Hiroshi Teshigahara’s film Face of Another is based on Kōbō Abe’s novel about a businessman, Okuyama, who burns his entire face in an unspecified industrial accident. Repulsed by his disfigured face and angered by his wife’s failure to accept it, Okuyama seeks the help of Dr. Hira, a psychiatrist who promises to build a mask to hide Okuyama’s burns.
Teshigahara weaves Okuyama and Hira’s story with that of a young woman. She shares with Okuyama disfiguring facial burns, though hers cover only part of her face. She covers them well with her long hair, but not perfectly. The image that stays with you is the burn, not the beauty:
Face of Another’s elegant visuals will remain with me for a long time, even though the film as a whole does not rise to the expectations set by its excellent imagery. At times the conversations between Okuyama and Hira are too clunky, describing each concept the film raises to its most minute detail. Dr. Hira reminds Okuyama again and again that by wearing the mask, he may find himself assuming a new identity. If everyone began wearing masks, Hira speculates, familiar social structures would crumble. Families would not cohere, crime would go unpunished, vice would flourish. Dr. Hira delivers his predictions with absolute conviction, making them seemed dated in today’s world of DNA testing and “anonymous” internet communication. We know how to reveal an individual’s identity with absolute certainty in specific cases using molecular signals. Meanwhile, the number of “anonymous” hackers revealed and punished by the FBI grows steadily. The idea that one could hide behind a simple, physical mask seems quaint now, when even utmost digital protection cannot provide true anonymity.
One wonders, in the face of such dialogue, whether Teshigahara does not trust his examination of identity and appearance to be merit enough for The Face of Another to exist. Why else would he have devoted so much screen time to transparent attempts to outline the societal implications of his plot line? In fact, the film stands more powerfully if one views it less as a vehicle for exploring the power of realistic facial masks, and more as a general commentary on the face.
Two individuals, Okuyama who strives to hide his deformity and the young woman who decides to surrender to hers, provide enough behavioral commentary on the nature of identity and its relationship to our fragile, manipulatable faces. Both suffer from a lack of physical closeness to others. Throughout the film, strangers and family avoid contact with the two, presumably because they find their faces too repulsive to approach. Being wealthy and successful, Okuyama uses money and connections to secure a pristine looking mask with which to cover his dense, raised scars. With his newly masked face, Teshigahara impersonates a stranger and seduces his wife. But while he thinks he has tricked her into adultery, she knows all along that the masked man is her husband in disguise. Even within the film, a feigned face is not enough to hide one’s true identity. Okuyama does achieve closeness with his wife, even intimacy, while wearing the mask. The still above shows Okuyama and his wife’s legs intertwined beneath a table. Teshigahara beautifully captures their limbs’ tender dance around each other.
When Okuyama accuses his wife of committing adultery, he demonstrates his own shortsightedness. Would she have shared such easy foot play with a stranger she had just met? Could she have done so? If you were to ask her, she would certainly say no. Of course she was upset. After all, if his wife could tell who Okuyama really was beneath his false face, why couldn’t Okuyama sense that his wife knew who he was?
The young woman, meanwhile, lacks the resources to disguise her injury that Okuyama has. She works, it seems, with World War II veterans. Even the crude boys who come on to her as she walks to work would never embrace her, and she turns instead to her brother’s attention, which he gives in the form of shame-powered kisses. Their physical love is a violent exchange, his every touch pressing aggressively into her flesh. Even so, her face settles into restful acceptance as they fall upon her.
The young woman drowns herself at the film’s end. Before doing so, she claims to see another war coming, one that will start the next day. Perhaps she was burned by atomic waves, and still fears the onset of World War III. Or, perhaps, she can no longer bear being looked at with disgust. I found myself happy to see her die, clad in white, innocence and acceptance still emanating from her.