Two narrative threads comprise this third and least of Hiroshi Teshigahara's collaborations with novelist/screenwriter Kobo Abe, who again adapted one of his novels with radical alterations for the director's avant-garde treatment. In the more prominent of these, Tatsuya Nakadai plays an insufferably bitter misanthrope whose face has been entirely disfigured by an industrial accident, then replaced by a lifelike synthetic mask of wholly different countenance created by his psychiatrist (Mikijiro Hira). Elsewhere, a lovely young woman (Miki Irie) whose beauty is marred by conspicuous facial scars finds herself ostracized, and anticipates the advent of war while living with her brother (Kakuya Saeki).
Like Pitfall and Woman in the Dunes before it, this was elegantly shot in beauteous grayscale to the director's preferred 1.37:1 format with DP Hiroshi Segawa, and scored by Toru Takemitsu. Profusely rich with visual metaphor - nearly every shot conveys paralleled meaning - this picture furthers its primary theme of dual identity by depicting repetition of activities in identical compositions. Teshigahara denies his stylism nothing, drawing on an enormous variety of dynamic impressionist, surrealist, documentary and even medical filmic techniques both stimulating and and jarring to the senses, all of which impart specific intent and impression. Even more intriguing, works by Magritte, Duchamp, Bacon and numerous other painters and sculptors unfamiliar to this reviewer are directly referenced - some analogous in figurative aim to their source material, others slyly deviating to fully different suggestion. Though most of the film's exterior sequences effectively utilize Tokyo's vast urban landscape, the great site here is the psychiatrist's clinic, an ever-changing wonder of detailed acrylic installations that provides Teshigahara a means to augment his elaborate photography with shifting, emblematic visuals. This extraordinary set was designed by innovative architect Arata Isozaki with the assistance of Teshigahara's frequent production designer Masao Yamazaki, and reflects the former's career mission of structure as wry social commentary. As usual, Takemitsu's music provides a perfect aural adjunct to Teshigahara's fantastic imagery, opening with a faintly minacious waltz, then swelling and ebbing with eerie tone clusters and drones. The composer can be seen briefly in the background at a beer hall that Nakadai's and Hira's characters frequent.
Not one of Takemitsu's performers disappoints. His handsome superstar lead couldn't be bettered as the embittered, depraved patient, and Hira's presence as his voice of conscience and existential pondering lead to an inevitable question of whether the doctor exists as merely another aspect of his patient's psyche. As the psychiatrist's nurse, Kyoko Kishida gracefully communicates sexy suggestions of marital infidelity mirrored by Machiko Kyo's hesitant, frustrated turn as Nakadai's wife - hardly a departure of type for either actress. Irie alternates between appropriate cheer and gloom as the scarred beauty, and Etsuko Ichihara provides both welcome comic relief and a novel plot twist as a mentally retarded girl obsessed with yo-yos.
It's technically superior, immaculately shot and played, and masterfully explicative by methods of abstraction and verbal exposition. The Face of Another succeeds as art, but unlike Teshigahara's preceding features, it fails to present a compelling story. Nakadai's character is less a convincing human being than a mere abstraction of impulses and neuroses, and both storylines conclude to predictable tragedy that undermines their intimations. Ultimately, much of the movie unfolds similarly to those later works directed by Teshigahara's fellow auteur, Antonioni: magnificent craftsmanship in support of presence and concept, bereft of sentiment to which any audience - comprehending or otherwise - might relate. However, as this is a picture preoccupied in part with social alienation, that was very likely Abe's and Teshigahara's objective.