There are many names that come to mind when one looks back at the Japanese New Wave era: Nagisa Oshima, Koreyoshi Kurahara, Shohei Imamura, Masahiro Shinoda, and many, many more. The movement truly began with the adaptation of Shintaro Ishihara’s novel Crazed Fruit, released with the same name by director Ko Nakahira in his 1956 film. The film would kickoff a movement, a collective stream of films that juxtaposed a time in Japanese history where the traditional society of Japan clashed with the coming of a more contemporary way of living. The American occupation ended in 1952, bringing forth a difficult period for the Japanese individual and the struggle for the realization of purpose in a changing country.
One cannot discuss the Japanese New Wave without Hiroshi Teshigahara and his collaborations with Japanese writer Kobo Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu. Teshigahara didn’t make many films during this period of extreme cinematic quality but truly made an impact from two of his Kobo Abe novel adaptations: Woman in the Dunes (1964) and The Face of Another (1966). Abe wrote the scripts adapting his two novels, expertly brought to life through Teshigahara’s direction, Hiroshi Segawa’s stunning cinematography and Toru Takemitsu’s hauntingly hypnotic score.
Kobo Abe’s novels deserve a deconstruction on their own, diving deeply into the psyche of the isolated, existential Japanese self. The film adaptations do a stunning job of pairing moving images with the poignant words of Abe’s scripts. Pitfall in 1962 began this relationship with an avant-garde ghost story, but really dived into the New Wave movement with Woman in the Dunes. Sunna no Onna, translated directly as “Sand Woman” dives right into the themes from Kobo Abe’s novel, questioning the purpose that one has in a conflicted, changing society.
A man, whose name is only revealed at the very end of the film, finds himself in the vast sand dune landscape of rural Japan. He is an entomologist searching for a variant species of tiger beetles in the hopes of getting his name in a professional guidebook. Realizing that he has missed the last bus back to the city, he is brought by the local villagers to a woman’s home within the deep confines of a pit surrounded by walls of sand. Thinking that he is only staying the night, the man soon finds out that he is trapped within the sand pit and is entrusted to help the woman endlessly shovel the sand surrounding them.
What is truly astounding about this film is the consistent maintaining of interest through deep, thought provoking conversation and gorgeous, layered images in the single setting. There is so much to digest that it would take multiple viewings just to absorb all the different, potential meanings. Eiji Okada and Kyoko Kishida’s performances are a big part to what makes this film work. Okada’s descent into the madness of an individual whose self and humanity is being taken away from him paralleled by Kishida’s accepting and abused character is full of dualities that mirror the male and female roles within a changing Japanese society.
The man, whose self-importance is so assured, believes his rescue is imminent. As he makes multiple attempts to clear the sand that sticks to his body, his frustration continues to show as the very material in the land that prevents him from leaving proceeds to become a part of him. There are various superimpositions that show either the man or the woman in the house overtop the sand dunes around them, composing them as part of the land; their individuality being lost as their selves are sacrificed for their surroundings.
The woman has accepted her repetitious role, only to change from the knowledgeable teacher who understands the lay of the land into a victim. The man’s gaze begins voyeuristically, distancing his body from the woman as he witnesses her naked body. She reveals her reason for sleeping like that is to refrain from sand rubbing between the clothes and the body, causing a rash. The man’s animalistic instincts think only in terms of his own benefit as his self is captured within the frames multiple times by a mirror, reflecting his inner thoughts as he struggles to accept his limitation caused by the sand. The man eventually gives in, recognizing what he cannot give in to do as he says: “I can’t share your sense of self-sacrifice.”
The depth in relevancy that Woman in the Dunes reflects on the 1960s Japanese society continues through multiple facets. As the man slowly plays at accepting his role, he joins the woman in shoveling the ever-falling sand into containers for the villagers to receive. As they monotonously work, the man wishes the villagers came up with a more scientific way to stop the sand from falling in the pit. The woman responds by saying this form of manual labour is much cheaper. The conflict of city versus village, of tradition versus contemporary ways of thinking persist, reinforced by the woman’s lack of fascination with the outside world, suggesting most must get bored wandering around aimlessly.
When one’s self and identity is tampered with, according to what is understand as a norm, or sense of comfort, and is thrust into a pit of misunderstanding, tensions arise and parallels are drawn. Woman in the Dunes contains many parallels: of the male and female identity, the clash between traditional and contemporary Japanese society, and the pressures of the self within a collective against individuality being just a few of the many hidden deep within the dunes. Ultimately, one question asked in the film falls under a lot of these themes: “Are you shoveling sand to live, or living to shovel sand?”
Trying to find a deeper understanding of the self becomes an even bigger theme examined in Teshigahara’s The Face of Another. The film tells the journey of a man named Okuyama whose bandaged head hides the deep burns on his face suffered from a chemical accident. Okuyama, played intensely by Tatsuya Nakadai, gets a mask made by his doctor to conceal not necessarily the physical scar tissue, but to experiment on whether the new ‘face’ will allow him to indulge on his desires for freedom that this new identity presents.
