There is a stigma around "foreign films" in America -- if a movie is in a different language and/or it's black and white, it's obviously not good. Yet, there is nothing foreign about the themes in film. Human emotions are nearly universal, and ignoring a film based on its country of origin or language is cinematic racism. People don't want to take the time to understand the experiences of others. It's a shame because great works, like the films of Hiroshi Teshigahara, are over looked. Luckily, the fine people at Criterion have put together a box set of three of Teshigahara's outstanding contributions to film and cinematic life for new viewers to discover. In classic Criterion fashion, the Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara is not a box-set trilogy. The three films, Pitfall, The Face of Another and Woman in the Dunes, stand alone, but offer an over-arching view of the director’s work.
Pinning down an American equivalent to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Pitfall is no easy task. With one part Ghost, one part Twilight Zone and a dash of avant-garde, Pitfall feels more like the child of the French New Wave and classic Japanese cinema. Mimicking its seemingly improvised jazz fusion soundtrack, the film’s ingredients simmer inside the murder-mystery crust as we follow a migrant worker, and his young son, who has gotten a lead on a new job and heads out to meet his new boss. When he arrives at an abandon mining town, he is confronted by a man in a white suit who kills him on the spot. Soon after his death, the worker’s ghost materializes and walks the land, watching the aftermath of his death and trying to uncover the motive behind it.
There are two clear-cut worlds in Pitfall -- the world we live in and the world of truth. The world we inhabit is filled with deception. The map originally given to the worker was obviously a set up. The lone woman who witnessed the murder is subsequently bribed by the man in white to give description of the “man who did it.” On the flip side, while the police and newspaper reporters are looking for the described man, only the ghost of the worker knows the truth of who murdered him. The cycle continues as more peopled are murdered and more ghosts show up. While the mystery plot is simple enough and holds our attention, the film works better as a thematic stew than a “who done it?”
The worker encounters other ghosts who give an opposing view of his current existence. Although the worker is headstrong about discovering the meaning behind his death, other spirits apathetically respond with comments that the dead cannot change what happens to the living. The dead merely observe the living and, in effect, know the truth behind events. Yet the lack of any answers is Teshigahara’s most interesting move. Despite the deaths being related to a coal miner’s union quarrel, Teshigahara never lays the plot on the line. Even as ghosts, the characters question the meaning behind the events.
The ultimately depressing take on life – that events and actions are seemingly meaningless – is oddly fascinating through Teshigahara’s presentation of the spirit world. Though perhaps it’s the emptiness of the theme, the film still feels thematically underdeveloped. At times, the ghost of the worker is dropped from the film for 10 to 15 minutes. If we had a stronger connection to the worker, his drive to find the meaning behind the truth would have a stronger impact. Like the young son who is abandoned early in the film, we are left to our own feelings; wandering the desolated streets of the mining town through Teshigahara’s camera lens. It’s difficult to reconcile a film that has us running through the empty streets to get to our directionless destination.
Woman in the Dunes (1964)
Relationships, at times, are a prison – an emotional cage that suffocates the individual. Some of those walking in the sunshine of new love are eventually swallowed up by the reality of a stale relationship feeding of necessity. It’s the classic case of getting what you wish for and then not wanting it. As free individuals, we look for others to share our lives with, but when we are smothered by another, our freedom is trampled; concessions are made and we want our independence back. As the man in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes claws at the mountainous walls of sand, trapping him in an unwanted relationship, never have the pitfalls of relationships felt so real and urgent, despite the abstract story of a man who is confined in a sand dune.
Woman in the Dunes comes off like a classic art house abstraction – an obtuse story of an entomologist on vacation in a vast desert classifying bugs, who takes shelter in the home of a woman who just happens to live at the bottom of an insurmountable sand pit. However absurd the story seems, it’s merely the wrapper encasing the raw human emotion between two individuals. Teshigahara runs the gamut of relationship complexities – from the struggle for dominance to the connection between sex and violence – through a multitude of cinematic allegories. From the onset, The man enters into the relationship only for a night, as a place of shelter from the whipping desert winds. While the decision is not sexualy motivated, it seems that Teshigahara is commenting on the nature of man as a being with a temporary mindset, always on the move; by making his protagonist an amateur scientist, Teshigahara also comments on man’s quest for knowledge and order, classifying his discoveries. The woman, however, is confined to the home and is forced into the back-breaking labor of digging sand – a tedious parallel to the day-to-day chores of a contemporary house wife. And those are the contemporary parallels found in the first 10 minutes.
While the surreal story may seem confusing and intellectual, the power of Woman in the Dunes is that the emotions of the two souls trapped together are felt before they are understood. Quite frankly, it’s absurd that woman would be living alone at the bottom of a dune, let alone a man being trapped down there with her, but in the context of the film, the characters make the relationship work realistically. By taking all the outside-world’s influences out of the equation, Teshigahara is able to focus on the relationship. At some point in our own lives, relationships have had us climbing up the walls, so to speak. Teshigahara has his male protagonist climbing up a wall of sand, to further emphasis the physical imprisonment brought on by emotional distress.
