This 1966 black and white Japanese film is an intellectual, psychological meditation, with some of the trappings of the suspense or thriller genres, or to a lesser extent science fiction or surrealist genres.
I got into The Face of Another to some extent and was bored to some extent. I can’t say it ever really won me over, but I didn’t hate it.
A businessman is severely burned in an industrial accident, and subsequently refuses to remove the bandages wrapped around his face, even when he’s home alone with his wife, because he’s self-conscious about his hideous appearance.
A psychiatrist talks him into a treatment/social experiment. The man is outfitted with an incredibly lifelike mask, rents an apartment (telling his wife he’ll be out of town on an extended business trip), and commences a new life with a new identity, reporting back regularly to the psychiatrist, who is eager to hear all the details of how his life is different due to having a new face.
The psychiatrist is definitely an odd duck. He insists on going through a charade that the whole thing was his patient’s idea—“Oh, this is the kind of thing that’s clearly unethical, and I don’t see how I could do it, but the way you’re twisting my arm I have no choice but to go along with your wishes,” blah, blah, blah, with the man looking at him quizzically because he has no idea what he’s supposedly forcing the psychiatrist to do.
Then throughout the movie, the psychiatrist waxes philosophic on all manner of topics related to identity and anonymity, in the process seemingly trying to put ideas in the man’s head. “You can do anything if you’re anonymous like this. And who could blame you? It’s as if the mask changes you, takes over your personality, controls you. There are no restraints on you anymore, and anything you do is the mask’s responsibility, not yours. Gosh I’d hate to see you go off and commit horrific crimes. You know you could of course. I hope you don’t. But you could get away with it and everything,” etc., etc.
He’s a weird guy, and his “office” is weird too. In a movie with a lot of artsy camera shots and such, the one surreal element is the psychiatrist’s office. It’s some kind of giant white room that seems somehow endless, but not in the sense of being outdoors—it still feels very indoors and even antiseptic and hospital-like. It’s kind of like how a movie might depict Heaven.
(Actually there is one other clearly surreal element late in the film. As the two main characters are walking down a crowded street, everyone they pass has on a sort of mask that obscures their facial features to about the extent of a hold up man with a nylon stocking over his head.)
The man decides the way he wants to use his new anonymity is to see if his wife will sleep with a stranger. He seduces her, and then bitterly denounces her for having made it so easy. She angrily insists she knew it was him all along, that she was playing along to be considerate because she assumed the only way he could comfortably resume intimacy with her after the accident was to role play that he was a different person like this, but that now that she sees that his motive instead was to try to trick her to show she’s willing to cheat on him, to hell with him.
Taken literally, there are plenty of holes in the story. I really think the psychiatrist is getting carried away talking about how much freedom the guy has to do as he pleases with no consequences because of the mask. If he went out and committed crimes, at the very least the psychiatrist himself and his nurse and anyone else involved in the process could identify him. And even if he really couldn’t be identified and was a mysterious “man from nowhere,” so what? It’s not like if he’s apprehended for a crime the cops would have to release him because they couldn’t figure out who he was. (Especially since he can only wear the mask for a few hours at a time, so even if they weren’t perceptive enough to see he’s wearing a mask, he’d have to take it off soon enough anyway.)
This isn’t exactly the Invisible Man we’re talking about.
But clearly it’s supposed to be allegorical, and on that level I think it is somewhat interesting.
There are certainly psychological and social pros and cons to being able to remain anonymous or change one’s identity. Think of the sense of belonging and sense of community you can have in a small town where everybody knows everybody, but also how stifling it can be to have everyone in your business like that. One of the oft-mentioned advantages of going to “the big city” is the chance to get lost in the crowd or to reinvent oneself. I’ve always been rather attracted to the notion that when you arrive in New York, no one knows that back in South Carolina or New Hampshire or wherever, you were in jail, or you were picked on all the time growing up, or you had your heart shattered by a significant other. You can start over with a clean slate, like the man with the mask.
Or the whole “On the Internet no one knows you’re a dog” thing is another example. The Internet facilitates connection in some ways, and in some ways steers people toward isolated lives in front of their computer screens. The partial anonymity of it allows one’s expression to be judged on its merits rather than on preconceptions based on race, gender, physical attractiveness, etc. At the same time, it gives people an alarming degree of freedom to be complete and total jackasses.
It’s possible the film is also making allegorical claims about Japan itself, perhaps that the racial superiority ideology and militarism had not been renounced twenty years after the war so much as masked, and that beneath the hustle and bustle of democracy and economic development and westernization and such, they were really the same people. I don’t know.
It may be that something allegorical about Japan itself like that is the point of the other thread of the movie. There is a subplot involving a simple and good-natured young woman who appears quite attractive from most angles, but who you then see has been badly disfigured in part of her face. It turns out she and her brother are Nagasaki survivors. She works or volunteers at some kind of asylum. She’s concerned that another war could come at any time, but rather than looking all that spooked by the prospect, she seems to have a sort of light and carefree attitude toward life.
This story is never—that I could see—integrated into the main plot about the man with the mask. If you took all of her scenes and put them together, it would probably be fifteen to twenty minutes. And really since the stories don’t overlap, that could just as easily have been a short to show before or after the main movie.
I found it decidedly more obscure than the main movie. I think the implication is she ends up having sex with her brother and killing herself, but I’m not clear what the message is there. (Well, that war and atomic bombs and such—and the things that give rise to them—are bad, but I mean beyond that.)
There are more things worth commenting about concerning this movie (such as that a retarded girl is the one person who immediately and instinctively knows that the man with all the bandages and the man with the indiscernible mask are the same person, and what the psychological or allegorical implications of that might be), but suffice to say The Face of Another is somewhat philosophically interesting, and probably worth seeing just for its place in film history, but I don’t know that I’d give it more than a modest recommendation.