“You’re not the only lonely man. Being free always involves being lonely.”
Tanin no Kao is the third collaboration between director Teshigahara and writer Kobo Abe (Pitfall, The Woman in the Dunes, and later in 1968, The Ruined Map) and it explores similar themes; the individual’s role in society, the loss of identity and, ultimately, the loss of one’s self (and moral values) entirely (the “divided self”). Abe’s work as a whole is heavily influenced by Kafka and various Russian authors and existentialism in general, and this film is no different in that regard.
The story’s protagonist is Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) who is a well-to-do businessman whose face is permanently disfigured in an unspecified industrial accident at work. Throughout much of the early part of the film, he wears bandages (even beyond the period of which he can remove them) to hide his face from the world. He is very self-conscious of his condition and sinks into a state of derision and brooding. Okuyama has been seeing a psychiatrist (whose office is a bizarre makeshift laboratory complete with glass partitions painted with Langer’s lines – also, the furniture and equipment in the room seem to be continually rearranged throughout the film), Dr. Hira, who sees his patient’s increasing rejection of society and eventually suggests an experimental form of “treatment.” Dr. Hira explains that, through the use of a certain flesh-like plastic, a “mask” can be fashioned; it’s artificiality of which, is completely imperceptible (“Except around the eyes, you’ll need sunglasses for those,” Hira advises) to the human eye. Okuyama accepts the idea and Dr. Hira finds a man to serve as the basis for the mask (by taking a mold of his face). When the procedure is complete, Hira informs Okuyama that the mask can only be worn for a maximum of twelve hours, after which the mask must be replaced with a fresh one. What follows are numerous events which proceed to reiterate the film’s major themes of anarchy and identity, the doppelganger and the individual.
Eventually, Okuyama attempts to seduce his own wife whilst wearing his new face. He succeeds easily and when he derides her later for being “unfaithful,” she responds that she knew it was him all along on the assumption that he was trying to reinvigorate their marriage. She becomes disgusted when she learns that he tried to trick her into proving her loyalty and leaves. Okuyama wanders the streets, gets arrested for assaulting an unknown woman, and is released by Dr. Hira. Dr. Hira’s assistant (played by Kyoko Kishida) should receive special mention as well. Kishida played the title character in Woman in the Dunes and in this film, she plays a kind of chameleon (she is barely mentioned in the novel); at one point offering sound, moral advice and at another, deceptive and immoral advice.
The idea of doubles is another recurring theme, not only in relation to Okuyama himself, but in his actions and in conversations that reoccur throughout the film. For instance, Okuyama rents a different room from the same apartment complex once as his bandaged self and once as his “new” self. Cinematically, there’s also a recurrence of shots, so it’s a very organic film which reveals itself gradually over multiple viewings once one gets beyond the main plot.
To touch on a few little details; the concept of the “mask” is really done well. Perhaps reading a synopsis of the film would sound trite and cliché, but Teshigahara makes the most of it. The idea that Okuyama’s face is so disfigured as to take a shape similar (but not identical) to the man whom Dr. Hira took the mold from, is a subtle but brilliant touch. We never see Okuyama’s “original” face and, perhaps, this is for the better. The music for the film, composed by long-time Teshigahara collaborator (as well as contributor to numerous films by Akira Kurosawa), Toru Takemitsu, is of course, brilliantly done. One major deviation from the novel (which is only loosely connected to the main plot in the film) is a side story involving an unnamed woman whose beauty is marred by some strange disfigurement, the cause of which is never specified (though one can assume that it occurred as a result of atomic bombing). Certainly an often overlooked classic by a highly regarded filmmaker; perhaps the earlier success of Woman in the Dunes played a part in that.
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