About two and a half years ago I watched wonderful film by director Hiroshi Teshigahara called Woman In The Dunes (1964) based on a Kôbô Abe novel and screenplay. It’s about an entomologist who is trapped by the locals while looking for insects by the sea. He is forced to live with a woman in a house at the bottom of a pit of sand. They have to spend most of their time digging to prevent being swallowed up by the sand. It is a wonderfully surreal exploration of identity, alienation, and purpose.
So it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that another Teshigahara film made in collaboration with Kôbô Abe would explore the same ideas. However, this time we are taken to a modern Japanese city rather then a pit of sand. The main character has had his face damaged in an industrial accident and wears bandages all the time like the invisible man. He’s miserable and mopes about from one shocked, but polite, person to another while making his wife’s life miserable. When his doctor suggests an undetectable mask, molded from an actual person’s face, he all but jumps at the idea.
At about the 1 hour mark our man in bandages acquires that mask in a very surreal and undefinable doctor’s office. The doctor asks him in no uncertain terms whether he is going to use this mask to retreat from society or whether he is going to use it to integrate himself back into society. He says he will integrate himself back into society and eventually decides to try and seduce his own wife while wearing the mask. It’s this second half that is tough. There is a bit too much dialogue about all the implications of the mask and masks in general. Even the mask, in the form of makeup, worn by women comes up and there is a discussion over whether it represents vanity or humility.
The movie also has a short, but parallel, narrative where we see a women whose face has been scared work her way towards an eventual suicide in the ocean. Her face has been presumably scarred by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. When she goes into the ocean a bright light cooks her brother before we cut to an image of the sun (often used as a reference to the atomic bombs in Japanese cinema).
The ending is interesting and evokes The Twilight Zone, but it’s that second hour of mostly verbal introspection that makes it tough to see the visual beauty and symmetry this film has to offer. Therefore, it’s only worth a look.