It also helps that the film is beautifully presented. Sand has never looked so alive. It cracks, breaks and flows down the screen, as if the earth itself is bleeding from the pain of the relationship. When the man cleverly escapes from his sediment cell, it is the sand that slows his flight to freedom and eventually attempts to swallow him, as quicksand tends to do, forcing him to call for help from villagers who deliver him back to the woman he deserted. Though the man becomes more complacent in the acceptance of the relationship, he never gives up the hope of freedom -- even as the chain monogamy tightens with the progression of a pregnant wife preparing for labor. While Teshigahara’s suggestions are depressing, as they practically argue against a happily sustained relationship, there is an air of honesty in this male-centric abstraction. These are feelings that are usually repressed and brushed off, not discussed for fear of argument and misunderstanding. Yet, the fact that Woman in the Dunes faces these feelings head on and it still feels relevant today, is a testament not only to Teshigahara’s filmmaking, but to the power of cinema as a whole.
Face of Another (1966)
To slap a genre label on Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another would be to strip it of its raw thematic power. Through the story of man whose face was disfigured in a horrific factory accident, Teshigahara questions the perception of identity and attacks social taboos and marital trust. As feelings of grotesque loneliness set in, the disfigured man grows distant from his wife and seeks out a plastic surgeon who reconstructs a face for him, as long as the disfigured man tells the doctor everything about his alter-ego experience.
While, on the surface, the film might sound like an intellectual Face Off, the conflict in the film is almost always internal. Whether the disfigured man is talking to his wife, his boss or the surgeon, he is always calling attention to his disfigurement in a backhandedly insulting and self-pitying way. At no point does another individual call any attention to the man whose entire head is bandaged, and yet he pokes and prods people into talking about his disfigurement. For us, the audience, it’s a difficult position because we are fixated on his bandaged appearance for many reasons – our own curiosity, Teshigahara’s framing of the striking visuals of the bandages, and the fact that the man keeps drawing everyone’s attention to it. Yet, if the man hadn’t talked about it, would we have been as fixated on it? Do we really stare at a man in a wheelchair, or does the man in the wheelchair only feel like everyone is staring at him because he’s not socially uniform?
These rhetorical questions continue to assault us throughout The Face of Another -- how much would you sell a mold of your face to a disfigured man for? Even though it would mean surrendering your identity, something we tend to take for granted. Of course, these questions are not easily answered, but we’re all familiar with the consequences of the emotions. The disfigured man’s feelings of isolation lead to assuming his wife is cheating on him, and his jealousy drives him to get a new face and put his wife’s monogamy to the test. As is commonly the case, there are differences in the perceptions between men and women – where a man sees a mask as a change in identity, a woman would see it as an extension of humility, like makeup.
Not everything in The Face of Another is wistful philosophical questioning, the film isn’t without its problems. Although the aim of engaging the idea of identity is more focused than Pitfall, Teshigahara includes the sub-plot of a woman with a minor facial disfiguration. Perhaps it’s the divide between the proud Japanese culture and our own seemingly-accepting American customs, but the underdeveloped story of a girl who is cast aside by the boys her age and yearns for some sort of compassion that she finds in her brother. Ashamed, she drowns herself in the sea. It seems that the goal of this contrasting story line may be to highlight the severity of the disfiguration in the Japanese culture.
Even in its shortcomings, Teshigahara’s look at the effect of the loss of identity is enough to put him amongst the most notable philosophical directors – including the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky. Still, Teshigahara’s free form editing and lyrical storytelling is still refreshing today. Perhaps even more so than its original 1967 release, as it no longer stands in the shadow of A Woman in the Dunes, but on its own two sturdy cinematic legs.
In the DVD world, there is the situation known as the “Blind Buy.” Basically, it’s when an individual buys a DVD or DVD set without seeing the films prior to the purchase. It’s a risky move. Sure, the packaging is awesome and the prospect of finally seeing that film that has been hyped by the internet, friends and/or relatives is exciting, but that doesn’t ensure that you will enjoy it. Most of the time, you end up with a movie or set of movies you end up watch once and then they collect dust on your shelf or even make the DVD-dread trip to the exchange store where you trade your purchasing follies for cold, hard cash. Personally, I can say that the Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara is that rare instance where the set exceeded my expectations and delivered on my preconceived notions. On the other hand, it also raised my blind-buying confidence.
Though the set comes from Criterion, sometimes a film can only be cleaned so much. Before the video presentation detractions, the disc’s packaging presentation is phenomenal. Each disc is given its own digi-pack casing (like used in the Godfather box set, but a bit more solid). The packaging style is minimalist with gray-scale coloring -- classy to some, boring to others. A hefty 64-page booklet is also stuffed into the box (but more on that later).
