In America, we like to think of our heroes as having one true self, a kind of pure, impermeable soul that can't be broken no matter what the circumstance. Japanese storytelling, however, is rife with tales of fluid identities and radical transformations. Case in point: Hiroshi Teshigahara's freaky-cool 1966 sci-fi parable The Face of Another.
The story of a disfigured man who agrees to a have a radical, dangerous facial transplant, it's like an episode of The Twilight Zone as directed by Salvador Dalí. If Hollywood made it, this would have been a fairly routine thriller; in Teshigahara's hands, it becomes a surreal, philosophical treatise on power, personality and appearance. The movie's deliberate pace may put off some, but the patient will be rewarded with a series of surprising, carefully placed scenes of existential terror.
The movie opens post-accident, as the heavily bandaged Mr. Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) negotiates time off with his employer and bitterly instigates arguments with his wife (Machiko Kyo, Japan's answer to Grace Kelly). With too much time on his hands and too many horrified gawkers staring at him, he consults his doctors on a new procedure that might allow him to graft someone else's face onto his scarred visage. As the deliberations over the operation continue back at the lab, Okuyama looks into renting a new apartment and starting a new life. His ultimate goal: To pretend to be someone else so that he can expose the patronizing hypocrisy of everyone around him, specifically his wife, whom he plans to seduce so he can prove her unfaithful.
To flesh out (as it were) his twisted scenario, the director spends a lot (perhaps too much) screen time on the hows and whys of the face-transplant procedure, with Okuyama and his doctors testing out different techniques and methods for getting the new face to stick. But even here, Teshigahara loads the screen with weird, high-contrast images that work almost subliminally: still shots, anatomy replicas and searing X-ray shots of our anti-hero talking to the camera.
Teshigahara's audacity extends beyond his technique: A half-hour into the film, he fractures his story into two seemingly unrelated halves, introducing a beautiful young woman with a scar on half her face. As she meanders through her daily routine in near-silence working at a mental ward, observing target practice at the beach we're invited to contemplate the inner torment of physical disfigurement.
"Sometimes I seem like a monster even to myself," Okuyama says early in the film; coming from him, the statement has the ring of self-pity. But, as Teshigahara proves in the movie's final moments, self-hate can turn even the most beautiful people into monsters.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.