“What were you looking at?
“No, no. I mean what were you looking at through the window?
“Windows…lots of windows. One by one the lights are going off. That’s the only instant you really know somebody’s there.”
—The Ruined Map, Kobo Abe, 1967
Hiroshi Teshigahara was only incidentally a filmmaker. For decades recognized for his work in various classical Japanese art forms, he was a master and a modern trailblazer all at once. Son of the founder and grand master (Iemoto) of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana (more moribundly known as flower-arranging), he turned to film as an extension of his aesthetic explorations in other media. A graduate of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, he was a painter and sculptor, designed gardens and tea rooms, directed operas and Noh plays for the stage. And he made 21 films, most of them short documentaries on subjects as varied as Hokusai and Hispanic boxers. But he is widely known only for the eight feature-length films he made over a period of 30 years, films as unique in form and function as anything else in his creative life—except that they use the most immediate and direct medium for the communication of ideas in the same arresting way.
Always within close reach of the avant-garde, one of whom he of course counted himself, Teshigahara had shown canny judgement in his choice of collaborators when he turned to feature films in 1962. The writer Kobo Abe (1924–1993) had been sending shivers of recognition down the spines of Japanese literati ever since he had won the famed Akutagawa Prize for his novel The Crime of S. Karuma in 1951. His masterpiece, The Woman in the Dunes, was published in 1960 and won the Yomiuri Prize. Teshigahara longed to film it, but decided, for his first feature effort, to film an original script that Abe had prepared called The Pitfall.
Also accompanying Teshigahara in his first production was a close friend named Toru Takemitsu (1930–1996). They had collaborated once before, in 1959, on a short film about the boxer Jose Torres. Takemitsu, who loved film and preferred writing film scores to composing concert works, would quickly become the most sought after and certainly the most brilliant modernist Japanese composer. While writing music for all of Teshigahara’s subsequent films, he would also work closely with virtually every notable Japanese filmmaker of the 1960s, including Masaki Kobayashi, Masahiro Shinoda and Nagisa Oshima. And he would later compose the score for Akira Kurosawa’s formidable Ran (1985).
The Pitfall (Otoshiana, 1962) is nominally concerned with a series of unexplained murders in a poor mining community (hence, the title’s double entendre). The murders are perpetrated by a man wearing sunglasses, dressed in an immaculate white suit and hat. His victims reappear throughout the film in intact physical form (no special effects here, so much the better), and observe the action like a mute and ineffectual Greek chorus, asking, “Why was I killed? What was it for? Where was the meaning in my life?”—to which they get no response.
Described by Teshigahara as a documentary–fantasy, the film is all the more unsettling for its matter-of-fact illogic. Typical of Abe’s other works, The Pitfall also employs a pulp-fiction framework—a ghost story—but only to throw into relief both our preconceptions of the genre and the underlying truths that it unearths (in this case, literally). Antonioni had already exploited a similar approach in L’avventura (1960), which spends much of its time engaged in a futile search for a missing person. For his efforts with The Pitfall, Teshigahara won the NHK Best New Director award and the film earned the rare honor—for a novice director—of being released abroad. Vernon Young said of it:
Teshigahara’s The Case [an alternate release title] may be thought to exhibit the oblique time-sense of Alain Resnais and a form of moral relativism fetched from Kafka and French existentialism, yet what is more Japanese than a palpable ghost? And the landscape depicted is indelibly of the Japanese persuasion, as clean as a pebble garden or a print by Hiroshige. (1)
Perhaps the most famous postmodern tale of a person who went missing is Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, which Teshigahara took on for his next project, once again with Abe writing the script. It is the story of Jumpei Niki, an entomologist and family man who innocently seeks shelter for the night in a remote village situated among ever-encroaching sand dunes. What Niki finds there is so fraught with implications about the human predicament, and written with such obsessive detail, that few people believed anyone could pull it off as a film. That Teshigahara does, with moviegoers worldwide leaving theaters brushing imaginary sand from their clothing, attests to his genius at finding the most vivid equivalents to Abe’s odd universe of words. And Teshigahara’s success with actors (his wife was the film actress Toshiko Kobayashi) was never more obvious, as Eiji Okada and Keiko Kishida become veritable epitomes in their roles, at first resisting and then relenting to the cruel dictates of the village and the pit in which they find themselves together and from which they can never escape. “Both Okada and Kishida got into their roles so deeply,” Teshigahara later wrote, “that the look on their faces changed during the four-month shooting.” (2) Teshigahara’s wonderful abstract compositions of sand dunes constantly shifting bestow on geology an alarming presence.
