Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara began his filmmaking career with a series of short documentaries, a few of which are included on Criterion's new four-disc Teshigahara box set. Two of those, "Hokusai" and "Ikebana," deal with artists working in the field of woodblock prints and flower arranging—the latter being one of Teshigahara's major passions, as it was for his father. Teshigahara's fascination with design carried through his career, up to his masterful 1984 documentary Antonio Gaudi, an "architectural symphony" which cuts together footage of Gaudi's buildings to emphasize their almost alien uniqueness.
Teshigahara tried his hand at feature filmmaking in the '60s, joining a generation of Japanese filmmakers trying to wrest the nation's cinematic identity away from old masters like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. Teshigahara specialized in metaphorical abstractions and a kind of natural surrealism, and in the four films he made with novelist Kôbô Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu—three of which are on the Criterion set—Teshigahara played with form and tone, drawing existential dread out of situations that sound completely fantastic, but which he treated matter-of-factly.
The collaboration began with the docu-realist 1962 crime film Pitfall, about a migrant miner who moonlights as a con artist, until he gets shanked by a mysterious man in white. The miner comes back to life and wanders into a strange, mostly deserted town where he keeps company with ghosts and a small boy. Teshigahara doesn't neglect his hero's hardscrabble life, but Pitfall is more a study of human corruption, in which the "ghosts" can be read as stand-ins for the faceless employees that mining companies work to death. Pitfall is also a classic "first film," full of restless energy and expressionistic visuals. It's doggedly odd, but thoroughly involving.
Teshigahara had his international breakthrough two years later, with the beguilingly allegorical Woman In The Dunes. Eiji Okada plays a nature lover who gets stranded in the desert and takes shelter with a woman whose house is nestled at the bottom of a sandpit. He quickly winds up trapped, forced to help out with the tedious tasks of sand-shoveling necessary to keep the home secure. It's a nightmarish vision of modern life, made chillingly plausible by Teshigahara's emphasis on low-key acting and static shots of natural wonders. Every time the sand shifts with the wind, the sight is awesome, until all that grit blows into Okada's clothes.
The third Teshigahara/Obe/Takemitsu collaboration, the eerie The Face Of Another, came in 1966. Tatsuya Nakadai stars as a burn victim who withdraws from society until a doctor suggests an experimental surgery that will replace his scarred face with a new one. Nakadai takes the new face in secret, which gives him the chance to confront his old friends and his wife as a different man, and find out whether they treat him differently. The Face Of Another explores the nature of identity in ways similar to other films of its era, like Seconds and Eyes Without A Face, though Teshigahara's vision is more oblique. He seems primarily interested with literalizing the transformation of self, through images of horrific-looking masks, and human flesh being run through a pasta-maker. As with Woman In The Dunes and Pitfall, it's too reductive to say that The Face Of Another follows dream logic. As far as Teshigahara is concerned, he never stopped making documentaries.
Key features: Four short films, incisive James Quandt video essays, and a biography-minded featurette that's sadly devoid of film clips.