All three movies are presented in a full-frame 1.33 : 1 pictureboxed presentation. Don’t worry, that’s still the original aspect ratio. Pictureboxing (this can get technical so bear with me) is a lot like the black bars put on widescreen movies, except its black bars around all four edges of the image. While it’s negligible for tube watchers as it won’t affect the presentation, for widescreen T.V. watchers, the black bars on the left, right, top and bottom will remain to preserve the aspect ratio, much like the black bars on the top and bottom widescreen DVDs on a standard (1.33 : 1) T.V. In a nutshell, if you’re watching this on a widescreen T.V. the black “framing” the movie is normal. You aren’t losing any picture.
Now, the video transfer of the movies are amazing, but only compared to the film’s source material. The most redeeming aspect of the video is its sharp focus and clarity – a must for Teshigahara’s long depth of field shots. However, there are many instances of debris, scratches and wear and tear on the film that look more like there’s dirt on your T.V. screen. It’s not consistent, but it’s frequent enough to be noticeable.
The audio, on the other hand, is pitch-perfect for its Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack. Criterion likes to preserve the film’s original presentation, so you aren’t going to be seeing any 5.1 surround sound mixes, but these films don’t need it. If you need a more full sound, switch your receiver over to stereo to split the mono soundtrack.
As for the supplements on the individual movie discs, each film offers a video essay by film critic and festival programmer James Quandt. While not as in-depth as a full-length audio commentary, Quandt does an admiral job putting Pitfall in the context of Teshigahara’s other work. As Teshigahara’s debut feature, many of the aesthetic choices weren’t deliberate, but a product of lack of experience, which Quandt points through clips from the film. He also does an excellent job of showing the film’s visual motifs such as the use of light and dark and his framing that actively makes us voyeurs (like looking through a crack in the wall or from a distance with binoculars). Woman in the Dunes was Teshigahara’s first International success that introduced his work to the Western world. Unfortunately, it was also one of his only successes, and Quandt does an admiral job explaining the cinematic atmosphere Woman in the Dunes entered into upon its release. The world was ready for something different and honest and Teshigahara was there to fill that void. Above all else, Quandt does a wonderful job of putting Face of Another in historical context and explains the cold critical and popular response to the film upon its original release. It helps deepen the appreciation for the film by showing how, in the eyes of the critics at the time, it couldn’t challenge Woman in the Dunes, Teshigahara’s previous international hit.
The fourth disc in the Three Films By Hiroshi Teshigahara set offers a look at the director’s life and work, as opposed to material that solely focuses on the included films. The meat and potatoes of this disc are the four short films that Teshigahara filmed over a 12-year period. The full frame 1.33: 1 video transfer and mono soundtrack of the shorts is the same as the features. Teshigahara’s first film, Hokusai, sets its lens on the work of a wood block artist Katsushika Hokusai. You’ll know his work when you see it, and Teshigahara gives an interesting analysis of Hokusai’s work through historical writings and even traditional Japanese theater.
Somewhat continuing Hokusai’s themes, Ikebana revolves around Teshigahara’s father and the Sogetsu School -- a center for modern sculpture and pottery. It was filmed just before Teshigahara retired from film and returned to the school, so the unabashed love and appreciation is not masked.
Like a shorter, more concise Japanese version of Fellini’s Roma, Tokyo 1958 is an in-depth look at the city that Teshigahara loved. It’s also an exhibition of stylistic fireworks as it offers some of Teshigahara’s most eye-popping visuals.
Finally, Ako is the more traditional of the short films, as it’s a fictional narrative about a young girl’s night on the town with her rowdy friends. While Pitfall and Face of Another had a French New Wave influence, Ako is Teshigahara drowned in the New Wave’s style – style over substance, but still a blast to watch.
Because four short films measuring nearly 30 minutes long each aren’t enough for Criterion, Teshigahara and Abe is a half-hour feature that offers a retrospective look at the collaboration between the director and writer (all three of the films in the Criterion set are helmed by that very same tag team). With comments from film scholars Donald Richie and Tadao Sato, film professor Richard Pena, set designer Arata Isozaki, screenwriter John Nathan and producer Noriko Nomura, the documentary is informative, if a little boring. It does Teshigahara and Abe great service in it’s appreciation for their work, but it wouldn’t hurt these guys to lighten up a bit, or at least talk in a non-monotone voice. However, the doc is presented in an anamorphic 1.78: 1 transfer, which is modernly refreshing and also emphasizes that Teshigahara’s films are still important today.
In continuing the investigation of Teshigahara’s work, a 64-page book is included in the set, featuring essays by filmmaker Peter Grilli, author Howard Hampton, author/translator Audie Bock and James Quandt and a rare interview with Teshigahara translated from a French publication.