety and good PR happen to attract members of the engineering professions.

(Another scholar who also works amongst engineers produced near-duplication of this list when queried. Some affinities were further verified by use of the “similar items” feature on Amazon. Give me a research grant and I’ll confirm further and conduct a less ad hoc census.)

After each name I’ve given a list of a couple general elements of the author’s work, which I think might be useful in considering their inclusion.

Richard Powers. Uses “science” (and scientists) with a minimum of “science-fiction.” Yet of course this does not explain his comparative left-brained success. By far the most popular of his works amongst engineers: The Gold Bug Variations and Galatea 2.2. Emotionally pathos-laden works. Clear stylistic and thematic affinities with Douglas Hofstadter (see below). A key figure in that he appears to be more popular with engineers than with almost anyone else.

Umberto Eco. Only popular for his fiction, and mostly for his first two novels. Use of generic material (mystery and suspense) towards metafictional and postmodern ends. Rather dispassionate.

Milorad Pavic. Portrays history, myth, and religion as game. Most popular for Dictionary of the Khazars, but this is also his most famous work, a self-described “lexicon novel.” Emotionally sterile, but historically panoramic. Experimental means but clear empiricist ethos.

Georges Perec. Life: A User’s Manual is the ur-text for many spatially architected novels to follow. Mathematical (and other Oulipo-esque approaches) methodologies deployed in fields of the humanities. Hesitant about traditional psychology, abandoning it after the early work A Man Asleep. Controlled emotion, especially notable in W: The Memory of Childhood.

Haruki Murakami. Genre-elements of science-fiction and mystery used in psychological phantasmagorias. Imaginative but construction is often less than rigorous. Linear plots with plenty of momentum. Heartfelt and sincere, if sometimes clumsy. Literal writing sytle.

Colson Whitehead. Quite popular just on the basis of his first novel, The Intuitionist. Not yet categorizable, but shows a tendency to sublimate emotion in allegorical assemblages. Pristine, detached style belies strong messages.

David Mitchell. Heavily influenced by Murakami and has lived in Japan. Also heavy use of phantasmagoria, complemented by very sophisticated narrative construction. Prefers simple, visceral, classical themes approached in flashy, novel way. Heavy use of pathos.

Don DeLillo. Highly acclaimed by literary establishment, but not as popular amongst engineers as some of those above. Heavy allegorization, usually irony-laden. Socio-political commentary, often delivered through the voices of characters who tend to sound the same. Virtuosic stylist, but the prose can drag.

Italo Calvino. Favored mostly by engineers for post-1965 experimental work reminiscent of Borges such as Cosmicomics, Invisible Cities, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, and If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Heavy mythological content; light math/science content. Some “new novel” influence via Robbe-Grillet. Wonderful, breezy stylist.

Douglas Hofstadter. Non-fiction writer, but importance of Godel, Escher, Bach, which partly uses fictional forms, is too great not to list. Brilliant computer scientist and popularizer, but suffers from a glib, punny style and a lack of verbal taste (see his translation of Eugene Onegin) that render his works unreadable to many. His ideas, drawn from logic, music, mathematics, and elsewhere, suffuse the works of many other American authors on this list.

Nicholson Baker. Obsessively detail-oriented. Near-autistic categorizing and cataloguing of quotidian material, especially in his early work. Baroque style, flattened emotions.

Neal Stephenson. Crossed-over from science-fiction into information-laden historical epics of chiefly science history. Most beloved for Snow Crash, but Cryptonomicon is also important. Appropriately-titled Baroque Cycle remains unread even by most engineer fans of his. Competent stylist, light on character and emotion.

William Gibson. Another cross-over. “Cyberpunk” tendencies disguise lack of rigorous science content. Aggressive use of technology, but fundamentally rhapsodic and character-driven. Innovative, influential stylist, but often narratively lax.

Bruce Sterling. A third cross-over who may not yet have crossed over. Parallel career to Gibson, but weak style, emotional shallowness, and lack of character development may have hindered mainstream acceptance. Compensates with greater science and technology content.

Jorge Luis Borges. Literary genius who wrote conceptual, highly-compressed short stories. Not as widely-read as some of the others on this list, but has influenced so many of them that he must be included. Lack of emotion, character, and plot; stories are often driven by a single, revelatory idea.

There were a few other candidates that I excluded from the list either for lack of confirmation data (Cortazar, Pynchon, Auster) or due to the work falling into the realm of “trash,” to use the term descriptively (Danielewski, Coupland). I’d be willing to reconsider. And as much as I racked my brains, I could not come up with a single woman writer that fit.

One obvious conclusion is that engineers tend to like novelists that deal in math and science material, but that does not explain many of the names on this list, notably those that use science in a “soft” form, such as Calvino and Gibson. Certain common traits do seem to recur, such as verbal literalism and a lack of irony, but even these are contradicted by some members of the list above.

