NICHOLAS CHANG | REPEAT OFFENDERS
Japanese New Wave films aren’t your average mainstream films. Between the late 1950s to the 1970s, the Japanese New Wave rejected conventions of Japanese cinema, exploring taboo subjects and experimenting with cinematic traditions and styles. Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another is part of the Japanese New Wave, and it’s easy to dismiss it as being uneventful, but that would do injustice to its philosophy, aimed at analysing identity crisis and social perceptions of appearance.
The film opens with shots of limbs floating in water, all of them humanlike yet clearly artificial. Off-screen, psychiatrist Hira (Mikijirō Hira) asks the viewer what they make of these objects, picking up an arm and showing it to the audience. Then he pulls a finger off, saying it’s not real, but rather, it is “inferiority complex in the shape of a finger.”
The opening credits play, zooming back to show us countless images of multiple citizens, emphasising their facial expressions and features. All of them are distinguishable and unique, yet there is something eerily similar about them. Shots of crowds on the streets at night follow, emphasising their faces to create an underlying feeling that their identities are homogenous and identical, forming a status quo lacking individuality.
After this point, The Face of Another introduces us to Mr. Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai). The most noticeable feature about his face is that he wears bandages. He is a businessman and engineer whose face has been disfigured by an explosion in an industrial accident. Not only is he ostracised by society, but his disfigurement drives marital tensions at home. His wife (Machiko Kyō) seems to be there to support him, but when Okuyama attempts to be intimate, she refuses to look at him. He knows it and asks her, but she claims it’s his imagination. Their marriage is in severe decline. During a discussion about appearances, Okuyama believes the face is the door to the mind. Without revealing the face, you close off the mind and any chance of communication, and the mind is left to rot in its loneliness. Such is the case with Mr. Okuyama.
Things aren’t better for Okuyama out in public. When he reaches work, his secretary keeps identifying him because of his bandages, much to his chagrin. When he’s out on the streets, people glare at him, unsettled by his appearance, and react uncomfortably. When Okuyama decides to rent an apartment, the superintendent doesn’t immediately hide his shock, yet his intellectually disabled daughter reacts nonchalantly to Okuyama, always preoccupied with a yo-yo.
Sick of his current life, Okuyama consults his psychiatrist Hira to develop an artificial mask that will make him indistinguishable from everyone else. After purchasing a citizen’s likeness to serve as a model for the mask, it is eventually developed, and when Okuyama tries it on… the mask fits. Okuyama can start life as a new man, but without telling anyone about his decision, he tests the mask’s effectiveness by seeing people acquainted with him. When the secretary sees him in his new mask, she doesn’t recognise him and becomes hostile when he pesters her for information about himself. He revisits the superintendent, who now greets him as another friendly stranger, in complete contrast with how unsettled he was initially. But strangely, his daughter can recognise Okuyama through his voice and personality.
Finally, Okuyama no longer stands out among the crowd. He is treated equally, like any other member of society, and regularly consults Hira. He reveals his true intention in obtaining the mask: to seduce his wife without revealing his identity. Yet this is where Hira warns Okuyama about the effects of the mask: it may become used to Okuyama, which will alter his personality and behaviour, leading to a potential loss of morality.
While the main plot plays out, a separate tale abruptly begins, opening with a shot of a young woman (Miki Irie) that shows only the left side of her face. She’s gorgeous, walking to work until she hears men leering at her from behind. They call, whistle, and ogle her, spouting annoying compliments. She doesn’t respond, and one of them, aggravated, proceeds to turn her around.
The right side of her face is scarred. Yoshi Sugihara’s editing emphasises the details of her disfigurement, implementing the facial imagery into the viewer’s mind. The men are stunned into silence, with reactions of shock and disgust spreading on their faces. Before the woman keeps walking, she turns to the viewer to briefly, and solemnly, break the fourth wall, prompting us to emphasise with her.
Her storyline reveals that she works at a psychiatric ward composed of severely traumatised inmates and post-World War II veterans. Although friendly and communicative, she cannot shake off her suppressed unsettlement. She lives with her brother at home, who supports her, but maybe shows a bit too much affection. In nearly every scene she appears, she hears sirens or gunshots at target practice, and she asks her brother if there will be another war. All of these allude to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki during World War II, which (apparently) she has survived, but not only has it left behind scars, it has led to social judgment and isolation for something she had no control over. Pure innocence tainted by the horrors of war and society.
