While the Japanese New Wave may not have been as well-known or as influential a movement as the French Nouvelle Vague, it yielded a mass of talented, independent and original film-makers spearheaded by Kaneto Shindo - of ONIBABA (1964) fame - and including Shohei Imamura, Yasuzo Masumura, Toshio Matsumoto, Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda, Seijun Suzuki, Hiroshi Teshigahara and Koji Wakamatsu.
Until now, like most film buffs, I had only known Hiroshi Teshigahara through his one undisputed international critical success, WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964), which had also made him the first ever Asian film-maker to be nominated for a Best Direction Academy Award. Even so, I have long cherished the thought of watching more of his admittedly small oeuvre (just 8 feature films in 40 years!) and now, thanks to the U.K.'s "Masters Of Cinema" DVD label, I caught up with the films Teshigahara made just before and after tasting international success.
As a result of WOMAN IN THE DUNES, Teshigahara was here allowed to use for the first time in his career two of Japan's biggest box-office stars of the time, Tatsuya Nakadai, a fixture of the second half of Kurosawa's career and Machiko Kyo, star of RASHOMON (1950) and UGETSU (1953); the two stars from WOMAN IN THE DUNES, then - Eiji Okada and Kyoko Kishida - also appear in supporting roles. As with most of Teshigahara's films, Toru Takemitsu provides the impeccable musical accompaniment, suitably sinister and majestically lush as the occasion requires; Takemitsu also puts in an appearance in a lengthy bar sequence towards the middle of the film.
The story, based as were Teshigahara's first four movies, on famed Japanese writer and friend Kobo Abe's novel, deals with a businessman who, after losing his facial features in an unspecified laboratory explosion, resorts to plastic surgery and gradually starts to question his identity. The fact that he specifically asks that his new face be molded from that of a complete stranger turns out to be a fateful one: it isn't enough to fool two perceptive females who cross his path - his own wife, whom he seduces under his new identity, shattering his new-found confidence by stating that she was aware of him being her husband all along and the crazed daughter of a hotel manager (the amiable Kurosawa regular Minoru Chiaki) to which he relocates after the surgery recognizes the new tenant as the heavily-bandaged one who had previously lived there; in fact, the arrival at the hotel of the man in his different identities is filmed the same way with the exact incidents occurring each time.
The subject matter cannot but elicit comparisons with other films dealing with facial transplants and loss of identity and, in my case, I was instantly reminded of Georges Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1959; one of my favorite films) and John Frankenheimer's SECONDS (1966). Although I'd say that both these films are even better at hitting their targets, Teshigahara's film is certainly worthy of such company and, in retrospect, what differentiates it from the others is its boldly cerebral take on the material, complete with shots of such utter strangeness that they remain effortlessly imprinted in one's mind: the very first shot of the laboratory full of inanimate limbs floating in vats of water, the introduction of the main character in a sequence shot in X-ray vision(!), the eerie, inexplicable shot of the laboratory seemingly engulfed by an over-sized bundle of hair floating in space, a supporting "fictional" character (more on this later) struck by a deadly ray of atomic radiation when he draws the curtains to look upon the scene of his sister's suicide and, perhaps best of all, the haunting night-time finale in which the main character and his doctor are surrounded by a horde of "faceless" people.
It has to be said that THE FACE OF ANOTHER, as with a lot of post-war Japanese cinema, is informed by the traumatic WWII atomic bomb attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The protagonist apparently goes to watch one such film at the cinema (an occurrence given away by a short but sudden change in aspect ratio from full-frame to widescreen): it deals with a facially-scarred young woman who, after having an apparently incestuous relationship with her brother, drowns herself. The story of that film is incongruously but seamlessly interspersed within the main narrative, serving as a parallel commentary on the increasingly ambivalent actions of the Tatsuya Nakadai character.
One is hopeful for an English-subtitled DVD release of Hiroshi Teshigahara's fourth and last collaboration with Kobo Abe, THE MAN WITHOUT A MAP (1968), somewhere down the line...
Review by MARIO GAUCI from the Internet Movie Database.