An Ikebana-Trained Artiste Shows Startling Avant-Garde Style
Ed Uyeshima | San Francisco, CA USA | 08/19/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara was a true artiste who saw film as one of several creative outlets, which is why the sum of his cinematic output feels relatively paltry compared to his contemporaries. The Criterion Collection has smartly seen fit to present a four-disc DVD set showcasing his three most accomplished works - plus four shorts and a feature-length documentary about Teshigahara and his most frequent collaborator, author/screenwriter Kôbô Abe. Teshigahara's style can best be described as avant-garde, especially compared to the previous generation of Japanese filmmakers who focused far more on narrative structure and emotional consistency - Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu. As judged by these works, Teshigahara seems far interested more in challenging a viewer's sensibilities with movies that confound as much as they resonate. The results were not always successful, but they are well worth experiencing.
The first film of the set, 1962's "Pitfall" (****), represents Teshigahara's debut as a feature filmmaker and is both an expressionistic ghost story and a scathing social critique of Japan's post-WWII labor conditions within the mining industry. The mystery-laden plot focuses on a poor coal miner, who is murdered in front of his young son after moving to a ghost town where the local mine becomes a battleground between the two unions that run it. The miner's ghost attempts to solve the crime and figure out the motive, all the while as mistrust permeates the community with more deaths occurring. The filmmaker's social agenda sometimes gets in the way of a corking detective story, but he also presents a haunting, often surreal allegory of social alienation and moral bankruptcy. Hisashi Igawa lends a palpable desperation to the doomed miner, while Kunie Tanaka cuts an appropriately austere figure as the unavoidable stranger in the white suit.
An international art house hit that even garnered Oscar nominations, 1964's "Woman in the Dunes" (*****) is the set's centerpiece and a deserving masterpiece. The highly symbolic story focuses on an amateur entomologist on what he thinks is a day trip from Tokyo to a seaside area with vast sand dunes. As he looks for a particular beetle that he thinks will bring him fame within scientific circles, he loses track of time, and local villagers come upon him. For overnight lodging, they take him to a woman who lives in the bottom of a sand pit reachable only by a rope ladder. With the ladder gone the next morning, it dawns on him that he is being held captive by the villagers. From this revelation, Teshigahara and Abe focus on how the man deals with the situation and his evolving feelings toward the woman. Eiji Okada (Hiroshima Mon Amour, The Ugly American) dominates every scene as the emotionally volatile entomologist evolving from sexist entitlement to humiliating desperation to serene resignation. As the woman, the offbeat-looking Kyôko Kishida initially seems to be playing Friday to Okada's Robinson Crusoe, but her character starts to reveal layers that startle and fill in necessary plot details. The film's overall unnerving tone makes it feel often like an extended episode of a Twilight Zone.
The third film presented is 1967's "The Face of Another" (***1/2), which provides some unsettling sci-fi elements in its piercing exploration of identity, personal freedom and social acceptance. It's probably the most audacious of the three films, but Teshigahara's overly stylized approach makes it arguably the least satisfying on an emotional level. That's because the primary characters feel somewhat removed from reality starting with an embittered burn victim named Okuyama, his face completely bandaged. He has an oddly co-dependent relationship with his psychiatrist, who gives him a prosthetic mask that allows him to start his life anew. However, Okuyama's emotionally isolated wife returns into his life, and the inevitable complications occur. Meanwhile, there is a parallel story centered on a young woman who bears a large radiation burn on her face, a victim of the atomic bomb dropped in Nagasaki. Her wish is to conform wither surroundings and be accepted, which makes for an intriguing counterpoint to Okuyama's plight. Tatsuya Nakadai (Harakiri, Ran, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs) plays the challenging role of Okuyama with effective menace and melancholy, and as his wife, the legendary Machiko Kyô (Rashomon, Ugetsu, Floating Weeds) lends an elegant but tangible sense of concealment to her relatively few scenes.
