A match made in film heaven – Kōbō Abe & Teshigahara

Posted: December 26, 2010 in 3x, Directors
Tags: , , , , ,

Japanese writer, photographer and inventor Kōbō Abe has often been compared to Kafka and Camus for his existential explorations of human individuality and freedom. But being a photographer and having an eye for surreal images, his texts are often very visual, detailed and overwhelmingly vivid, basically begging to be made into films. Along comes fellow Japanese renaissance man Hiroshi Teshigahara, a master of avant-garde filmmaking, and makes literary history into film history by retelling Kōbō Abe’s existential stories in such a cinematic language that is rarely equaled, never surpassed. Teshigahara not only understands Abe perfectly, but also seems to have a special sensibility for finding just the right frame, just the right image and just the right face to translate existential anxieties to the screen.
Their first collaboration is also the least known, Otoshiana (Pitfall, 1962). A miner and his young son drift from one workplace to another dreaming of security and earning a place in the world. Contracted for a promising new job, the man walks towards his violent death on an abandoned road, and “wakes up” as a ghost, eager to find out why he was killed. The answers, however, are not comforting and cannot bring peace. And most importantly, his death, just as his life, seems to lack any trace of individuality. The thought of sharing a face and of sharing the life and fate of others emerges here for the first time, but it will come back more elaborately in The Face of Another. Here is the official trailer of the film.
Sunna no onna (Woman in the Dunes, 1964) is the unquestionable masterpiece of the Abe-Teshigahara collaborations. A teacher and amateur entomologist is trapped by some villagers into sharing the endless struggle of a woman living among all-invasive sand dunes. The suffocating atmosphere created by the sand, the seemingly useless work of shoveling it every night and the man’s resistance, revolt and ultimate acceptance all allude strongly to Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, but with several other layers added to it, such as desperate sexuality, sense of community and endless inventiveness. Here is a video essay instead of a trailer, although you should definitely watch the film first.
Finally, Tanin no kao (The Face of Another, 1966) completes the trilogy with a change of scenery (to the city) that allows for a shift of perspective on previously depicted existential questions, as well as for certain previously untouched issues to emerge (as, for example, that of nuclear war). A man is badly injured in a work accident, his face destroyed and his sense of self shaking. A psychiatrist makes him a mask, copying the face of a random man (incidentally, the actor who played the miner in Pitfall, and who, even in that first film, had his face duplicated) and they start experimenting with the idea of being someone else, free of oneself and of moral standards that come from individuality. This is my favorite of the collaborations, firsts, because the urban context makes the story less allegorical and more easy for me to relate to, second, because of the sheer beauty and complexity of both story and image, and third, because of the much more nuanced female characters who in my opinion sometimes overshadow the male heroes.
Here is the haunting German waltz from the pub scene. All of the three films feature incredibly powerful soundtracks by composer Tôru Takemitsu.

  1. George says:

    Niki Jumpei speaks perhaps for them both in The Woman in the Dunes (p.68): “I have considerable doubt about a system of education that imputes meaning to life.”

  2. […] I read the book, by Kōbō Abe, and wondered if the film followed it closely. Finally, about ten years ago, I was able to get a VHS copy at an avant-guard video store. I was very disappointed. The transfer was so bad all I could see was a blur. It really made no sense. I hoped the original was better than this horrible copy of a copy of a copy. […]

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