“The face is just a few dozen square inches above the neck, covered with a layer of dough. Isn’t that right? I wanted to think so. I told myself a million times it was only a layer of skin, a surface. But now I’m not so sure. The face is the door to the soul. When the face is closed off, so too is the soul. Nobody is allowed inside. The soul is left to rot, reduced to ruins. It becomes the soul of a monster, rotten to the core. I feel as if I’ve been buried alive.”
Having suffered a disfiguring accident while inspecting his company’s new factory, Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) keeps his head concealed under layers of bandages, like a man who’s already half-mummified. His wife (Machiko Kyô) suggests removing them. “Out of the question,” he replies. Although she insists that he’s making too much of his appearance, he notes that she seems to avoid looking at him face to face, and when he makes a sexual advance, she bolts across the room. “It was just too sudden,” she tries to apologize. “No,” he says, “you’ll never accept me.”
Fed up, he visits Dr. Hori (Mikijirô Hira), a psychiatrist with an abstract office space and a rather unusual practice. “Inferiority complexes dig holes in the psyche, and I fill them in,” he explains. His specialty is replacing body parts, but Okuyama isn’t interested, arguing that “that’s worse than bandages. The obvious deception makes it even more hideous.” Although he relents when Hori compares it to choosing false teeth over rotten ones, he adds a chilling warning: “But remember: You’ll be the one responsible. I’ll burn my wife’s face so it looks like mine. No objections to that, right? Then you can give her your ‘false teeth’ and all will be well.” Hori is horrified, naturally, but when Okuyama says that he would only be putting Hori’s theories to work and “nothing encourages a patient like being able to trust his doctor,” the psychiatrist seizes upon it as a pretext for an ethically dubious experiment. Using a mold of a stranger’s face, purchased for 10,000 yen, he creates an extremely realistic mask for Okuyama to wear. The only condition is that Okuyama must inform Hori of everything that he does. As Hori tells his nurse (Kyôko Kishida), “Simply watching such a perilous stunt is more than enough.”
The Face of Another, released in 1966, was the third of four feature film collaborations between director Hiroshi Teshigahara and writer Kôbô Abe. (Teshigahara’s 1965 short Ako was also based on an Abe story.) Questions of identity had played significant roles in both 1962’s Pitfall and 1964’s Woman in the Dunes, but The Face of Another takes the subject to extremes. With his appearance irrevocably altered by the accident, Okuyama is no longer the same person to the outside world, and the changes are more than superficial. Bandaged or not, his damaged face transforms him into a kind of pariah. The resulting isolation makes him bitter, touchy and despondent, and even when he encounters sympathy, he mistrusts and rejects it. His wife bears the brunt of his ill humor. Although she’s not entirely comfortable with her husband’s new appearance, she means well, yet he turns all of her efforts to improve the situation against her. “Your attitude makes things so awkward,” she says in frustration. He doesn’t need to be told that; as his speech to her about his facelessness creating “the soul of a monster” indicates, he’s highly self-aware, because he has little else to occupy his thoughts and time.
By wearing the mask — another man’s face on his own bone structure, like a glove changing shape on different hands — Okuyama has the opportunity to create a brand new identity. He insists that he’s still the same person on the inside, but he’s eager to take advantage of it in his dealings with people, including his wife, whom he hopes to make jealous. Hori questions his intentions:
Hori: I’ll ask you again: Are you more interested in rejoining society than escaping it?
Okuyama: Anything wrong with that?
Hori: No. Psychologically, it’s the healthier inclination. I was afraid… you would use it to escape from yourself.
Okuyama: That’s all a matter of perspective.
For all of Hori’s words of caution, it becomes increasingly clear that he gets a twisted thrill from the oft-mentioned danger inherent in the experiment, and from its potential consequences. “You’re enjoying it even more than he is,” his nurse remarks as they prepare the mask; he agrees readily. He seems to be most interested in the unprecedented freedom that a mask might offer its wearer, the ability to escape from the past, from responsibilities, from connections with other people. Okuyama is an ideal guinea pig, but Hori’s speculations, or possibly aspirations, are on a much larger scale: “I could mass-produce them. A face, easily removed. A world without family, friends or enemies. There’d be no criminals, hence crime itself would disappear. Unbounded freedom, hence no yearning for it. No such thing as home, hence no dreams of escaping from it. Loneliness and friendship would bleed into one another. Trust among people, now so richly prized, would become obsolete. Suspicion and betrayal would no longer be possible.” Okuyama asks why he didn’t just wear a mask himself if he had considered the subject at such length. “Come now,” Hori laughs. “A doctor can’t dissect himself.” Thus, he lives vicariously through his patient, taking part in the creation of a new identity without having to change anything about his own lifestyle or personality.
By putting the mask on Okuyama instead of himself, Hori is able to avoid its negative side effects, which are his other major interest. While it might offer freedom, it might also influence or even control the person wearing it. Okuyama scoffs at the idea that the mask could alter him on the inside in any way, yet within a few days, Hori sees signs that his own theories — his fears, allegedly — are correct: “You never used to wear such flashy clothes. Your former face, position, line of work — no one could guess from your attire now. Yet the clothes match your mask perfectly. The mask chose those clothes for you. It commanded you to dress as you did.” Although Okuyama insists that he’s merely playing a part, he becomes bolder and bolder with time, especially once he overcomes his fear that someone from his past might recognize him; Hori compares the effect to drunkenness. Even then, though, he says, “The mask’s only job is to let me savor the same emotions as normal people,” but these claims are as dubious as Hori’s claims that he dreads the consequences of the experiment. While the skin may only be four millimeters thick, as Hori notes, it has the power to change the way the world views a person and the way that person views himself, and a mask may reveal more than it conceals. Perhaps Okuyama puts this paradox best while helping his wife prepare for her gem-polishing class: “I wonder if we see the true face of a gem when it’s polished, or in the rough.”
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