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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: kobo abe

Teshigahara and Kobo Abe: The Man Without a Map

That is the opening to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Man Without a Map, better known in its English novel translation as The Ruined Map. The amazing cutup music is by Toru Takemitsu.

It’s the final of four collaborations between Teshigahara and novelist/screenwriter Kobo Abe, who also produced the gorgeous The Woman in the Dunes and the surreal and disturbing The Face of Another. If there’s a problem I have with those two, it’s that Teshigahara always seems to be the sanest of the contributors: while Takemitsu and Abe are straining at the margins of convention, Teshigahara seems more content to play things straight, filming things as though they were conventional dramas with haunting scenery. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Teshigahara’s last film was about a master of tea ceremonies.

In The Man Without a Map everything falls apart. The movie isn’t a disaster and has enough to hold interest, but it is a failure. Teshigahara seems uninterested in the material and gives it little visual flair, while the ambiguities of the earlier films now spill into incoherence. The basic story is of a detective hired to investigate a missing man, Nimuro, by Nimuro’s sister. But the noir tropes dissolve as quickly as they’re introduced. Nimuro’s brother shows up to give the detective secret information that the sister did not reveal. Nimuro’s wife appears and disappears. Nimuro was involved with some bootleg food stalls possibly associated with the mafia, who beat up the detective. A man tempts the detective with nude photos he claims were taken by the Nimuro, but were they? Do they have anything to do with Nimuro?

That last mysterious man, who throws out clues that may be red herrings, who may not be related to the case at all, is the closest to the heart of the movie. The detective is hostile to any sort of conventionality, and by the end of the film, the noir tropes appear to be springing up because he wills them to do so, even if they don’t make sense. By the end of the movie (spoiler alert!), the mystery man announces his attention to commit suicide on the phone to the detective, who is annoyed with him and ready to hang up. The detective asks if he’s written a note: “No. They’re not exactly easy to write.”

I laughed, but I take it to mean that in trying to write some sort of lives for themselves outside the margins, Nimuro, the detective, and the mystery man have unwoven the fabric of their lives and so they fall apart, like the movie. Similar disintegrations happened in the earlier films by Teshigahara and Abe, but they didn’t reach the level of the plot, as they do here. Because, it appears, Teshigahara is not on board with Abe’s conceit, the film falls apart as it attempts to fall apart.

It makes me wonder what would have happened if a more avant-garde filmmaker of the time like Terayama, Oshima, or Yoshida had worked with Abe’s material–this or Abe’s far crazier The Box Man, where Abe abandons all pretense to psychological realism. The Face of Another is the most successful of their collaborations because Teshigahara is able to transform a “normal” world into one that becomes increasingly frightening and chaotic for the faceless protagonist. But once the normal is far out of sight, visual innovation has to substitute for the normal reference points of identification, and in The Man Without a Map, it doesn’t happen.

And just to conclude, here is the trailer for The Woman in the Dunes, featuring Takemitsu’s eerie, remarkable electroacoustic score:

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.

Sci-Fi Novels for Liberals

Since I don’t know any longer what socialism is, I don’t know if I’m qualified to judge China Mieville’s list of sf/f works for socialists. It’s such a heterogeneous list that the set of books seems unnecessarily short. With such diverse reasons for inclusion as genre subversion, utopia, satire, and working class sympathies, the list could have easily been expanded. Socialism evidently contains multitudes.

So instead, here’s my own list of works for liberals: specifically, liberals of the United States of around this time. And there is one theme in particular that these books reflect, which is how myths (i.e., lies) occupy the collective mind of society. More than anything George Lakoff has to say about “frames”, the idea of collective myth is one that the Republicans have embraced with great success, while the Democrats have utterly lost the fabled images of strong workers and social welfare that once fueled them. This is less about the content of these myths than the compelling aspect of their totality.

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker

The ultimate novel of how we forget our past and recollect it as fable and allegory.

Olaf Stapledon, The Flames

Amazing, and amazingly depressing, novella of rise and fall of an alien society around a shifting religious myth. As much a tale of the Crusades as a prediction of America’s fundamentalist near-future, it’s frightening.

Mark Geston, Lords of the Starship

Neoconservative/Straussian politics put into play in a post-apocalyptic world. Not too uncommon a theme, but Geston’s book is one of the comparatively few negative portrayals of it.

Cordwainer Smith, The Rediscovery of Man

Smith was a Kennan-esque Cold Warrior, and in between the more cutesy bits, his work has a Kissingerian sense of realpolitik, depicting a point in the future where government must intervene to alter people’s existential senses of themselves.

R.A. Lafferty, Fourth Mansions

A tall tale about secret powers at work. As a conservative Christian, Lafferty is rather good at playfully saying “Damn it all” to the world. More Hawthorne-influenced than it at first appears.

