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  • Benjamin May

The Face of Another (1966) Review

Okuyama is an engineer whose face was horribly mutilated in a workplace accident. Feeling shunned by society and rejected by his wife, he shamefully hides his disfigurement behind layers of bandages. After consultation, a psychiatrist offers to make Okuyama a realistic prosthetic mask, to return some semblance of normality to his life. Okuyama accepts, despite the shrink's warning that the mask may alter his personality. Meanwhile, a similarly disfigured young nurse from Nagasaki travels to a seaside resort with her brother, where the depth of her disaffection with the uncaring world around her makes itself known in shocking and unexpected ways.

Based on Kobo Abe's novel of the same name, Hiroshi Teshigahara's 'The Face of Another' is a dark, intriguing drama examining notions of identity, appearance and personality, and how the three intersect. Abe's screenplay tackles these themes- as well as that of cultural identity- maturely and with great tact, while also retaining much narrative tension. In fact, if one wished to disregard the psychological and sociological aspects of the story entirely- interpreting the film simply as a horror with a lot of wordy dialogue- one could; and the impact of 'The Face of Another' wouldn't be much diminished.

It is a rewarding experience, however, postulating on the psychological questions raised by Abe's narrative, specifically whether or not one's personality is influenced by one's looks, and the extent to which one's looks informs one's quality of life. It is commonly accepted that physical appearance does have a meaningful impact on people's life experiences and opportunities. Researchers like Daniel Hamermesh posit that the traditionally handsome and beautiful generally have an easier time of things than their less attractive counterparts. At the same time, according to the theory of facultative personality calibration, personalities develop in a way that match other genetic traits, so that one who is more handsome will be more assertive or confident, and vice versa.

'The Face of Another' provokes contemplation around- and plays into- these ideas, as well as examining how Japanese cultural identity was irrevocably altered following WWII and the devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Okuyama's loss of face and adoption of the mask suggests that one's face is not just a physical feature, but a means of communication with society and oneself. By losing this means of communication, Okuyama loses his connection to his original culture and sense of self. So too did the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima alter the face of Japanese society, ensuring that post-war Japan was- in some ways- indistinguishable from pre-war Japan. In this regard, the film suggests that identity- both personal and cultural- is fluid, and heavily influenced by external factors.

The film inspires rumination around these notions, whilst stunning with its visuals. Hiroshi Segawa's cinematography and shot construction is striking and strange, heightening the eerie tone of proceedings. His work, heavy in visual metaphor, lends sequences- such as a breath-taking, multi-masked crowd scene- an odd but undeniable power. Utilizing a wide variety of stylizations- including bizarre zooms, x-rays and jump cuts- he keeps things feeling consistently fresh, innovative and off kilter. This is only compounded by Arata Isozaki and Masao Yamazaki's surrealist art direction, as well as Yoshi Sugihara's assured, experimental editing, which holds everything together masterfully.

One would be remiss not to discuss the score from Toru Takemitsu, which fluctuates between the macabre and the mournful, while always remaining melodic. The main theme- entitled The Waltz- is particularly atmospheric and haunting, reflecting through it's bittersweet melody Okuyama's fragile psychological state. Furthermore, Taichiro Akiyama's sterling efforts crafting all the masks must be mentioned, as there are a great many throughout the picture and each one is spectacularly insidious.

'The Face of Another' boasts a fine cast of actors all doing superlative work. Tatsuya Nakadai stars as Okuyama, bringing both sides of the fellow to life most efficaciously. Suppressing his characteristic charisma, he lays bare the crisis of personality Okuyama faces, creating a most memorable character in the process. Alongside him, Miki Irie showcases a great emotional perspicuity in her role as the disfigured nurse, stealing all the scenes she's in. Additionally, Mikijiro Hira consistently impresses as the psychiatrist and Machiko Kyo delivers a remarkably understated performance as Okuyama's wife- it's a pity she didn't have more screen time to further develop the character.

A sad film in some regards, a tense one in others; Hiroshi Teshigahara's adaptation of Kobo Abe's novel 'The Face of Another' has a lot to offer viewers. Featuring beautiful black and white cinematography from Hiroshi Segawa and a stirring score from Toru Takemitsu- as well as spellbinding art direction and tight editing- there is very little fault one can find with the picture. Powerfully acted and deftly directed throughout, 'The Face of Another' is a macabre, melancholic masterpiece.


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