A key scene in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Pitfall involves the ghost of a murdered miner observing with visible anger as investigators and reporters speculate about his murder and are led down a wrong path by a deliberately false witness report of a woman. There is a palpable sense of tragicomic absurdity to the proceedings, further heightened by the dead miner’s desperate attempts to be heard by the (living) people, to tell them the truth, and most importantly, to know why he was killed. It is far too important for him, and even the wise words of advice from a veteran ghost (“The dead only upset themselves by worrying about the living”) won’t change his state of mind. Unfortunately, as he is to discover soon, it is far too late.
It is one of the great triumphs of Teshigahara’s movie – the first in a strikingly unique trilogy that borders on the avant garde (Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another are the other two), created in collaboration with novelist/screenwriter Kobo Abe and musician Toru Takemitsu – that he employs this most basic element of the Japanese ghost story and uses that not to scare but to infuse his socially conscious tale with a vicious, almost unbearably pitch-dark humor that evokes discomfort and laughter in equal measure, often at the same time. And to think that along with black humor and ghost story, Pitfall contains elements of the murder mystery and a scathing social commentary on the moral corruption in post-war Japan is to get some hint of the sheer amount of ideas contained within. Indeed, it would be accurate to call Pitfall the cleverest movie of the trilogy, if not the best (that honor almost certainly goes to the superlative Woman in the Dunes).
The movie follows a poor miner who after getting an offer for work, arrives with his son in a deserted wasteland that is a ghost town in more ways than one, only to be a victim of a gruesome murder that as we soon see is part of a larger and more sinister scheme. The rest of the movie is seen through two pairs of eyes: the ghost of the dead miner, who haplessly roams around trying to find the reason for his senseless killing, demanding answers from people who can’t hear him (and probably wouldn’t have even if he was alive) and his child, who sees not only the murder but also everything else that ensues in the town. One of the main themes the movie riffs on is the barbaric dehumanization of the working class in post- war Japan, represented in this movie by the less-than-ideal conditions the miners work and live in. Indeed, there is documentary footage of real-life mining accidents interspersed within the story, which among other things serve as justification for the miner’s desire to work in a factory with a union in his next life, where his voice and grievances will be heard. Needless to say, his rosy ideas about the afterlife are soon to be shattered.
The scope of the film however is a lot more universal than this. As has been remarked upon by many critics, the philosophical perspective of absurdism, particularly as delineated in the literature of Albert Camus, prominently runs through the Teshigahara-Abe-Takemitsu trilogy. In Pitfall, these motifs are mostly evoked through the depressing images of the dead souls aimlessly wandering the windswept town, some eternally caught in their final act before life was cut short and others (like the miner) completely unwilling to accept the ruthless injustice that befell them but powerless to do anything about it. These are sequences of great power, atmospheric, minimalist and punctuated by the harsh sounds of Toru Takemitsu’s avantgarde score. The movie once even cuts to images of insects struggling to stay alive, possibly indicating that the life of the protagonist is not a whole lot better, a grueling struggle for survival that is abruptly cut short. Pitfall in this regard comes across as a lot darker than the subsequent Woman in the Dunes, and hence the perfect precursor. The director (and as a result, the viewer) can never shake off the feeling that the existence of the miner (and many others like him) is pathetic, meaningless and irredeemable, and the endless indifference and hostility of their masters and of the entire universe seems far too daunting. The miner can shout as much as he wants for answers, explanations, but he is no closer to getting any by the end of the movie, neither is his predicament much worse than what it was when he was alive (in one of many darkly comic masterstrokes, he realizes he will forever starve as a dead man). Woman in the Dunes on the other hand seems a lot more comfortable with this meaninglessness. In the best tradition of Camus (in fact, Woman in the Dunes can be reasonably described as a cinematic realization of Camus’ absurdist essay The Myth of Sisyphus), Teshigahara’s (and Abe’s) protagonists pursue their outwardly futile endeavor with (an insect-like) tenacity, a state of existence that is eventually acknowledged as absurd, yet celebrated, even ennobled.
The one thread in the movie that’s not as fleshed out as the others (possibly intentionally) involves the miner’s son. Teshigahara does not know what is going on in the small kid’s impressionable mind after witnessing all the terrible incidents, and he doesn’t attempt any half-baked answers, merely asks us to ruefully contemplate on a potentially permanent loss of innocence. That this is as much of a tragedy as anything else we’ve witnessed is obvious, and no words are required to express it. The final bird’s eye view of the boy running out of the ghost town into the outside world is a sobering one, and by itself ensures the movie won’t easily find it’s way out of your head.