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The Criterion Collection presents
Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara (Pitfall / Woman in the Dunes / The Face of Another) (1962-66)

Must a man become a demon just to survive?"
- Otsuka (Hisashi Igawa), in Pitfall

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: July 09, 2007

Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 06h:06m:13s
Release Date: July 10, 2007
UPC: 715515024624
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ B+B+B+ A-

DVD Review

Hiroshi Teshigahara may be the paradigmatic cult status director. His advocates are fiercely devoted; the rest either don't know him or his work, dismiss him as minor, or (a small minority) seethe with disdain for what they see as his cultivated affectation. He was one of the bright lights of 1960s Japanese filmmaking, of the generation of directors coming of age after the old guard led by Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi, and his work clearly shares affinities with European filmmakers of the same period, including Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni. This handsomely produced set of three of the director's most notable films makes his work available to a wider audience, pleasing those who have longed for these titles on DVD, and allowing the rest to make up our minds. Even if it's not quite your taste, there's no denying that this is filmmaking of a very high caliber, and all three pictures provide ample food for thought.

Pitfall (1962)

"The dead only upset themselves by worrying about the living."
—Otsuka (Hisashi Igawa)

Teshigahara's debut feature is a hypnotic amalgam of genres—it's part Neorealism, part ghost story, and part adventure tale in the tradition of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It's as full of menace and dread as any film noir or melodrama, and it has a hothouse, jangly sense that can make you nervous just watching it. The story begins with a pair of miners with something to hide: they're working for a local seeking coal on his land, but clearly these two (along with the little boy of one of them) have secrets that they don't care to share.

One of them is being cased by a natty gentleman in a white suit, and for his next job, the miner being followed is summoned to a ghost town, where we know (and he should know) that nothing good can happen. The plot is as crammed with improbable coincidences and unexpected turns as a triple feature of silent movies, and I'd be denying you much of the pleasure of the film were I to unpack them all here; suffice it to say that you can see already the director's signature concerns about the nature of identity, and the second half of the film bears more than a passing resemblance, both in theme and style, to Vertigo.

It really is kind of an extraordinary first film, combining such seemingly discordant elements as a frank sexuality with the brutal internal politics of labor unions. In terms of conventional dramatic structure, the whole thing is kind of a mess, but one of the great pleasures is watching Teshigahara toss out the Aristotelian unities in pursuit of his own very specific thematic ends. And from a Western perspective, you can see how influential a filmmaker Teshigahara has been—there are elements here of Samuel Fuller's intensity, David Lynch's cultivated eccentricity, and Terence Malick's grace.

Woman in the Dunes (1964)

"Even if it's only a lie, it helps to have hope."
—Man (Eiji Okada)

The director's next film is probably his most highly regarded one, and is surely the best litmus test for what you'll think of his body of work. It is on some level a mesmerizing accomplishment; it also brings with it lots of symbolic heft, and it's constantly being drilled into us that Something Very Important Is Going On. In this respect, Teshigahara's work is not unlike Antonioni's from the same period—thoughtful stuff that verges on drowning in its own symbolic morass.

Also, both this film and the next one in the set have a kind of Twilight Zone feel to them—I love that stuff, but stopped thinking of it as art of the highest quality when I got out of middle school. Anyway, Eiji Okada stars as a nameless amateur entomologist, whose enthusiasm for his pastime takes him to the desert to collect specimens. He's so rapturously involved in looking for bugs that he loses track of time and misses the last bus back to town—which is most unfortunate for him, because it leaves him prey for the locals, who are looking for bodies. They're neither murderous nor cannibalistic—rather, they're more cultlike or depraved, looking to save their way of life in the face of the elements, and they need laborers to do that. The entomologist is literally tossed into the pit—he's promised shelter for the night in the home of a local widow, but soon discovers that they're never going to hoist him back up, that he's to become this woman's new de facto husband.

She lives in a home buried in the desert, and as much as anything, on a simply tactile level, this is a movie about sand. They must dig it out nightly, simply to keep the desert from collapsing in on them; they take their meals under umbrellas, the only way to avoid a constant sandstorm; sand is the defining element of their lives, as they live in and around it, wash their dishes in hit, keep house with it, and the camera watches it undulate and cascade, blow and swirl and fight and caress in a manner that's close to human. It's a movie to parch your throat, as evocative of the desert as Lawrence of Arabia or The Sheltering Sky.

The bizarrely towering performance here comes from Kyoko Kishida as the nameless woman, the widow who has been tossed a new man—she's at once creepy and carnal, as dangerous as any noir femme fatale, at times as flat-out crazy as Kathy Bates in Misery, and we're constantly on the fence as to whether she's a black widow looking to suck the life out of her prey, or an object of our pity and derision. And there's an unflinching sexuality to the two of them trapped in this sand pit—it's a dynamic not unlike Swept Away, though the sexuality is coarse and almost unpleasant. It's like you can feel the sand in your pores, and the intimate scenes are the polar opposite of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling on the beach in From Here to Eternity.

The dark spectre of the village elders make this something like a Shirley Jackson story, especially as they foil the man's inevitable escape attempt—the filmmaking, though, brims with energy and tension, even if we can't help speculating about the metaphorical value of what we're watching. It becomes kind of a Where's Waldo? of symbolic intention. But even if it's one of those films that you wish came with its own Monarch Notes, there's no denying Teshigahara's technical mastery—Hiroshi Segawa was the cinematographer on all three of these features, and his contributions to Teshighara's thematic elements are extraordinary. Have at least a couple of beverages close by when you watch this one.