Kobo Abe, The Ark Sakura

Nuclear and survivalist paranoia from a Japanese point of view. The handful of main characters spend so much time locked in an underground cavern that they nearly create their own reality.

Carol Emshwiller, Various Stories

I’ll have to go back and pick some specific ones, but there is such a constant undercurrent of societal expectations being undermined in her work that nearly anything of hers seems to fit the bill. Probably the name I was most disappointed to see missing from Mieville’s list.

Bernard Wolfe, Limbo

Crazy Freudian dystopian novel that’s at war with itself, but so fevered that its societal hysteria is more vivid than most.

Kobo Abe

Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night also reminds me of Kobo Abe, particularly his insane works of the 70’s, The Box Man and Secret Rendezvous. As long as we’re drawing cross-continental comparisons, William Burroughs is there too, but Burroughs more surrealist, later work is pedantic and decadent in a too-familiar way. These two books of Abe’s aren’t familiar. They don’t seem like successes, and it’s not easy to say that they succeed on their own terms, because they don’t appear to have their own terms. Calling them pretentious is besides the point, since the books don’t have a pretense towards anything in particular. Psychological and and political intimations turn out to be complete blinds; what mostly flows out of the books is deep, total sickness. Apart from Inter Ice Age 4, an early work which gets mired in the tropes of science fiction, most of Abe’s translated books do have a purity about them.

I discovered Abe through The Woman in the Dunes. At the time I was a huge Camus adherent, and the summary of a man trapped in a sand pit with a woman who has lived there for years, makes it sound similar to any number of existentialist works of fiction. It’s not. Attempts to draw a metaphor do not work, since the book remains focused on the constraining of the man with a fundamentally unresponsive woman, and his very real interaction with the sadistic villagers keeping him there. The slow madness that overcomes him stems from the particular (and odd) circumstances rather than any speculative human condition. Far from existential, the story has more in common with Nabokov, especially the finely-ground fantasies Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister, though it’s far more realistic than either. Teshigahara’s film of the book also seems to misunderstand it (though it has an amazing, crackling score by Toru Takemitsu), adoping long shots of dunes that don’t fit with the relative lack of desperation on the man’s part.

By the 70’s, Abe had headed away from anything close to realism. The Box Man revolves around a series of men who walk around with boxes on their heads, with doppelgangers and fakes, disconnected memories and self-consciously pompous meanderings on the integrity of being a box man. Michaela Grey offers an excellent description of the book, but I disagree with her tying it to Derrida: Abe remained focused on personal identity and integrity and was never concerned with purely textual matters. But the book is nuttier than what comes out in the article, since Abe never builds up any credibility in the narrative. The only strand that rings true is one about the noetic nature of being a box man, an affirmation that can’t be obtained externally. This in turn implies that any individual section of the book is dubious, since in total they are the ramblings of one or more men whose ability to place themselves in the world is falling apart. Apart from the surreal surface, here is where there is the most commonality with Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night, in its resolute lack of commitment to any particular reality.

Secret Rendezvous is more narratively coherent, but only furthers the idea that individual plot points, characters, and settings are losing all intrinsic meaning short of inciting a vague, sickly psychosexual aura. The narrator’s wife is abducted one morning by an ambulance, and he journeys through the labyrinthine hospital attempting to find her. There is a nice twist on Kafka, when the frustrated narrator is allowed full access to the hospital’s surveillance tapes, only to find that there are so, so many hours of tape that he’ll never be able to derive anything from them. Again, the mental state of the man is subordinate to the organic disease around him that he seems oddly distant from. When, at the end, he ends up leading an entourage including a girl whose bones are dissolving, the enviroment mirrors the girl by not remaining firm enough to grasp. The parallel to Kafka is most appropriate here, but the “characters” are as indeterminate as the landscape. Where Kafka dealt with amorphous persecution, Abe simply pulls the rug out from everything he touches.

There is, at the heart of these books, very little interest in character or psychology, despite the trappings that appear. The next book he wrote, The Ark Sakura, is far less disorienting, but the main character, a paranoid survivalist, spends the last third of the book with his leg caught in an industrial toilet and the other characters are one-dimensional. The book is essentialy a Stevenson-like adventure story, and the abrupt end pushes the unreality of what’s gone before, as he finally emerges from his cave into the light:

Beyond the transparent people lay a transparent town. Was I transparent, then, too? I held a hand up to my face–and through it saw buildings.

The situations Abe deals in do not raise epistemological or existential questions; they are deranged treatments of metaphysics. The question is whether the shifting realities and, in The Box Man, pseudo-philosophical ramblings amount to something that is prior to experience and organized thought. With Donoso, I believe it is. With Abe, they seem detached from thought altogether: some sort of objectification of humans. The perversions in his books often come off as heartless, but Abe may be pushing for metaphysical heartlessness.

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