Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Face of Another

The Face of  Another
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara 
black-and-white film
Japanese dialogue with English subtitles

This film is based on the novel of the same name by Kobo Abe, who also served as screenwriter for the film.  I haven't read the novel yet as I wanted to see the film first.  I find that reading the novel first will prejudice me against the film as I then focus on the film's correspondence to the novel, which is really only one of the criteria for judging a film.   Since Abe is the screen writer, it should be interesting to see what he does with his novel in adapting it for film.

Okuyama is a business man whose face has been horribly scarred in a laboratory accident.  He is having considerable difficulty in handling his situation.  He has decided to keep his head completely covered in bandages, which reminded me very strongly of  films of H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man.   I wonder if  Abe or the director did this deliberately.

Okuyama is seeing a psychiatrist, hoping that this might help him.  His relationship with his wife is deteriorating, as is his work on his job.  The psychiatrist suggests, rather tentatively, that there's a possible solution.  He knows of an amazing synthetic fabric that looks very much like skin.  He might be able to create a mask which Okuyama might be able to wear in public.   While the psychiatrist has considerable ethical and moral problems with this procedure, Okuyama is desperate enough to try it.  They find a man whose has a nice face, not extraordinarily handsome but a pleasant face, and pay him for the opportunity to make a mold of it.

The psychiatrist is concerned about the consequences of creating a mask for Okuyama and for society if the process proves successful and is made available to the public.  One major question is that of identity:  does our identity come from inside or outside?  Would we be a different person if we had a different face?  What would happen to society if we never knew the real faces of people, but only the masks they chose to wear?

Some might argue that we already wear a mask.  One is Paul Lawrence Dunbar whose poem I have already posted here, but  "We Wear the Mask" deserves another reading in conjunction with this film:

We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be otherwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

-- Paul Laurence Dunbar --

In 1966 this film was considered SF, but recent articles regarding at least two face transplants suggest that this issue now requires some discussion.  Also, in Europe there is considerable turmoil regarding the Moslem custom of veils for women's faces.    A mask or a veil is worn to hide or conceal one's identity from others, even though, paradoxically, wearing one in public makes one stand out among others whose faces are open for all to see.  In a sense, a mask or a veil makes it obvious that one wishes to remain anonymous.

The film has some surrealistic elements that occasionally become confusing.  The psychiatrist's laboratory is a bizarre room with glass and strange diagrams and, frankly, it seems to change each time we visit it.  There are also quick changes between the major plot with Okuyama and the secondary plot of a young woman with radiation scars on one side of her face.  She covers the scars with her long hair combed forward, while her hair is combed back on the other side of her face.  She mentions Nagasaki once when she asks her brother if he remembers the sea there when they were children, perhaps a hint as to the cause of her scarred face. 

The theme of the double or the doppelganger is also strongly brought out in the film.   Okuyama himself is the most obvious example as he is wearing a mask of someone else's face.   Some conversations seem to be repetitions of previous encounters, as well as doubling depicted in the early and late scenes in the film.  After he gets the mask, Okuyama supposedly leaves town but actually remains.  He rents two suites in an apartment building, once wearing his bandages and the second wearing his mask. 

The endings of both plots are clear and unambiguous:  we know what happened.  However, the rationale for the Okuyama plot is not.  Just why did Okuyama do what he did?  The ending of the second plot is much more understandable.

I would recommend this film strongly with one warning.  It is in Japanese, so if you don't understand Japanese, you will have to rely on subtitles.  Occasionally I found myself pausing the film and backtracking because the subtitles appeared and disappeared so quickly I had trouble reading them.  Aside from this minor inconvenience, I thoroughly enjoyed the film.  I now intend to read the novel and then rent the film again.


  1. Of course, like Greek actors, we all wear masks in our lives. Just consider how differently behave in our different roles: parent, child, spouse, lover, friend, enemy, employee, employer, etc...etc...etc...

  2. You Tube has this film in Japanese with English subtitles. (And not very good subtitles, either.) If I am able to view it, I'll let you know what I think of the film. (I'll try on Thurs. or Fri.)

  3. RT

    Sometimes that adds to the confusion for at present at least it's still the same face. What happens when a person can wear a different mask for each role?

  4. Cheryl,

    Let me know what you think of it.

    The film I saw was one of the Criterion collection of films.

  5. OK, I saw the film on You Tube. (Occasionally the dash before the dialogue in the subtitles looked like < so it was distracting. I think it's You Tube's glitch in CC mode.) Anyway, why did he do what he did in the end? My guess is he wanted to be anonymous (free) and when he saw that the landlord's daughter and his wife and the psychiatrist all could tell who he really was, in spite of the mask, the wanted to change that. He tried to kill the wife to eliminate her knowledge of him, but couldn't get in her house. He then tried to commit the attack, so he'd be known as a dangerous criminal (not himself). Then the psychiatrist was the other one who knew is real identity, and so if he got rid of the psychiatrist his identity would be lost. He'd be free.

  6. This film would make a great double feature with the American film Seconds (1966). Both are about identity and physical appearance.

  7. Cheryl,

    It sounds as though he now feels free of any restraints on his behavior, because of his mask. The psychiatrist seemed to be worried that something like this might happen.

    I can see why his wife and the psychiatrist would know him in spite of the mask, but the landlord's daughter recognized him in both guises as well. Is she something special or does this suggest that even with the mask a lot of others would also recognize him? In this case, his hope or dream of anonymity can't come true.

    1. If I recall it correctly, the psychiatrist said that the decreased mental ability of the landlord's daughter made her more aware in other ways - smell, for example. She could've recognized the same smell for both faces. The wife even remarked about the smell - or lack of smell - in the apartment before she slept with him.

  8. Cheryl,

    Yes, you're right. Seconds would be a good second feature. It's been a long time since I've seen it, so all I can remember of the ending is that it didn't go well for him Guess I should see it again.

  9. Cheryl,

    I had forgotten the psychiatrist's comment about the daughter. Yes, it could be smell or perhaps she recognized his voice.

    I'm getting Seconds from the library. It should be interesting to compare the two.

    I've also got the novel upon which the Japanese film was based. I'm curious to see what changes were made in adapting it to film.

  10. Fred,

    I just put in an online hold request for Seconds from my library, too. I should have it by mid next week. It's been awhile since I watched this, so this will be a refresher.

  11. Cheryl,

    It should be interesting to compare the two films.