The Face of Another (1966)

"A man without a face is free only when darkness rules the world."
—Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai)

If you're uncharitably inclined toward Teshigahara in general, you'll find that the pendulum swings all the way into pretension with this one; even the director's most ardent fans would have to acknowledge that this film operates almost entirely on a symbolic and metaphorical level, in some instances, at least, to its detriment. To its credit, though, The Face of Another is the most overt announcement of the director's philosophical concerns—it's entirely a film about identity and anonymity.

Tatsuya Nakadai stars as Okuyama, a man for whom a laboratory experiment has gone horribly wrong, and whose face has been entirely disfigured by burns. We just get a glimpse, though, because he spends the first portion of the movie entirely bandaged up, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Claude Rains in The Invisible Man. His wife says all the right things, but seems to be horrified by his disfigurement; his employer anticipates that he will continue on the job as usual, but Okuyama knows in his soul that his life has been irreparably ruptured. He meets up, then, with a laboratory scientist experimenting with the newest plastics, and who is taken with the synthetic's increasing ability to mimic the characteristics of human flesh—Okuyama becomes his great project, and the scientist constructs for him a mask of astonishingly lifelike quality, allowing the scarred man to resume a life of urban anonymity.

It's the setup of a hokey sci-fi movie, certainly, and we get a healthy dose of philosophizing from the man in the lab, who clearly fancies himself another Henry Frankenstein. In a way it's a film with a lot of contemporary resonance, dealing with the mutability of identity, and the moral perils of science, but after a while, it starts to feel a little thin on ideas, maybe, and the mask is treated by its maker as a holy relic. The Everyman quality makes each interaction painfully fraught with Dramatic Import, even though the film asks a crucial question: is appearance everything?

There's also no denying the underlying anxiety of nuclear war in the movie—the principal subplot concerns a beautiful young woman who shows off her profile and hides the other half of her face with a Veronica Lake-style peekaboo hairdo, because she's got significant and unsightly burns and scarring on the covered half. When she alludes to her childhood in Nagasaki, it's a little too obvious for us, and we can't help but connect the dots. But the austere production design makes it compelling even if the philosophizing can seem a little sophomoric.

The obvious omission from this set is Man Without a Map, a Teshigahara picture made in 1968, and like all three of these, based on original material by writer Kôbô Abe. Grousing seems unkind and uncharitable, however, given the bounty of this collection.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The Face of Another is certainly the strongest of the three transfers; it's shimmering and pristine, and while the other two are credable, they undoubtedly suffer by comparison. Scratches in Pitfall are particularly noticeable; still, for black-and-white pictures of this period, they look very strong.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: All the mono tracks sound reasonably clean, with just a bit of excessive ambient noise now and again. Should you be a Japanese speaker, however, your ear for these may be more discerning than mine.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 57 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
8 Documentaries
Packaging: Boxed Set
Picture Disc
4 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. color bars
  2. accompanying booklet
Extras Review: No doubt the prospect of over six hours of Teshigahara commentary was a daunting one for Criterion, and rather than subjecting us to the inevitable long blank patches, James Quandt, director of the Cinematheque Ontario, contributes a video essay for each title, of approximately 25 minutes each. For Pitfall he's especially good on the Surrealist influence on the director, and the release of pent-up visual energy; he also begins the set's extensive consideration of Teshigahara's collaboration with Obe. The Woman in the Dunes essay is more philosophical, focusing on the influence of Camus especially; Quandt is looking to settle some critical scores as well, taking on Arthur Schlesinger's dismissal of the film as "faux-primitif." And he sets out to rehabilitate the reputation of the third film in the set, pressing his point that he sees them as a triptych; The Face of Another was well received in Japan, apparently, but roundly criticized and largely dismissed in the rest of the world. The disc for each title also includes an original trailer and color bars.

A fourth disc of supplements opens with Teshigahara and Abe (34m:51s) a newly produced documentary that offers biographical information on the director, considers his place in the evolution of postwar Japanese culture, and goes over the nature of his collaboration with his writer of choice. Among those interviewed are film scholars Richard Peña, Tadao Sato, Donald Richie, and screenwriter John Nathan. Next, and in many ways much more intriguing. are four films that Teshigahara made or contributed to. Hokusai (22m:55s), from 1953, is a look at a woodblock artist from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and is useful in this context to see the evolution of the director's visual style. Ikebana (32m:26s), made in 1956, is a portrait of a school run by the director's father, which first became notable for pioneering work in flower arranging, a central Japanese art, and expanded into sculpture and pottery. (It's also notable because it's the only instance of the director's work in this set shot in color, though it does sort of have the feel of a training film.) Teshigahara was one of nine filmmakers who hand in hand in the making of Tokyo 1958 (24m), so it's difficult to assess his contribution. And Ako (28m:40s), from 1965, is the story of a 16-year-old Japanese girl who works at a bakery and hangs out with her friends and the requisite dangerous boyfriend.

Finally, the accompanying booklet features a career overview by Peter Grilli, an archival interview with the director, and individual essays on each of the films.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

A handsomely produced set that makes for an ideal Teshigahara primer—the films display technical mastery and intellectual ambition, and when they succeed, they soar. The extras help to make the persuasive case for the director as one of the great Japanese masters of the 1960s; the metaphorical denseness of the films will no doubt be off-putting to some, but don't take my word for it—check them out yourself.


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