Teshigahara at The Castro

Dennis Harvey November 23, 2006

The 1950s were the “classic” era for Japanese cinema, at least in terms of international acclaim. That decade started off with Kurosawa’s groundbreaking “Rashomon,” and was then filled with a nonstop parade of other lasting works by him (“Seven Samurai,” “Throne of Blood”) as well as Mizoguchi (“Sansho the Bailiff”), Kinugasa (“Gate of Hell”), Ozu (“Tokyo Story”), and many more.

But it was in the 1960s that this robust film industry got really imaginative, often in projects that were (as far as their studios were concerned) unexportable and of strictly commercial intent. Fantasy, crime, lurid melodrama, sexploitation, political commentary, violence, and experimentation mixed it up in the works of such new-breed directors as Nagisa Oshima and Seijun Suzuki. It would take some time for many of these idiosyncratic movies to be appreciated as art at home, let alone as objects of cult adulation by Western viewers.

Spared that long wait, yet very much a part of the period’s adventurousness, was multimedia artist Hiroshi Teshigahara. Filmmaking was just one among his creative outlets, in later years hardly the primary one. But few outside Japan have been exposed to his extensive work in sculpture, painting, theatre, and opera direction, short documentaries, even the design of formal gardens. For most, he’ll always be known for the handful of features he directed over a three-decade span within his busy 75 years. (He died in 2001.)

The best-known of these are getting a mini-retrospective revival at the Castro Theatre this week, thanks to Janus Films’ striking of new 35mm prints with freshly re-translated English subtitles. A couple of the films are world classics that have never been too difficult to track down. But the two others are rarely seen, and all remain fascinating testament to a distinctive, unpinnable talent.

Born in 1927, Teshigahara was son to the founder of Sogetsu School — a particularly esteemed institution dedicated to that most quintessentially Japanese art, ikebana (flower arranging). He’d dedicate much of his later life to that traditional discipline, but diverse and modishly avant-garde interests — including the founding of his own school, Sogetsu Art Center, in 1958 — led him gradually toward the film medium. He magnetized like-minded types like experimental author Kobo Abe, composer Toru Takemitsu and cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa, all of whom would collaborate on his striking first three features.

Each of them are based on Abe novels, and their stunning B&W compositions should prove hypnotic on the big Castro screen. The first, 1961’s “The Pitfall” (aka “Otoshiana”), starts out looking like gritty neorealism, as impoverished army deserters roam the countryside in search of work. Landing in a mining town, one of them is stabbed to death at tortuous length — only to rise again moments later, his spirit regarding its bloodied mortal corpse. As more bodies pile up, offed by a mysterious man in crisp white suit, their ghosts likewise crowd the screen — all pissed off, anxious to discover why they were killed. “The Pitfall” may well stand alone as cinema’s only existential pro-union supernatural thriller.

When that initial effort won acclaim, Teshigahara was free to make the movie he’d really wanted to do: An adaptation of Abe’s seemingly unadaptable literary masterpiece “Woman in the Dunes.” No one reading the novel would have thought it possible, but the resulting 1964 feature (showing at the Castro restored to its original 147-minute length, from which nearly a half-hour was usually cut) honored its source and then some. It won a Cannes Special Jury Prize, was nominated for two Oscars, and created a sensation worldwide.

There’s nothing quite like “Dunes,” one of very few narrative films one can say truly replicates the dislocative, subconsciously logical tenor of a dream. In particular, the quicksand-like way in which dreams can slow down or render impossible simple escape — a sensation literalized here by the sand pit in which Abe’s protagonist is by degrees buried alive. An amateur entomologist looking for insects in a remote area is invited by villagers to spend the night in the curious domicile of a woman. The lines between captive and captor, seduction and destruction blurs as he realizes there is no exit from this sandy purgatory. The physical world in its starkest form overwhelms viewer perception in a film whose metaphoric and psychological ambiguities seem bottomless.

Two years later Teshigahara and the same collaborators unleashed “Face of Another,” an even more grotesque — if less universally applauded — meditation on isolation and identity. Tatsuya Nakadai plays Mr. Okuyama, whose face is left severely disfigured by a lab accident. At first covered in bandages like the Invisible Man, he can’t bear the perception (his own and also one he suspects of others) that a man without a face is a soulless “monster.” He persuades a doctor to create a latex mask for him as an “experiment.” Modeled on a stranger’s face, it’s so convincing that it allows him to pass undetected amongst the everyday crowds he’d once felt a part of. But however he looks, Okuyama still feels profoundly severed from humanity, even himself. In the end, like more banal fictive “monsters,” he too seeks brutal revenge on the world.

With its surreal images and alienated, almost clinical atmosphere, “Face of Another” exists on the cusp of conventional sci-fi and horror. It recalls Georges Franju’s 1959 poetical shocker “Eyes Without a Face” in some ways, as well as the plotline of John Frankenheimer’s “Seconds” (which also came out in 1966). But the pathos those films emit within macabre situations is almost wholly absent. In the end, the doctor can only pronounce the killing truth, “Some masks come off, some don’t,” as both he and Okuyama are engulfed by “normal” people whose own faces are chalky, featureless blanks. Oh, that Kobo Abe — always good for laughs.

“Face” was not a success, and subsequent features “The Man Without a Map” (another Abe adaptation) and “Summer Soldier” (a change-of-pace portrait of U.S. Army soldiers AWOL from Vietnam in Japan) did little better. Teshigahara turned to the myriad other pursuits he’d never quite abandoned, adding documentary filmmaking to the mix.

It was in that latter mode that, surprisingly, he returned to features after a 12-year absence in 1994. The titular subject was another visionary multimedia artist — Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi — and the approach was as mysterious, unclassifiable, and visually rapturous as any of Teshigahara’s prior narrative works. Gaudi (1852-1926) believed all decorative designs should be rooted in nature’s basic forms; his increasingly fantastical structures often feel as if they pushed their way organically out of the ground rather than being slapped together piece-by-piece by man. For the most part eschewing any commentary or biographical errata (but embracing another otherworldly Takemitsu score), “Antonio Gaudi” proved a transcendent experience, as well as one of those rare art films about art itself that connects (like “Rivers and Tides” or Paul Cox’s “Vincent”) with a large audience.

In 1980 Teshigahara became his family’s third-generation grand master of the Sogetsu School. The long-in-progress Gaudi film was one thing, but it was surprising when, despite his considerable management and academic duties, he made two last narrative films, both handsome color historical pieces. (Neither are included in the current Castro series.) 1989’s “Rikyu,” an international success, dramatized the 14th-century conflict between an ambitious warlord and his Zen monk advisor. An ostensible sequel, the highly decorative if dramatically weak “Princess Goh” focused three years later on a court romance in the same era.

Teshigahara left filmmaking alone for the last ten years of his life, having plenty of projects to occupy him on a less taxing scale. No doubt his work in areas other than film is worth investigating — but even if he’d never made anything worthwhile beyond “Woman in the Dunes,” he’d still be a revered and enigmatic figure.

Hiroshi Teshigahara Retrospective, at Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., SF. Mon., Nov. 27 – Thurs., Nov. 30.