The film was originally 147 minutes, but when Teshigahara was invited to bring his film to the Cannes Festival, he cut it to 124 minutes. Although the cuts do no harm to continuity, and actually make the film seem tighter, it is easy to miss the deleted 23 minutes, since the world that Teshigahara made so palpably real is yet harder to leave at the film’s conclusion.
The Woman in the Dunes (Suna no Onna , 1964) won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, and it was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Award by the American Academy. It became Teshigahara’s most highly praised and best-known film, which is just as well. Although he would make two more films with Kobo Abe, The Face of Another (Tanin no Kao , 1966) and The Man Without a Map (Moetsukita Chizu, 1968), both of them based on a published Abe novel, neither was as successful as adaptations or as compelling as films. Abe’s abstractions seemed to expand exponentially with each new book. Their increasingly hermetic ideas, pushing meaning to impenetrable extremes, drew progressively narrower interest from readers. And although Teshigahara, equal to the challenge, would often find splendid cinematic solutions to Abe’s prose (doubtless with the author’s considerable help), one could argue that, because of his obdurate devotion, Teshigahara’s work followed Abe’s into obscurity.
The Face of Another is ‘about’ the mysteries of identity and how it is shaped by one’s relation to others. It is also part horror, part science-fiction film, with unavoidable ties to Frankenstein (both the book and the movie), Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1934) and The Beast With Five Fingers (Robert Florey, 1946), (3) which were ‘about’ the perils of interchangeable body parts and the chaos they can lead to.
The big difference in Teshigahara’s film is that he isn’t trying to be campy. The film’s fascination derives from its belief in its own ideas and Teshigahara’s unerring poise in his constructing the bizarre but utterly convincing world where a man named Okuyama tries to reconstruct his life after a lab explosion leaves him without a face. Forced to encase his head with bandages (which are functional and cleverly cut to allow the actor underneath [the splendid Tatsuya Nakadai] to look as if he is frowning and smiling at the same time), he watches with dismay as everyone—even his wife (played by the eternally exquisite Machiko Kyo) behave differently, coldly, toward him. A subplot is introduced involving a young woman who works as a nurse in a military mental hospital. Otherwise pretty, the young woman bears terrible scars on the right side of her face from the war (“No full explanation was given, but the name ‘Hiroshima’ was constantly repeated in the following dialogue.” (4)). But unlike Okuyama, she makes no attempt to hide her face, and deals with people’s predictable reactions with a stoical grace.
Okuyama persuades his psychiatrist to create a mask, “another face” that will cover his scars so seamlessly that he can pass himself off as another man, with the identity as fabricated and assumed as the mask. Grown cynical by his wife’s revulsion for his scarred face, Okuyama plots to entrap her by masquerading as this other man and seducing her. Teshigahara cleverly juxtaposes Okuyama’s intrigues—which both delight and destroy him—with the despair of the scarred young woman, whose own destruction seems almost guaranteed by a world that will not look beyond appearances.
Whether it was because of slow pacing, the almost psychotic mental state of Okuyama, or its failure to fulfill audience expectations of a horror film, The Face of Another was met with mostly unpleasant surprise. Again, Vernon Young had to comment: “The result is somewhat antiseptic; it has the attraction of a nude you might appreciate without desiring.” (5) Takemitsu composed a beautiful waltz for the credit sequence and a cabaret song introduced in a bar scene (in which Takemitsu himself is seen sitting in the crowd—according to Oshima, he looked like Jean-Louis Barrault with diarrhea). Notwithstanding respectful reservations, The Face of Another is an indelibly powerful film that never found its audience.
Teshigahara’s fourth and last adaptation from Abe was The Man Without a Map. For the first time Teshigahara sought the backing of a major Japanese studio, ShinToho. Consequently the film was in color and wide screen. Whether or not these were Teshigahara’s choices, the film sometimes seems unsure what to do with the wider frame. And Shintaro Katsu—infamous for his Zatoichi, Blind Swordsman series (26 installments as of this writing)—is an odd choice for the lead role.
Also for the first time, Teshigahara’s film suffers in comparison with Abe’s novel. The private detective hired by a woman whose husband has gone missing is a rather unprepossessing intellectual narrator in the novel. Perhaps out of deference to Shintaro Katsu, the narration is dispensed with in the film, with the detective portrayed as a more conventional, hard-as-nails type, which diminishes sympathy for him and emphasizes the absence of any real ‘action’.
