One of many striking images in Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Face of Another

Sometimes I think there might just be something to the theory of synchronicity (defined by Wikipedia as “the experience of two or more events, that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance”). What else can account for my penning consecutive reviews of films featuring prosthetic fingers?

If not synchronicity, it’s a downright spooky coincidence.

Last week’s film, Rapt, told the tale of a kidnapped man who loses a middle digit to kidnappers. That finger, of course, was not ‘real’ — a stunt digit stood in for the genuine item. In The Face of Another (Tanin no kai), a 1966 psychodrama screening at 8:35 pm on Saturday July 30th as part of Pacific Film Archive’s “Japanese Divas” series, a ‘real’ prosthesis appears, albeit in a much smaller and less significant role.

Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara — one of the few Japanese filmmakers to work outside the studio system — The Face of Another stars Kurosawa regular Tatsuya Nakadai as Okuyama, a Japanese salary-man whose face has been horribly disfigured in an industrial accident. The film begins as he pours out his troubles to psychiatrist Hori (Mikijiro Hira), a shrink who dabbles in prostheses as a hobby. How handy! (Cue rimshot.)

Okuyama is struggling to come to terms with his ‘lost’ identity, expounding at length about the effect his accident has had on his life. When he threatens to burn his wife’s face so that it will match his own, Hori suggests something a little less radical: how about a mask that will allow him to cover his horrendous scars and assume a new identity at the same time?

Okuyama leaps at the opportunity for a fresh start. He tells his boss he’ll now work exclusively by phone (kicking off the telecommuting trend decades ahead of time), rents a new apartment, and decides to seduce his wife (Rashomon’s Machiko Kyo) in an effort to test both her loyalty and the efficacy of the mask. Shockingly, the seduction doesn’t go well and Okuyama finds his life spinning further and further out of control.

Based on a Kobo Abe novel, The Face of Another is not easy viewing. In addition to offering gruesome but fleeting glances of Okuyama’s scarred face, Teshigahara emphasizes the character’s alienation via spare but timely application of Toru Takemitsu’s (Kwaidan, Pale Flower) dissonant score. Bizarre set design (check out the ‘wallpaper’ in Hiro’s office) and claustrophobic tight close-ups (unlike most post-war Japanese filmmakers, Teshigahara preferred to film in academy ratio) add to the film’s otherworldly atmosphere.

Additionally, odd references to Nazi Germany crop up throughout the film. Hitler speeches are heard in the background during scenes set in a hospital for mentally disturbed war veterans, and Okuyama and Hiro spend most of their spare time drinking in a German-style bierhaus whose advertising emphasizes its connections with Munich.  

Though clearly influenced by such films as James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933), Robert Florey’s The Face Behind the Mask (1941), and Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage, 1960) — and presumably a significant influence itself on Shinya Tsukamoto’s dystopian nightmare Tetsuo (1989) — there’s no other film quite like The Face of Another. For those looking for something a little different — or those interested in seeing what Teshigahara got up to after completing his classic Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna, 1964) — this is essential viewing.

John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...