Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Dread of Existence

The aesthetics of traditional Japanese art are unique on the world stage due to the country’s history of isolation and assimilation. Be it ceramics, woodblock printing, architecture, or poetry Japanese artists have never been afraid to absorb and imitate various external influences, all the while still keeping the work inherently Japanese. Of course, because of this constant osmotic flow of ideas Japanese art itself is often described in terms of polarities. For example, in the Japanese art of flower arrangement or ikebana the strict rules that govern the art form allow its practitioners the freedom to express a wide range of ideas, yet these ideas can often be boiled down into contrasting polarities; modernity and tradition, nature and civilization, beauty and ugliness.
Of all the various schools of ikebana one of the most highly regarded was the Sogetsu School (Sogetsu-ryu). Founded by Sofu Teshigahara in 1926 the Sogetsu School is famous for advocating its students to study and master all the rules and techniques in the art of flower arranging and by doing so the artist is granted the freedom to express a plethora of ideas. For Sofu and his students the principles that govern the art form never change but the form itself is constantly evolving. Thus Sogetsu artists would utilize a variety of materials to create their sculptures, and yet each piece conformed to the established tenets of the art form.
Sofu’s son Hiroshi was the reluctant heir to the Sogetsu School and though he himself became well regarded within the world of ikebana, it was his filmmaking career that ultimately granted him universal posterity.
Beginning his career in 1953 with a short film about the Edo-period ukiyo-e painter and printmaker Hokusai, Hiroshi Teshigahara spent the better part of the 1950s directing several short films. Each one adopting a different style and tackling a plethora of subjects yet like the tenets of his father’s ikebana school all the films encompass the contrast between documentary and fantasy, a dichotomy that Teshigahara would further explore in his feature films.
During this most prolific period in his life he met and became close friends with two very important future collaborators, the surrealist writer Kobo Abe and avant-garde music composer Toru Takemitsu.
The writer Kobo Abe, like Teshigahara and Takemitsu, was born in Tokyo during the early part of the 20th century when Japan’s desire for empire led to a second World War and countless atrocities being committed by conscripted soldiers in faraway lands. It’s no stretch to state that Takemitsu and Abe’s formative childhood years spent in the Japanese puppet-state Manchukuo, now Manchuria, had a massive effect on the men’s outlook on life and also respective art. Outside the reach of Japan’s rigid social caste system both men were able to enjoy a modicum of freedom and the ability to explore a wide range of interests.
With the end of the war all three men would begin their careers. Abe studied medicine but never practiced due to the fact that he had already started making a name for himself as a writer, not to mention the fact that Abe never managed to pass the exam that would grant the fledgling writer a license to practice medicine. Takemitsu had spent most of the war as a conscripted soldier and though the future composer had very few fond memories of the time it was during his military service that he was first exposed to Western classical music. During the Occupation, confined to a hospital bed, he immersed himself in a plethora of Western music genres at the same time developing an aversion to traditional Japanese music.
What brought these three men together from such disparate fields were not just the hardships brought on by war, but a group that believed in utilizing the most modern and avant-garde ideas from the West to stage equally modern and avant-garde stage productions. Jikken Kobo or the Experimental Workshop was founded in Tokyo in 1951 by a core group of writers, poets, musicians, choreographers, and artists. In total the initial group did not number more than fourteen and though the group was only active for seven years they would define Japan’s avant-garde scene for many decades.
Their first collaboration Pitfall (1962) began life as a television play, written by Kobo Abe, aptly titled Purgatory (Rengoku). Beginning in pitch blackness the film opens on a father and son escaping from some post-apocalyptic industrial complex, viewers approaching this film for the first time with any prior knowledge about the filmmaker or plot might assume the picture to be an attempt at sci-fi or horror by the distinguished trio but the project is so much more than that. As the film reveals more and more of the story to us we discover that the father, played by Hiroshi Igawa, is a company deserter. Running from one mining site to another, odd job to odd job the nameless father ekes out a paltry living while his mute son (Kazuo Miyahara) aimlessly wanders in the background; a ghost, a shadow, or more symbolically an innocent tarnished by cruel or ineffectual forbearers. Eventually the father gets sent to an abandoned mine; apparently a job waits for him there yet unbeknownst to him a white-suited man has set-up the nameless miner to be brutally murdered.
After the miner is killed by the white-suited man a woman, bribed by the mysterious man-in-white, goes to the police to report the crime, but instead of incriminating the man-in-white she incriminates another man for the crime, an individual involved in an internal dispute with an opposing labor union, The film’s pulp aesthetic belies the existential ideas that run through this film and the subsequent collaborations Teshigahara did with Abe and Takemitsu.