As the story progresses, the detective finds himself being subsumed in the life of the man he is trailing, until there is a kind of character transferal—the detective becomes the man who disappeared. Abe’s novel ends with an inexplicable plunge into chaos. Whether meant as the detective’s descent into madness or not, Abe’s ending is somehow more convincing than the film’s, which is once again conventional and unsatisfying.
Not knowing if Teshigahara sensed this, or noticed Abe’s own descent into expressionist meaninglessness, The Man Without a Map represents the end of their collaboration as artists. His next feature-length project, four years later, was written by the American translator and biographer of Yukio Mishima, John Nathan. With the Vietnam War close by, Summer Soldiers (1972) tells the stories of two AWOL American GIs, adrift in the inhospitable refuge of a Japan committed to supporting the U.S. “war effort”. Shunted to and fro among host families of anti-war sympathizers, both men seek some natural haven and an end to being fugitives. At first encouraged by what they see as acceptance and understanding from the people they meet, they soon realize that they are political pawns being used to gratify anti-war sentiments of radical groups, as well as, paradoxically, their anti-Americanism. The GIs discover that there is no real place for them in Japan, except as fringe dwellers.
One would think from this synopsis that the film is intended as an anti-war statement. But Teshigahara is more interested in observing the dysfunctional relationship often experienced by foreigners in Japan. The American deserters are portrayed sympathetically, but their decision to desert, while perhaps saving their necks, introduces more problems for them than it solves.
For the first time, Teshigahara photographed the film himself, and resorted to a much more raw spontaneity in his choice and direction of the actors. There is an almost documentary feel to the film. It is also redolent of its times, which dates the film somewhat. But after the increasingly claustrophobic, and ultimately suffocating world of his Abe films, Summer Soldiers is a refreshing change of air.
After Summer Soldiers was completed, Teshigahara turned to his duties with the Sogetsu Foundation, of which his father had been master. On his father’s death, he became the third generation iemoto of the school in 1980, which was so involving it prevented him from pursuing other projects. Finally, 12 years after Summer Soldiers, he had the opportunity to realize his long cherished ambition to devote a film entirely to the work of the architect Antonio Gaudi. The resulting 72-minute documentary is yet so limpid and lovely that it easily rivals his fiction films in artfulness.
As early as 1959 he had written of the impact of his first glimpse of Gaudi’s cathedral:
Shortly after entering Barcelona, four grotesque steeples appeared before me. Their peaks seemed to domineer over the city shining with gold. I was struck with a sense of conviction. As I approached, the holes pierced in those four tense conical structures, just like a tremendously appealing demonic whisper, clutched me with force. What I was looking at was Gaudi’s last masterpiece Sagrada Familia. (6)
For his next feature film, Rikyu (1989), Teshigahara turned to history, to the conflict between the Zen monk Sen no Rikyu and the warlord Hideyoshi. Though eventually resulting in a violent end for Rikyu, the conflict was over nothing more—and nothing less—than cultural taste. As Donald Richie observed, the whole fracas could be summed up by one event, and it is beautifully and simply re-created in the film: “A paradigm for the new attitude was Hideyoshi’s visit to see Rikyu’s celebrated garden of morning glories. When he arrived he discovered that they had all been uprooted. The disgruntled warrior repaired to the tearoom. There, in the alcove, in a common clay container, was one perfect morning glory.” (7)
Hideyoshi went to the opposite extreme in style—eventually performing tea ceremonies in solid gold tearooms. Rikyu, in utter contrast, established the popularity of plain clay cups and bowls and the simple arrangement of flowers before a starkly bare space (something that must have been close to Teshigahara’s heart). (8)
Rikyu was Teshigahara’s first international success since Woman in the Dunes 25 years earlier. It re-established him as a world-class filmmaker, even if he would have only one more film in him. After the splendors of Rikyu, Princess Gohime (Gohime, 1992), is, in interesting contrast, somewhat of a commercial vehicle for the reigning Japanese beauty of the day, Rie Miyazawa—who, though ravishing, cannot act. Though ostensibly a sequel to Rikyu, concerned with the period immediately following the death of Rikyu and the power struggle amongst lords loyal to him and others aligned with Hideyoshi, the film is actually more interested in the illicit love between the Princess and a hulking retainer who loses an ear in her service (in recompense, perhaps, halfway through the film, he takes the Princess’ virginity). The scene wherein he has his ear shot off while overcoming vastly superior numbers in defense of the Princess is—I presume—supposed to be erotic rather than comical. The Princess licks the man’s wound clean and bandages it with scraps that she tears from her undergarments.
