[30 September 2007]
Pitfall/ Woman in the Dunes/ The Face of Another: Three Films of Hiroshi Teshigahara is instantly one of Criterion’s classic box sets. It contains three films directed jaggedly by Hiroshi Teshigahara, scripted enigmatically by novelist Kobo Abe, and scored unnervingly by Toru Takemitsu.
All are brilliant, but only Woman in the Dunes has been widely known outside Japan and accepted as a classic. It was a box-office hit on the arty foreign-film circuit in the US, not least for its perceived eroticism, and has previously been on DVD, but only in a shorter version that tightens the pace.
It’s the tale of an educated city-dwelling entomologist (Eiji Okada, already known to audiences as the Japanese lover in Hiroshima Mon Amour) who comes to the desert to hunt beetles. When he stays in the hut of a woman (Kyoko Kishida) who lives in a kind of canyon beneath the dunes, he finds the local villagers intend to leave him stranded there as her companion.
It’s almost literally a hothouse drama as he attempts to escape his fate, but both woman and sand are implacable. They’re also almost interchangeable, since Teshigara spends a lot of time visually rhyming the textures of the shifting sands and the woman’s body.
One of the best aspects of this disc and the others is that critic James Quandt provides concise “video essays” rather than full-length commentary tracks. That’s swell, because very few commentary tracks are worth hearing. The overwhelming majority consist of blather about how wonderful everyone was to work with. That’s appreciably less true with the critical tracks on other Criterion discs, which are full of academic analysis about themes, images, tropes, etc. These provide “readings” of the movie and, if you like that sort of thing, they can be excellent, like the superb track on L’Avventura.
But isn’t it a coincidence that critics have exactly as much to say as the film is long? Sometimes these feel rushed and distracted, sometimes there are awkward pauses. That’s not the case with the video essay, which takes as much time as it needs and no more, going through everything the critic wants to say with appropriately selected clips, organized by the argument rather than by the film.
Quandt uses his essay to argue intelligently that Western critics have been all wrong to interpret the movie as a Buddhist parable and compare it to Camus’ trope on the myth of Sisyphus. He says it’s about how the individual is reconciled to his social responsibilities, and that the task of sifting through the sands isn’t a pointless Sisyphean maneuver but vital to the local economy, something that must be done to survive. It’s a destiny, not a punishment, and that’s why the man comes to accept it with serenity.
He may be right, and this wouldn’t be the first time that Western critics have inappropriately tacked existentialism onto Japanese classics. The most prominent example is Rashomon. Nine out of 10 critics will probably insist it’s about the subjectivity or relativity of truth and the impossibility of objective certainty, but that’s not what the film demonstrates at all.
Woman in the Dunes
It’s essentially the same as any whodunit, except that we see all the prevarications by witnesses dramatised as flashbacks. Everyone has some reason for lying, but they all know they’re lying; they aren’t being “relative” about it. All people are flawed and pitiful, and the detective sees them compassionately because he has such insight into the human heart that he can figure out very well what the truth is, just like all brilliant detectives. That’s a humanist statement, not an existentialist one.
But I digress. Woman in the Dunes is the second movie in the set. The first is Pitfall, and it’s breathtaking: a ghost story, murder mystery and genuinely existential tease, like Our Town goes nuclear. As Quandt points out (and which the viewer has already discovered with delirious joy), the movie shifts direction several times, juggling genres, tones, and styles.
In that sense, it may be a typical debut feature, bursting with the energy of enough ideas for several films as it tells the story of a luckless man (Hisashi Ogawa) and his son wandering through a deserted town. As in Dunes, there’s a lone woman (Sumie Sasaki) at work in this deserted area, but her role and fate are no happier than the man’s.
The Face of Another is a dense, wildly stylish, semi-sci-fi buzzbomb about how identity is morality. This urban tale goes in a different direction from the first two movies, presenting the modern glass-walled city as a kind of desert of the interior. It stars two of the great Japanese actors, Tatsuya Nakadi and Machiko Kyo, as a middle-class couple who must face (ah, that word!) the fact that the husband has scarred his face terribly in an industrial accident. Hubby persuades his all-purpose psychiatrist (Mikijiro Hira) to construct a new face for him, and he experiments with the idea of picking up a new identity to go with the face.
An entire book could be written, and undoubtedly has been several times over, about the Japanese concept of “face” as reputation, dignity, mask, social role, etc. I’ll avoid writing it again here; suffice it to say that on a purely visual level, this is a disorienting delight and Quandt does a good job of discussing the surreal touches. It’s clear that Teshigahara belongs to that generation of explosive ‘60s auteurs (e.g., Oshima, Imamura, Seijun Suzuki) who took Japanese cinema into the modernist visual territory of self-conscious compositions to underline their implicit or explicit social critiques.
The films are in standard ratio and beautiful black and white, but Teshigahara and Abe collaborated on a widescreen color film, Man Without a Map, which isn’t included here. Apparently it’s considered less successful, but we wish we could judge for ourselves. A supplemental disc contains a new documentary on their collaboration and it throws in four early documentary shorts by Teshigahara.
Woman in the Dunes
Criterion has begun a secondary label of box sets called Eclipse, described on the package as “a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions.” “Simple” means no extra frills, although they still go to the trouble of writing excellent brief liner notes that place each film in its critical/ historical context, which is more than you get from other no-frills companies.