The physical deformity that has caused Okuyama to conceal himself within a bandage wrap causes him to look at himself as an exile, realizing that nobody recognizes him. He revels in the feeling of being hidden amongst the crowd but is frustrated by this lack of recognition, seeing the face as a window to the soul. Without a face, the soul from within is corrupt, according to Okuyama. His anger comes out further as he tries to force himself onto his wife, moving like a monster amongst the dark shadows within his home. This act of indecency encapsulates his male ego and his eventual goal as he dons the created mask: to seduce his wife with this newfound identity. Okuyama rationalizes his motives as he says: “Civilization demands light, even at night. But a man without a face is free only when darkness rules the world.”
What makes Okuyama’s transition with the mask so interesting is that he encounters people that see right through him. Even Okuyama’s doctor suggests that as much as one might think a new self is created through the veil of the mask, the true self continues to exist from within. If a mask cause one to commit actions that one wouldn’t otherwise do, it begs the question of one’s true desires. Okuyama’s mindset is completely selfish; his unawareness of the blame he passes on towards others solidifies his monster analogy. Okuyama sees himself as a monster, believing that the monster is always to blame due to the stereotype created over time.
A parallel to this ideology presents itself through a woman whom like Okuyama, also has facial burns, but chooses not to make an attempt at concealing them. Her introduction is one of the more memorable and unsettling sequences in the entire film. Miki Irie plays this unnamed individual who is first shown in a widescreen frame, dramatically switching back to a full screen ratio after the men who catcall after her identify the burns on her face. She makes her way to her workplace: a mental hospital that appears to house many of the war veterans whose minds have been greatly affected by the traumatic events. In the background amongst the broken windows and the tarnished individuals, the voice of Hitler echoes, as if the minds of these soldiers have made their way to the outside. This scarred woman cannot escape the male gaze as a patient, representing the ignorance of understanding her own traumatic connections with the war causing her physical and emotional scarring, sexually assaults her.
The scarred woman and her brother are of particular importance to The Face of Another. Their connections to the war effort are understood from their conversations of the readiness for another worldwide event, recognizing their need to reinstate their role within a society whose forgetfulness of the past clashes with the frustrations of those who are ignored. Their individuality is physically and psychologically attacked, as they cannot escape their roles from the past. The sister’s struggle to convince herself of her physical beauty weighs down on her brother from her constant inquiries. In a final sequence that is at the films most harrowing, the brother at last gives in to her questioning of her own recognition of self and proceeds to kiss her on both the side of her face with the scarring, and the side without. In a final moment of acceptance, her suicide letter causes her brother to look out the window into the sea where she gave in, cutting dramatically from a shot of the brother yelling in frustration to an image of a rotten piece of meat being held by the embrace of chains.
The clash of the male and female roles from Woman in the Dunes exists further in this film through Okuyama and his wife. Their conversations on screen draw the eye just as the kinetic energy of a kabuki play would. The scenes of Okuyama and his doctor amongst the walls of the German bar echo the scenario with the brother and sister but the scenes, especially the final confrontation, of Okuyama and his wife, mirror their separated understandings of identity as the overall theme of the film. Where the doctor suggests masks can affect the human morality through ridiculous scenarios, losing shame of the “modern illness of isolation,” Okuyama’s wife is a realist, understanding that “some masks come off, some don’t.” Her monologue on why women wear makeup mirrors one of the standout moments from Abe’s novel. She recognizes makeup as a sort of mask that is used to hide one’s face but as a sign of humility. “Women don’t hide the fact that they wear makeup,” she says, recognizing the weight of the selves she maintains but that it is important to strive to keep their masks on. Her honesty and realization of Okuyama’s masked seduction of her reinforces the shame of Okuyama’s actions and her stance as one of the more important characters in the film.
Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another are two extremely strong examples of the quality that is held within the vast array of films and filmmakers in the Japanese New Wave. The depth of analysis available within both films is immense, respectively coming from all aspects of the film. From Teshigahara’s direction, Takemitsu’s experimental scores, Abe’s extremely dense source material and scripts, Segawa’s gorgeously layered and composited cinematography to the playful editing by Fusako Shuzui, these two films are some of the best in Japanese cinematic history. Many of the scenes are presented like a play, almost appearing at times like they would be interesting to witness in all their intensity on stage. The kabuki influence is evident, from the masked villagers whom pressure the man to force himself on the woman for their entertainment in Woman in the Dunes to the claustrophobic final scene in The Face of Another where Okuyama and his doctor sift through a group of faceless, masked individuals. The society of a Japan that valued your role to your country as the first and foremost aspect of ones life would be challenged by the newer and more radical individual attitudes about a necessary change. Not only were male and female roles shown as facing the pressures of the collective Japanese society, but the struggle as well to not only maintain but formulate an individual identity as a newer school of thought.