Each film benefits greatly from Tôru Takemitsu's mood-setting music impressive for the versatility he displays with each score. Although extras are modest, each DVD has the original trailer and a generally illuminating if sometimes overly verbose video essay by James Quandt, who heads the Ontario Cinematheque. The fourth disc contains "Teshigahara and Abe", an intriguing documentary that covers the filmmaker's eclectic life, including his years being groomed to take over his father's world-renowned ikebana (flower arrangement) school. The four relatively modest shorts provide variable interest to aficionados - 1953's "Hokusai" spotlights the famous block artist; 1956's "Ikebana", a color film which shows the hard-earned artistry found in his father's school; 1958's "Tokyo 1958", an odd curio designed to show the vibrancy of the city at the time; and 1965's "Ako", a simple short about a girl's night on the town. Finally, there is a fifty-page booklet that provides further insight into a filmmaker more than worthy of rediscovery."
Ted | Pennsylvania, USA | 08/11/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This box set by Criterion contains three films on four discs.
The first film Pitfall, released in Japan as, Otoshiana, is about a man who dies and becomes a ghost.
The second film Woman in the Dunes, released in Japan as, Suna no onna, is about an entomologist who misses his bus back to town. He is offered a place to stay for the night which is in a sand pit accessible only by ladder. The widow who lives there then holds him captive.
The third film, The Face of Another, released in Japan as, Tanin no kao, is about a man whose face is disfigured in a fire who is given a realistic mask by a doctor.
Each of these films, especially Woman in the Dunes is excellent. I have been waiting for Criterion to release Woman in the Dunes for several years.
The release contains an entire disc of special features too. There are video essays on each film by movie critic, James Quandt. Also there is a documentary about Teshigahara and his colleague Kobo Abe. Finally Four short films Hiroshi Teshigahara directed are included. They are Hokusai, Ikebana, Tokyo 1958, and Ako/White Morning (1963)"
Criterion does it again
D. Delvecchio | 07/09/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Great job Criterion in releasing the work of a brilliant director. Have seen Woman in the Dunes and Face of Another; both are based on novels by surreal Japanese writer Kobe Abe. Both are Kafkaesque stories of identity and loss of identity as well as modern man's function in a society where the self is disappearing. They are both clinical in their dissection of their characters but at the same time dream-like, moody, paranoid, and nightmarish with a touch of the macabre. Face of Another may be a bit less accessible but both are very deep psychological meditations, brilliant in their simplicity and style. Teshigahara was a true original, at once a part of the japanese New Wave yet somehow distinct from it. He reminds me a bit of Czech director Jan Nemec. This collection is a welcome addition to Criterion's impressive releases. Hopefully "The Ruined Map" which is a slightly later Teshigahara film again based on a Kobe Abe novel will be released at some point, but these three films are more than adequate to familiarize people with an extremely important Director."
Alexandru Mitroi | Fullerton, CA United States | 10/24/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I should first say that what a person sees in a film is greatly dependent on how much the person knows and their experiences. If you hate learning and thinking this is not the film for you. The target audience is not your regular Joe that cannot get enough Hollywood films like 300. There exists a heaven beyond Hollywood death and the garbage they put out, and a big part of it is the Criterion Collection.
This is the first time i have watched Teshigahara. I have seen Bergman, Felini, Kurosawa, Kieslowki, Tarkovsky, etc., and Teshigahara is no doubt just as good. It is hard for his later works to compete with Woman in the dunes, and it is visible why; but i like The face of another just as much, and it gets better each time you watch it again. I love Tatsuya Nakadai in anything he does - Sword of Doom, Harkiri to mention a few. Eiji Okada does a great job, and if you liked Hiroshima Mon Amour watch this as well. Finally, it is nice to see more Japaneses actresses. Machiko Kyô, from Rashamon, and Kyôko Kishida is the Woman in Dunes.
If you like good films this is for you."
Woman in the dunes
Stalwart Kreinblaster | Xanadu | 09/27/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I have just seen woman in the dunes for the first time and i was really impressed with it.. I can't get it out of my head in fact.. it is packed with amazing visuals that compliment the plot of the film in a very direct and striking way.. I feel that this is one of the best films i have seen and would highly recommend it.. This movie, i feel, is full of metaphors and is very interesting on that level but it is also so interesting just in the way it looks - it is a thing of beauty.."