Though dramatically shaky, the film looks extraordinary, with costumes and sets that are among the most gorgeous color compositions in a Japanese film since Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell. And Teshigahara constructed another of his bamboo creations for the final scene in which the Princess finally (!) seduces her hairy protector. As the shot of the horizontal lovers dissolves to a gibbous moon while the reticent strains of Takemitsu’s music take us through the end credits, there is some slight satisfaction in the certainty that, though lovely in its way, Teshigahara won’t be remembered for only this.
For the last decade of his life Teshigahara made no more films. Perhaps mobilizing a small army of cast and crew at such an expense of time and money took much of the pleasure out of filmmaking for him. His work in other media, however, continued unabated. He produced and designed operas in Europe and mounted numerous exhibitions of his own and other artists’ work. In 1996 he was awarded the title of National Chevalier by the Legion of France, and the following year was given the National Order of the Sacred Treasure in Japan—a quite unique title which declares certain cherished artists (Kurosawa among them) a National Living Treasure. He created bamboo “installations” in halls and galleries (one can be seen in the closing minutes of Princess Gohime), and he honored his old friend Takemitsu by directing a tribute to him at the shrine where his funeral service was held.
By now his name is virtually synonymous with Ikebana, which his Sogetsu Institute has sustained into the 21st century. It is essentially a Japanese art form that utilizes fragile, perishable material to express and induce a meditative state. To some, Teshigahara’s devotion to flower-arranging may seem antithetical to his efforts at filmmaking. And yet, how can a plucked and dying blossom seem less ephemeral than a play of shadows on a screen?
12 Photographers (1955)
Tokyo 1958 (1958)
Jose Torres (1959)
The Pitfall (Otoshiana) (1962) feature film
The Woman in the Dunes (Suna no Onna) (1964) feature film
Ako-White Morning (Ako) (1965)
Jose Torres Part II (1965)
The Face of Another (Tanin no Kao) (1966) feature film
The Man Without a Map (Moetsukita Chizu) (1968) feature film
240 Hours in One Day (1970)
Summer Soldiers (1972) feature film
Warera no Shuyaku (1977) television
Shin Zatouichi – Episode: Journey of Rainbows (1978) television
Shin Zatouichi – Episode: Journey of Dreams (1978) television
Sculpture Mouvante – Jean Tinguely (1981)
Antonio Gaudi (1984) feature film/documentary
Rikyu (1989) feature film
The Princess Gohime (Gohime) (1992) feature film
- Vernon Young, On Film, Chicago, Quadrangle Books, 1972, p. 6
- This and all Teshigahara quotes are to be found on the official Teshigahara web site at http://www.teshigaharahiroshi.com/
- Incidentally, worked on extensively (though uncredited) by Luis Buñuel.
- Kobo Abe, The Face of Another, Tokyo, Tuttle, 1966, trans. E. Dale Saunders, p. 230
- Young, ibid
- It is instructive to contrast Teshigahara’s comments with those of George Orwell when he visited the cathedral while he was in Spain during the Civil War: “For the first time since I had been in Barcelona I went to have a look at the cathedral—a modern cathedral, and one of the most hideous buildings in the world. It had four crenellated spires exactly the shape of hock bottles. Unlike most of the churches in Barcelona it was not damaged during the revolution—it was spared because of its ‘artistic value’, people said. I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance, though they did hang a red and black banner between its spires.” Homage to Catalonia, London, Penguin Books, 1962, pp. 179-180.
- Donald Richie, “A Vocabulary of Taste” in A Lateral View: Essays on Contemporary Japan, Tokyo, The Japan Times Ltd., 1987, p. 83
- This historical conflict was strikingly similar to that enacted in Robert Bolt’s equally historical play A Man For All Seasons, in which the ostentatious and tyrannical Henry VIII tries to bully his one-time teacher Thomas More, a sober, unostentatious but brilliant scholar, into authorizing his choice of a new wife (after the foundation of the protestant Church of England made it suddenly possible for him to divorce Catherine of Aragon). In both cases, the tyrant wears down and eventually destroys the stubborn man of learning. But history—and art in this case—have sided for the arbiters of simplicity and of principle.