The second half of Pitfall veers straight into surrealistic territory as the dead miner is resurrected and wanders the Kyushu landscape in search of his murderer. His investigation grants him no closure though. All he uncovers is more mysteries; a man with the same face as his, a possible conspiracy instigated by a mining company to weaken it’s quarreling labor unions, a ghost town populated by real ghosts, and the mysterious man-in-white who rarely speaks and never gives a clue as to his motives for doing what he’s doing.
As all these events are occurring the dead miner’s son meander’s in the background, oblivious to his father’s death but seemingly connected to the mysterious man-in-white. In several scenes Teshigahara intertwines the young boy and the man-in-white as doppelganger figures. The boy was the first to notice the white-suited man as he took snapshots of the unnamed miner hard at work. Also, it can’t be a coincidence that the boy and man-in-white are often either framed together in shots or the appearance of one is prompted by a cut and a shot of the other. It’s almost as if Teshigahara is commenting on the boy’s precarious future. As the writer and senior film programmer at the Cinematheque Ontario, James Quandt, states in his commentary for the film though many writers have interpreted that the film’s ending which has the boy running away from the deserted mining town as being a positive ending, Quandt thoroughly disagrees. The boy has been witness to five deaths, watched a rape, committed acts of animal cruelty, and been thoroughly unmoved by the events except for when the man with the same face as his father died. The boy’s departure from that town can only mean an uncertain future of poverty and degradation, a lost boy that most likely will end up like the expressionless man-in-white; an anonymous cog in the machine doing the dirty work for the powers-that-be.
This use of doppelganger imagery can also be seen with the dead miner and the labor union leader; both men literally share the same face and equally meet the same cruel end, but their lives could be no further apart. One is poor the other has a modicum of wealth, One is a leader the other a loner, One is rootless the other tied to a community; yet these differences mean nothing. In the new Japan with the death of the old order and the rise of Capitalism all of us are just bags of flesh to be used to advance the system.
For those with more than a passing interest in Japanese history will be very aware that during the start of the 1960s there were bitter battles between the government and various radical leftist groups in Japan over the Anpo Treaty, which gave the U.S. the right to station troops in various Japanese areas and also permitted the American government to exert force and influence within the Japanese parliament. In return for these concessions the U.S. government invested countless sums of money to rejuvenate the Japanese economy as well as make a small number of businessmen with ties to the regime very rich. Of course, this unchecked greed was fed to the public as a desire to rebuild Japan as a world power and showcase the country’s miraculous recovery during the 1964 Summer Olympics when Tokyo would be the host city for the festivities. The success of the Olympics and the prosperity enjoyed by some is tempered by the fact that a vast majority of Japanese citizens were still living below the poverty level and even Tokyo had become pockmarked with ghettos and shanty towns. For many Japanese who had survived the war and were hopeful that a new era of equality and freedom was just around the corner the 1960s was the last gasp for these utopian ideals.
The absurdity of existence would be a prominent theme in Teshigahara’s sophomore feature The Woman of the Dunes (1964), a film that won and was nominated for several international awards, it’s no exaggeration to state that this second collaboration between Teshigahara, Abe, and Takemitsu yielded the most praise, no small feat for a film that transposed the myth of Sisyphus into a 147 minute picture.
Offering up a very simple premise involving a schoolteacher and amateur entomologist being tricked into spending the night with a woman whose home is several meters deep in a sand quarry. Once ensconced there not only is the schoolteacher trapped but he must, on a nightly basis, also dig sand to keep the woman’s house from being buried. He attempts to escape on several occasions, but eventually not only does he surrender to his fate but finds fulfillment in his imprisonment.
What The Woman of the Dunes perfectly captures is the illusory deception caused by our prejudice towards existence and our need to base our identity not on our actions but by external variables. This is evident during the film’s opening scene when the entomologist Junpei (Eijii Okada) begins to monologue on the various documents, permits, licenses, and titles that define him. Also, typical of the man-of-science that he is Junpei is weighted down by his tools; jars, tweezers, pins, etc.; and when speaking to the woman he constantly references the law. Like the characters or anti-characters found in post-modernist directors like Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, or Alain Resnais, Junpei is a self-absorbed neurotic so hung up on his own needs that he has became detached from the world. Clinging onto man-made constructs like the law and a sense of entitlement Junpei is so blind to the fact that he was never free; bound by the culture he inhabits to unconsciously conform to preconceived norms. Though lauded by critics and cinephiles alike, Woman of the Dunes is one of the most unsettling works to illustrate just how meaningless life is and the malleability of human identity.