Yasujiro Ozu has hardly been forgotten or overshadowed, and several of his titles have been Criterioned. Nevertheless, the Eclipse set, Late Ozu is a welcome box of five films he made from 1956 to 1961, when he and writer Kogo Noda, with the encouragement of the Shochiku studio, began making more sympathetically youth-oriented films.
Not all of these titles have been easily available on home video outside Japan, but now that we have so many more of his films, we can overturn some of the myths about Ozu that have circulated widely. In his documentary appreciation of Ozu, Tokyo-Ga (included on the Criterion disc of Late Spring), Wim Wenders remarked that Ozu made the same film over and over. It always seemed to be a family film about getting the kids married while the adults wistfully review the passage of time and the decline in tradition. Well, now we can see that it’s not really the same film, despite Ozu’s immediately identifiable, meticulous, metronomic, coffee-table (or rather tatami-mat) style.
He made comedies, tragedies, even melodramas and mature mixtures of all these. The first two films in this set, Early Spring and Tokyo Twilight are outright melodramas, complete with such plot twists as adultery, abortion and suicide, that fit into a generic Japanese mode of restrained lugubriousness, if not sentimentality.
Another myth is that Ozu never used a moving camera; this had to be modified into the statement that he gradually stopped using it, because it’s more prominent in earlier movies. It’s true that some of these films don’t use it, but then again, there it is sometimes. The notes on Early Spring mention the ominous forward movements toward the salaryman’s office door, implying the inevitability of a cage, but there’s also the outdoor expedition in which the camera follows its pedestrians at an even pace. If the camera didn’t move in this case, the people would walk right out of the frame, but it’s notable that since the camera maintains an exact momentum, the characters seem to be walking in place on a treadmill that never advances them forward.
These are dark movies, and Tokyo Twilight, his only late film set in the snows of winter, was considered one of his biggest failures by critics and audiences. The excellent, unfortunately anonymous notes state: “Yet today the film retains an enormous dramatic power, perhaps because of those very divergences from the Ozu oeuvre. . . . [It] feels like an entirely new milieu for the filmmaker. And its evocative, almost sinister, landscape is matched with an intense narrative that has the grip and eventual catharsis of classical tragedy.” I’d mention a specific Russian tragedy if it mightn’t give away too much.
The last three films mark Ozu’s entry into color, the gently warm and glorious Agfacolor. Equinox Flower might as well be called “Saga of the Red Teapot” or perhaps “What the Teapot Saw,” because that numinous object is a squat little eye-catching detail throughout the movie, always tucked away in some corner of the family living room as the elder daughter resists her daddy’s fuddy-duddy ideas about choosing her own husband. The story is a gently ironic comedy at papa’s expense.
It’s clear that amid the deft and subtle gradations in bringing up father, Ozu loves that teapot. It seems to be as much a good-luck object as the presence of actor Chishu Ryu, the lanky mascot who shows up in all of these movies, usually in minor roles. Ozu is a director for whom physical facts and details seem analogous to the myriad details of human interaction, a kind of objective correlative, if I can be fancy, to the interplay of tension and harmony among people. Or do these things of beauty and utility perhaps signify the film itself as a lovingly constructed object?
Longtime Ozu actress Setsuko Hara (also in Tokyo Twilight) is paired with younger Yoko Tsukasa in the last two films here, as mother and daughter in Late Autumn and as sisters in The End of Summer. Late Autumn, about a widow who marries off her daughter even though it leaves her alone, is a remake of the 1949 Late Spring, in which Hara played the daughter. The younger generation is stronger and more active than in the original film, reflecting the ascendancy of their will in Japan’s new economy, and the movie really belongs to the sassy upstart friend (Mariko Okada) who puts the adult male busybodies in their place.
The story turns on the poignancy of the give and take between generations, the fact that it would be good for the daughter to fall in love and start a life, even though it signals the latter phases of the mother’s life. But mom won’t sit at home rotting; she’s self-reliant and has a job, so she knows she can deal with it. This is “drama” that happens always and everywhere, so that movies don’t always bother to observe it. I refer to our anonymous note-writer again: “At this point in his career, Ozu was so adept at eliciting profound emotion with minimal fanfare, either dramatic or stylistic, that his artistry can only be deemed invisible.”
End of Summer
The last film in the set is Ozu’s penultimate, The End of Summer and it’s so balanced and profound, we must pause to absorb this achievement. Please don’t read the following paragraph if you don’t want the trajectory of the story given away.
The movie might as well be called a comedy, but the classical definition of comedy is to end in marriage while tragedy ends in death, and this movie inverts those traditions. After a lot of comical byplay about the family patriarch, whose stubborn decisions are running the family business into bankruptcy and who is actively meddling in his daughters’ love life, all while re-igniting his youthful affair with a calculating old flame, the movie arrives at the possibly radical yet serene conclusion that his passing solves everyone’s problems, including the fact that the daughters are now free not to marry.
The ending is, to apply an overused term, bittersweet. It’s ironic, but with the air of acceptance rather than cynicism, and a hopefulness tempered by recognition of what seems harsh and inescapable in life. Death doesn’t even necessarily seem like a tragedy for those for whom it comes. The final sequence leaves the viewer elated with the kind of mixed feelings that sometimes help us recognize a classic.
Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.