The Face of Another (1966)

First published by Movie Gazette

After his face was horrifically burned in an industrial accident, Mr Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) hides in a headmask of bandages, increasingly alienated from his wife (Machiko Kyo), his colleagues at work, and himself. Irritable, hypersensitive, and convinced that he has become a monster, Okuyama turns to the enigmatic Dr Hori (Mikijira Hiro) to assist him in suicide. Hori, however, proposes that Okuyama instead participate in “an interesting experiment” – he is to wear an extremely lifelike mask moulded from the face of a younger stranger, and report back to Hori on his experiences. Soon Okuyama is embracing with enthusiasm the freedom of having a clean slate, but his willingness to become “a new man” is tested to its limits when he tries “to get back what’s mine” by seducing his own wife while he wears the face of another. Meanwhile, in a story that forms a counterpoint to Okuyama’s own, and that may be the plot of the film that Okuyama claims to have watched one cold day in a cinema, a beautiful young woman (Miki Irie), one half of whose face is hideously burned, lives in fear that there will be another war, and finally takes desperate measures to release herself from past scars that will never heal.

The Face of Another (aka Tanin no kao) was Hiroshi Teshigahara’s third feature film – and also his third collaboration with writer Kobo Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu – following Pitfall (1962) and the internationally acclaimed Woman of the Dunes (1964). Taking key motifs from The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and of course Eyes Without a Face, but replacing their essential horror with something altogether more mysterious, The Face Of Another is an eerie allegory concerned with the paradoxes of identity and metamorphosis, when the mind is split between a past that is difficult to erase, and a future that is unimaginably, frighteningly liberating.

Dr Hori may perform all manner of physical repairs on his patients’ bodies, but as he insists from the outset, he is in fact a psychiatrist who fills gaps in the mind, and it is both Okuyama’s and Japan’s fragile psyches which come under the microscope here far more than their damaged exteriors. Made in a period of intense transition, when Japan had to come to terms with its recent imperialist and militarist past, and the horrific scars of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while rebuilding itself for a more individualistic, technology-driven future, The Face of Another masks the uneasy rebirth of a nation behind its story of personal transformation – and at the same time both are reflected in its costumes, its sets and especially its musique concrète soundtrack, all of which, as part of the film’s own “interesting experiment”, blend elements of Japanese tradition with Western modernism.

From the realism of the domestic scenes to the out-and-out surrealism of Hori’s clinic, The Face of Another leaves the viewer unsure whether its protagonist is a dangerous criminal, a mental patient, an angst-ridden Everyman of the modern age, or a cipher for Japan’s unstable identity in the post-war period. Yet his Faustian pact with Hori, and the manner in which he breaks free of it, offers the viewer a mind-bending glimpse into a future where once again all problems can be hidden under a mask – although whether it will bear the frown of tragedy or the smile of comedy Teshigahara makes less clear.

Summary: Trauma, identity and metamorphosis in the land of the rising sun (and the falling bomb).