1966, Movies

Tanín no Kao aka 他人の顔T (1966, Hiroshi Teshigahara)

Teshigahara has to be among the most interesting directors of the 1960s. Regardless of how effective I think this particular film is, it is weird and unlike basically anything else I’ve ever seen. And it’s so noticeably different from his first two fictional films, the mining crime, um, thriller Pitfall and the Sisyphean horror, Woman in the Dunes. He’s one of the most creative filmmakers I think I’ve ever encountered. It’s a shame it took me so long to check out his fims.


The film starts off with this ridiculously romantic music, which doesn’t have anything in common with his first two fictional features, and so seems like you’re in for something very, very different. (If you haven’t read the plot description, at least.) But almost immediately that is undercut by the introduction of plot. (And the reason for the music becomes apparent later.)

Immediately, I have two big criticisms. But before I get to them, I will say that it is extremely gutsy to take the second most famous Japanese actor of his generation and put him in a bunch of bandages where you cannot see his face. It later becomes clear why Nakadai was cast but it takes a while to get there. Kudos for having the guts to do this.

The first criticism is simply that no psychiatrist has ever been this good at anything other than psychiatry. I haven’t read the novel but it really does feel like a product of its time, before the average person fully understood the limitations of psychiatry. Why a psychiatrist would know anything about facial reconstruction, I have no idea. It’s a bit of a fatal flaw.

That being said, the doctor’s office is one of the coolest sets in the history of film. You’ve never seen anything like it and every single time we visit it, it’s interesting to look at. (Not the least when the film within a film shows up in a doorway…) To the extent that this film is actually science fiction, the psychiatrist-as-facial-reconstruction-doctor might make sense, if only to justify this amazing clinic.

The second criticism I have is that Okuyama is just The Worst. A conventional film would have tried to establish some rapport between the audience and the main character before his face was burned off, or at least tried to make him sympathetic after the burn, but Teshigahara doesn’t seem to care about that. (Maybe the novel is like that too.) From the very beginning, at least for 21st century Western audiences, Okuyama, is a jackass. He’s an absolute asshole to his wife and he treats both his boss and his physician like they are inferior to him. It’s really hard to understand why anyone wanted to spend any time with him before the accident but especially post-accident.

And to me this is one of the two fatal flaws of the film. Making Okuyama this unlikeable makes it so easy to root against him and makes the whole film less morally ambiguous. Okyuama is a jerk so of course a jerk would want to exploit his anonymity. If he started off as not-an-asshole it would be a much more sophisticated film at least in terms of narrative. (In terms of technique there is, of course, a lot of sophistication.)

The other major fatal flaw doesn’t appear as early, which is why I didn’t mention it in my initial criticisms. The film-within-a-film, which is apparently part of the novel, feels quite distinct from the main plot. I have not read the novel and maybe it’s handled better in the novel, but here it feels grafted in. I admire the boldness of having a movie the protagonist supposedly watched slowly unfold during the rest of the movie. And I can also see it’s influence. (For example, Tampopo feels like it’s made in a world in which it’s totally okay to break the fourth wall. I imagine growing up with a film like this makes that totally okay.) But I just don’t feel like it adds to the film. I think this movie is more effective without the film-within-a-film and might even be an all-time great movie despite the bad decision to make Okuyama this unlikable. But I just don’t think it coheres with the film-within-a0film.

All that being said, this is one of the most creative features I’ve seen from the 1960s. From the makeup to the insane medical clinic set to the stills that feel arbitrarily injected into the film, this is an aggressively avant garde film that challenges our idea of what a film can be, both in terms of its form and in terms of the content. The content is perhaps too philosophical but also clearly influential. Face/Off doesn’t exist without this film, obviously, but so many other films as well. (I should have written them down as there were a couple other American films I’ve seen that were clearly influenced by this.) Despite what appear to me to be fatal flaws, I can’t help but appreciate the effort. Teshigahara was the man.


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