The Face of Another, 1966

An off-camera psychiatrist (Mikijiro Hira) overseeing a processed batch of prosthetic appendages describes his fragile role of diplomatically treating – not a patient’s physical imperfection – but rather, the psychological insecurity that underlies his seemingly superficial malady. The curious, fragmented shot of randomly floating, artificial body parts is subsequently reflected in an X-ray profile of a smug and embittered burn victim named Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) as he recounts to the quietly receptive psychiatrist his own culpability in the fateful industrial accident that had permanently disfigured him and now estranges him from his co-workers and family. The clinically disembodied images are then commuted into the equally cold and sterile Okuyama household through a dissociating, close-up shot of a human eye that zooms out to reveal his beautiful and mannered wife (Machiko Kyô) busily occupied in her hobby of polishing gemstones as the acerbic and insecure Okuyama attempts to test her affection and fidelity with vague and allusive casual remarks and open-ended questions. Spurned by his wife after a spontaneous and awkward attempt at intimacy, Okuyama returns to his psychiatrist and agrees to participate in the testing of the doctor’s latest experiment: a prosthetic mask molded from the facial characteristics of a surrogate donor. Now liberated by a sense of faceless anonymity and relieved of personal and professional entanglements, Okuyama takes up residence at a modest boarding house and begins to test the limits of his traceless identity.

Marking Hiroshi Teshigahara’s third adaptation of novels by modernist author Kobo Abe, The Face of Another is a highly stylized, psychologically dense, and provocative exposition on identity, persona, freedom, and intimacy. From the opening sequences of isolated anatomy, Teshigahara establishes the fractured tone of the film’s narrative. Surreal, aesthetically formalized shots of the oppressive prosthetic laboratory underscore the atemporal and geographically indeterminate nature of the universal parable. (Note the disjunctive effect of freeze-frames, muted ambient sounds, and cultural polyphony of the doctor and patient meetings at a German pub-themed bar that further contribute to a sense of existential ambiguity and pluralism). The intercutting parallel, elliptical narrative of a facially scarred young woman (Miki Irie) – whose character introduction is intriguingly accomplished through a wipe-cut (and therefore, may only exist as a figment of Okuyama’s imagination) – creates, not only a pervasive sense of alienation, but also betrays the unsympathetic protagonist’s internal chaos and capacity for emotional violence. Combining striking, elegantly composed visuals with innately humanist themes of connection and identity, Teshigahara composes a haunting, cautionary fairytale of masquerade and revelation, defect and vanity, impersonation and self-discovery.

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