There is no point where her storyline and Okuyama’s intersect, so why leave hers in the final cut? In the original novel written by Kōbō Abe, her subplot takes place in a film that Okuyama sees. With this detail deliberately obscured, Teshigahara sharpens his focus on what these stories share in common. He asks philosophical questions about identity and whether appearance can determine personality after all; although Okuyama’s personality changes after the mask, the woman’s appearance never reflects her personality. People are disgusted at her scar, and children even call her a monster, but that’s not true. She is a lovely woman, born with natural beauty, and her innocence was destroyed by the world surrounding her. The social judgments surrounding her have prevented most people from seeing her gentle, empathetic, and caring personality. Undoubtedly, it is natural for strangers to pass by each other on the street, make brief glimpses at their faces and keep their judgments and thoughts to themselves. It would be weird to suddenly greet a random stranger on the street and have a conversation with them just because of their facial looks. Nevertheless, expressing your shock or disgust towards someone because of their appearances shows how damaging assumptions can be and how impactful your reactions can be to others. Had this subplot been removed, Okuyama’s unsympathetic characterisation would not have worked in the film’s favour, and viewers would struggle to notice the film’s socially keen eye.
Interestingly, the woman’s storyline can be compared to Mrs. Okuyama’s characterisation. Natural yet brutally harsh beauty contrasted with artificial beauty. Mrs. Okuyama once recounts to her husband a tradition she heard that women wore makeup to conceal their faces, serving as another type of mask. No makeup can be found on the scarred woman’s face, exposing her disfigurements, and it further suggests how artificial beauty is deemed more desirable in society. In the old times, if you wore makeup, you glorified your appearance enough to either make you stand out to receive good reactions or fit in. Without it, you’re likely to be noticed but not considered as pretty, and what Okuyama’s dialogue reveals is how societal beliefs of appearance can be unknowingly ingrained in people’s minds and passed on for generations.
The Face of Another philosophically demonstrates that perhaps our faces serve as masks and that we may be disguising our true personalities from the outside world. Our identities have been made concrete and permanent to everyone else, but when we wear masks to become someone else, we erase ourselves, transforming into entirely different beings. We create a new sense of freedom, but one that we can easily abuse so that our unmasked selves don’t have to face actual consequences. By focusing on our images, we lose our sense of self and may transform into a monstrous shell of what we once were. The Face of Another’s ending solidifies this in a truly chilling manner, suggesting that the gradual, and helpless, loss of a moral compass in society is inevitable.
Tatsuya Nakadai has a challenging role to play. He has to exude cynicism and bitterness early in his role, only to transition into a charismatic and eccentric person who lets his mask take over his identity, and he pulls it off well. Machiko Kyō is equally great as she captures the forced gentleness of Mrs. Okuyama, even demonstrating how her character fits into, yet struggles with, the traditional role of a loving housewife. The philosophical dialogue may be boring to get through if the acting lacked authenticity, but thankfully Mikijiro Hira’s performance as Okuyama’s psychiatrist provides grounded realism. And even if you hear little dialogue from the scarred woman, Miki Irie always creates empathy and hidden pain in her performance. The Face of Another may not feel character-driven, but it certainly is if you consider their motivations, immaculately brought to life by stellar and challenging performances.
If anything, The Face of Another is another philosophical drama, yet it is filmed and framed like an existential horror; its discomforting tone is there to fuel your thinking process and deeply consider its social commentary. Every frame of The Face of Another is filled with existential dread, expertly blocked, and masterfully shot by cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa. He emphasises doublings, constantly contrasting scenes and reactions to serve the thematic depths and provide a beautiful yet unbearable atmosphere. It’s further aided by Shigenosuke Okuyama’s riveting sound design, filled with uneasy silences and ambience, with an occasional utilisation of Toru Takemitsu’s sinister and masterful score. But what stands out are the ambitious production values and set designs, confidently expressing symbols of identity and morality to produce rich images that become clearer on repeat viewings. Behind The Face of Another’s surface lies a film stuffed with philosophical depths, waiting to be found and pieced together every time, which is only a further testament to the genius of Hiroshi Teshigahara.
Unfortunately, not everything about The Face of Another is perfect. Sugihara’s editing sometimes runs the risk of unnecessarily stretching its pace, which may challenge the viewer’s patience too much. Nevertheless, it remains stylistically purposeful to extend upon the facial symbolism. Sometimes, the characters’ behaviours are tedious to watch, and without most of them being likeable, they can be difficult to get behind. Depending on your current mindset, The Face of Another may feel dull and unrewarding.
Despite these minor issues, Teshigahara offers numerous visual metaphors and thoughtful themes, asking questions about identity and social standings, but trusting the audience to brainstorm the answers for themselves. Through Teshigahara’s exploration of psychological existentialism and Abe’s strengthful adaptation of his source material, The Face of Another is genius filmmaking that suggests it is all too true that some masks come off and others don’t. And sometimes, that alone is enough to make the film crawl under your skin.