I have no definite conclusions to draw at the moment, but I do believe that this is more than just an exercise. Within this overlap, I believe one can observe two different forms of reading, one more particular to engineers and one more general. While they may not be discrete, I think they separate cleanly enough to merit deep investigation.

[How do you all like the new list-making Waggish? It’s only a temporary phase, probably brought on by reading Finnegans Wake, which contains many, many lists itself, particularly the list of names of ALP’s letter (i.e., the book itself) and the list of titles for
HCE. These tendencies will be further explored in a forthcoming post
on listmakers and architects.]

Update: more suggestions and hypotheses from readers in the comments.

Shohei Imamura 1926-2006

Imamura deserves much more space than I can give him here, and one should start at this overview, with some great quotes:

I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of daily Japanese life obstinately supports itself.

If you’d asked me two weeks ago, I would have called him my favorite living director. Now he’s probably my favorite dead director. There are very few other directors who deal with the world in such an all-encompassing totality, without the desire to tie it down into a preconceived structure. As I’ve said elsewhere, Imamura convinces you that the world continues infinitely beyond the frame, and that he could show you any part of it if he so desired. He was also one of the very few Japanese directors I know of to transcend the dragon-lady/martyr dichotomy of women that overwhelmingly prevails in Japanese film from Mizoguchi to Suzuki to Miike. (“Self-sacrificing women like the heroines of Naruse’s Floating Clouds and Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu don’t really exist.”) There are no obvious comparisons, but thinking of him as a more proletarian Renoir or a more consistent Altman may not be so far off the mark. Emir Kusturica also owes him quite a debt.

My own thoughts on some of his films follow; I have my favorites, but I honestly recommend you see them all. There are still films of his that I haven’t seen: The Profound Desire of the Gods, A Man Vanishes, A History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess. Not to be melodramatic, but I feel that they’re necessary for me to watch.

Pigs and Battleships (1961). I already wrote about this one, but it’s portrait of decadent post-war Japan is unlike anything else I’ve seen. While others were making self-flagellating exercises in remorse (see Kobayashi’s The Human Condition), Imamura ignored virtue and duty to show the intersecting forces of opportunism and greed.

The Insect Woman (1963). The most acute example of his treatment of women in traditional Japan, showing one woman’s progression from exploiter to exploited as a factor of environmental and survival instincts, not as the product of some abstract human nature. Crushes Mizoguchi and Ozu. (There’ll be plenty of time to like Ozu when I’m an old sentimental geezer.)

The Pornographers (1966). Unbelievably bizarre disquisition on Japanese family life and sexuality. Incest, porn, fish, sex dolls. This one is famous because of its sheer lurid oddity, but I don’t apprehend it as intuitively, and I suspect that it travels with more difficulty than his other films. Still brilliant.

Vengeance is Mine (1979). A comparatively restrained study of a serial murderer, played brilliantly by the underrated Ken Ogata. Imamura resists psychologizing Ogata’s character, preferring to leave him as a overt manifestation of what Japan would rather keep quiet, much like Moosbrugger in The Man Without Qualities. It plays as a travelogue through various sorts of physical and spiritual despair, all made visceral.

Eijanaika (1981). An awesome achievement and my second favorite. Nineteenth century Japan as seen from the view of the peasants. Neither sentimental nor revisionist, it subtly builds to a futile but profound peasant revolt that is everything you never see in Kurosawa. Words fail me. Again, what is remarkable is the absolute structural conviction and integrity. Imamura never falters.

The Ballad of Narayama (1983). Imamura’s greatest film, and probably my favorite film of all time. It is so close to me that I’ll give up on describing it. Just watch the damn thing, and please, someone issue it on DVD.

Black Rain (1989). Imamura’s treatment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese’s psychological exile of the victims. Less incisive than his prior work, it evinces more overt compassion than he had previously allowed. As such, I think it shows cracks in the perfection of his earlier work, but it’s still fine, fine stuff.

The Eel (1997). Imamura became famous all over again for this one, but I think of it as a minor work, telling a simple tale of a man’s (successful) attempt at redemption. Imamura sacrifices his panoramic talent for more intimate human interest, and while the result is still compelling, it does not stand up to what went before.

Dr. Akagi (1998). It seems deceptively minor at first, but this is a much more substantial film than The Eel. A series of tales focusing around an apolitical doctor in World War II, it displays for the first time what Imamura believes constitutes virtue in the rotten world he’d portrayed for the previous forty years. It is his most hopeful film, but as you’d expect, it’s a guarded hope.

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001). A disappointing final film. Beginning with a fairly ridiculous premise, Imamura here is far sunnier than he has ever been before, but alas, he is out of his element in these realms, and the film doesn’t cohere. Yet I have to wonder if it was Imamura’s final taunt at the recurrent theme of disgust and fear of open, healthy female sexuality in Japanese culture (though the sentiment is hardly unique to Japan).

Hiroshi Teshigahara: The Face of Another

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.

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