At the start of his imprisonment, Junpei tells the titular woman of the dunes (Kyoko Kishida) of his dream and reason for coming to the area, to discover a new species of insect and have his name printed in textbooks for the discovery. This desire illuminates the problem of living that many French existentialists had written about, the issue of existence preceding essence, a state of confusion that limits an individual’s perception of himself or herself in relation to the other. Thus, Junpei’s desire to have his name in textbooks validates his identity as a man of science because the act is an agreed upon honor by a group of men who have been conferred great clout by other men who desire equal validation in that specific field, but in effect the recognition and validation are ultimately pointless. Inside that sand quarry, trapped with only the woman and the villagers to keep him company Junpei must define his worth by what he can do not the titles conferred on him by some abstract body of peers. Junpei’s slow transformation from actively rebelling against the villagers to helping the woman and even finding solace in his makeshift water pump comes after his unconscious rejection of artifice that once defined his life. He may one day leave that sand dune, but the only escape from the despair of living is death; a solution most of us are unwilling to succumb to.
The absurdity of existence, the question of identity, the use of doppelganger imagery, and the problem of despair in everyday life would all culminate in Teshigahara’s third feature, The Face of Another (1966). Using one of Abe’s novels again as source material for the film The Face of Another tells the story of a horribly disfigured man, Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai), who takes it upon himself, with the help of his psychiatrist, to literally adopt a new face with the help of new space age polymers. For Teshigahara, the film would be his most surrealistic effort at tackling the existential themes that began in Pitfall and became prominent in The Woman of the Dunes. Unlike either picture though Teshigahara’s third film didn’t garner as much praise from International critics and fans. It offered none of the exoticism and sensuality present in Woman of the Dunes nor could it be classified as blatant social critique, and though it has genre film elements it failed to live up to any expectations that an audience might have. Yet with all that said, The Face of Another is the perfect exclamation point to Teshigahara’s collaboration with Kobo Abe and Toru Takemitsu in the 1960s. 
The Face of Another tackles the issue of identity in a very abstract way. We never see what Okuyama’s original face is. Teshigahara never gives us any hints as to who the man was before his accident and by doing so he makes him a blank slate, a one-dimensional character that exists in the present moment but lacks a past to define him and a future to guide him. As Okuyama’s psychiatrist, played by Mikijiro Hira, posits in the film a face with no identity, meaning a past/background, is dangerous since the anonymity caused by a world of blank slates is that these faceless others are tethered to nothing. With nowhere to belong and no guidelines to follow the only logical outcome is anarchy. For the faceless the freedom afforded by anonymity can only lead to severe psychosis since the human mind can not live in isolation, it cannot define itself, a person must act or react to something and from that can a person become self-actualized. Okuyama’s great folly is not that he took a new identity but that he uses his new identity to hide from the world. Instead of embracing or confronting the world he merely hides from it. As the film progresses it’s evident that Okuyama’s purpose for adopting the mask was not only the shame of disfigurement but his self-hatred for humanity itself. A perfect example of this nihilism is when Okuyama, while wearing his new face, seduces his wife, not to rekindle a new romance with her or get revenge, but to prove to how fickle and faithless she is.
As a counterpoint to Okuyama’s predicament, Teshigahara presents a second storyline involving a young woman, also scarred in the face, but instead of hiding from the world she faces it and appears to be the complete opposite of Okuyama. Yet by film’s end she commits suicide; though she might have had no shame in her disfigurement the fact that her appearance was so grotesque shut her completely off from society.
The existential crisis that Okuyama and the young woman face are not unique to those characters though. In each film, from Pitfall to Face of Another, addresses the great tragedy of living in an advanced post-industrialized society. The freedom to create meaning in our own life through our very actions is such a crippling burden for a majority of people that most either run away like the miner in Pitfall, seek meaning through small tasks like Junpei in Woman of the Dunes, or burrow deep into self-loathing isolation like Okuyama. If everyday is a gift then the only way we can honor that gift is by never retreating into the darkness. We are not defined by the things we own, the beliefs foisted upon us, or by our upbringing, but by the choice we make to act or not. Abandoning this basic human thought is tantamount to suicide.

(First Published in Issue #4 of The Post American, April 2014. Illustrations done by freelance artist Yuri Kim. You can reach her at either her website,, or by e-mail,

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