Okuyama (Kurosawa regular Tatsuya Nakadai), a businessman, is facially scarred during a disastrous laboratory fire. He lives in depression, his face covered in bandages, his wife (Machiko Kyo) being unable to cope and himself doubting who he really is now that his face is gone. But thanks to a Dr. Hira (Mikijiro Hira), who creates a new form of latex that mimics real skin. After choosing a face for him, they create a mask, but only with the promise that Okuyama will tell every experience, no matter how extreme, that he experiences with his new face to Dr. Hira. But soon it’s revealed that Okuyama’s desire for a new face has a darker purpose: to see if he can seduce his wife, leading to disastrous consequences.
This film was directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, one of the darker of the Japanese New Wave filmmakers of the late 50’s and early 60’s. His previous two films, Pitfall and Woman in the Dunes, created waves and controversy in Japan, and this one was no exception. And why be surprised? This is one of the most incredible films I have ever seen, as it really confronts the psychology that everyone bases behavior and morality on. Does a personality shape a face, or does a face shape personality? This main theme of the film drove me nuts long after I saw this film, and the idea that all of Okuyama’s actions are driven by selfish jealousy truly struck me. Much of it is well portrayed by the actors in the film. Tatsuya Nakadai is a legend, appearing in classics such as Seven Samurai, Harakiri and Kwaidan, and here he gives his typically intense but realistic performances he is known for. His final breakdown is something to behold. But as always, it was my favorite Japanese actress, Machiko Kyo, who stole the show. I love this woman and if I knew her I would propose marriage. I had previously featured her in this blog with my Ugetsu and Gate Of Hell reviews, and here he is no different: a delicate flower, but also seductive. Teshigahara’s previous films showed a lot of dark perverse sex, all done for psychological angles by the filmmaker, and this one is no different. The fact that Okuyama’s intentions are to seduce his wife and show her as unfaithful is as perverse as a man can get, and Kyo’s beauty and seductive sensitivity are perfect for the role. Plus, I was shocked that she was nude during the film, re-affirming my knowledge that there is no more beautiful actress in Japan cinema than her. What a body!
There is also the typical anti-War angle that many of these Japanese New Wave films feature. The fact that the main character’s burns come from a laboratory fire affirm that. But there’s also a second deformed character, a young woman who lives with her brother, which introduces another popular theme of the Jap New Wave: incest. Yes, both brother and sister make love before the bomb falls, but unlike Okuyama, who struggles psychologically with his deformation, his sister seems to be completely at peace, and in the end drowns herself in what could only be considered the most serene suicide ever. This film is a masterpiece and one of my favorites of all time, and comes highly recommended.