Under the cover of darkness, a visibly harried miner (Hisashi Igawa) and his young, impassive son (Kazuo Miyahara), accompanied by another desperate co-worker, desert their employers at an unidentified mining village in order to strike out on their own as migrant hired laborers away from the inhumane working conditions of (and overreaching control exercised by) the powerful and consuming industry. Some time later, on a desolate and barren rural province, the miner is observed subsisting through an even more meager – and disreputable – enterprise by feigning to prospect for coal at a worthless mine for a gullible old man in exchange for food and lodging, as a methodical and inscrutable stranger impeccably dressed in a crisp white suit (Kunie Tanaka), obscured by the stone memorials of a nearby cemetery, takes a photograph of his subject from an undetected distance. Fleeing to another town before his ruse is uncovered, the miner eventually finds employment at another organized mining operation, where he settles into a familiar routine until one day when the supervisor takes him aside with the ostensibly positive news that a larger agency wishes to personally hire him, the earnest proof of his job offer confirmed through the miner’s photograph that accompanies the agency’s unusually specific request. However, when the miner and his son arrive at the appointed location, they encounter a disquietingly near empty village whose sole remaining resident, a bored, candy store proprietress (Sumie Sasaki) awaiting her lover to send for her, explains that the town’s mine had been closed to preclude the danger of collapse and caused the area to become abandoned as people left to seek elsewhere for employment. Inexplicably lured into the ghost town, the unwitting miner encounters the mysterious man in the white suit and meets his incomprehensible, but seemingly fated, destiny.
Based on the experimental fiction of postwar novelist Kobo Abe, The Pitfall is a haunting, spare, and elemental, yet surreal and atmospheric portrait on alienation, spiritual bankruptcy, and moral descent. Creating his first feature film, Hiroshi Teshigahara combines the stark realism of his earlier short, documentary works represented by films such as Hokusai, a reverent overview of the works by the seminal Ukiyo-e artist, Katsushika Hokusai; Ikebana, an introductory film on the art, design, and aesthetics of floral composition; and José Torres, a two-part portrait of the humble and mild-mannered Olympic athlete and light heavyweight boxer) with the Kafkaesque psychological nightmare of Abe’s allusive modern fiction in order to interweave states of consciousness and subjective realities into a compelling exposition on the nature of existence (an existential theme that is also explored in another feature, Woman in the Dunes). Teshigahara further expounds on existential fate through the use of doppelganger imagery that not only interconnects the seemingly disparate lives (and fates) of the destitute miner and the influential trade union leader (a provocative examination of identity that Teshigahara develops in a subsequent film that is also based on an Abe novel, The Face of Another), but also visually reinforces the metaphysical connection between the living and the dead inhabitants of the literal and figurative ghost town. Note the condemned, perpetual, empty motion articulated by the dead townspeople that mimic their actions at the moment of death, the evidence and validation of their corporeal existence reduced to the Sisyphean ritual of their meaningless – and anonymous – human struggle. Inevitably, the precariously collapsing pit serves as a dark and ominous reflection, not of a town’s descent to economic ruin, but of the moral abyss created in the wake of greed, exploitive commerce, and inhumanity.
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