Horror Bites - Seeing Double


AKA A Stranger's Face. While there are a lot of articles about Japanese films from the sixties here they're generally full of colourful miniatures and monster mayhem. Calling this an actual horror film might be pushing things a little far, but then it's just the excuse I need to take a look at Hiroshi Teshigahara's existential drama. The premise is simple - a man disfigured in an accident is given a new face... and the freedom to do what he will with it. Will he misuse this gift or simply adjust and rejoin society? What other kinds of masks are the people he knows already wearing? Just like The Invisible Man things start to get out of hand when the bandages come off, which is a fitting comparison and a good place to begin a deeper analysis.

There are a lot of striking images in the story, from the number of mirrors and medical tubes on display to the glass screens that depict the lines of the human face. Although these muscles hold the recognisable parts of a person together, there's a sense as things progress that they're starting to unravel. The harsh black and white photography blurs the line between night and day, and obscures the cuts between reality and the film inside a film that protagonist Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) finds himself recalling. Artifice of all kinds is a deep running theme as he finds himself in a situation where social norms are slowly stripped away. Without a face to show the civilised world he's left with only his own choices to create a path forward.

After an industrial fire Okuyama refuses to show this damaged features, preferring to keep on his featureless surgical bandages. At first he discusses the situation with his wife (Machiko Kyō) as they talk about what it would be like to live in total darkness and never look on a person's identity. They discuss the reasons that make-up and veils exist, but their relationship is starting to falter and he feels that she's humouring him. At the plastics factory he works for Okyuma decides to sever all ties with his colleagues and feels it would be better for him to exist only as a voice on the telephone or as documents on a fax machine. However things are about to get a lot stranger when a psychiatrist Dr. Hira (Mikijirō Hira) offers to help alleviate the situation.

Hira is not a surgeon but he wants to give Okuyama an experimental mask just to see the effects. He never suggests recreating the damaged tissue and whether he's really an altruistic character is debatable, but the dynamic between doctor and patient is the main driving force of the story. It's not truly hard science fiction as they pay a man to borrow his pores and wrinkles for the new skin (including a mole to add realism) to create a perfect rubber face, but rather a tale of morality and human nature. As Hira proposes this is simply a thought experiment, a way of testing Okuyama to see if the mask gives him new personality traits. Soon to nobody's surprise his anxiety about wearing a new face in public starts to vanish along with his other inhibitions.

This is a very eerie film that is best enjoyed as a character piece, or a study of the human condition with a lot of new wave flair added. Okuyama's antics initially appear to be harmless as he rents two different apartments in the same block, to disguise his change between the bandaged victim and his new self. His mind is also split as considers getting into character by seducing his wife, while at the same time obsessing over a Second World War drama being screened that depicts a scarred girl trying to find romance amidst her fears of falling bombs. His romantic ideas are in contrast to some of his actions, just as the classical depictions of the human form shown in Hira's office are at odds with the base desires Okuyama slowly begins to placate.

More interestingly the narrative seems to suggest that without an identity and a place in society people are lost and isolated - even when the masses of identical workers shown in the surreal closing scenes are depicted without any individuality. There's a lot of weird and engaging ideas to consider in what is often a bleak and ambiguous tale. It proposes that rules are made to be broken, but without structure in their lives the everyday people are frustrated and melancholy. Okuyama's neighbour, a girl with learning difficulties, is the only one to apparently escape this fate and see through his facade; but she's doomed to be a self obsessed thief who will probably never outgrow her immature ways. But at least her innocence is an alternative to Okuyama's self destructive psyche.

Perhaps the amount if existential dread presented throughout the story is what might lead some to classify this as a horror movie. The post nuclear cityscape with all its monochrome glass and concrete is overtly sinister after all. It also seems to conclude with the idea that escape from the lonely crowd is only possible when a person stops caring about the rules altogether with or without a mask to hide behind. Or when they become their own doppelgänger. For a film made nearly five decades ago it has a lot of relevance in the digital age, which I guess is the sign of a great story. It's a film filled with disembodied voices, twisted reflections and amoral decisions, as well as a lot of dialogue about people becoming detached and monstrous. Perhaps your enjoyment levels will depend on how much of this feels like food for thought, but overall it's still essential viewing.