A private detective is hired to find a missing man by his wife. Contradictory evidence and the lack of clues soon render the case as virtually unsolvable, as the detective grows more and more frustrated.
A businessman facially scarred in a laboratory explosion receives treatment from a psychiatrist, and obtains an amazingly life-like mask from the doctor. Soon after being fitted for the mask, he attempts to seduce his wife and succeeds. But his wife claims she was aware all along who he was and believed that both were just masquerading together as men and women do in different ways. Strangely enough, his personality seemingly begins to change after he puts on the mask as if the mask has influenced his personality. His new identity does not enable him to reintegrate into society after all. A subplot is inserted in fragments. A good-natured young woman, the right side of whose face is disfigured, has been hurt by others' inquisitive eyes and insults, and has been shunned by men. She asks her older brother, the only man who understands her pain and solitude, to make love to her, hiding from him the intent of killing herself afterwards.Written by
Visually striking, but falls a little short of great
I loved the premise, appreciated the philosophy, and enjoyed some of the avant-garde bits of filmmaking here, but I don't think this film quite lived up to its full potential, and it didn't fully connect with me.
From the start, there are existential themes of isolation and absurdity, and the man's condition reminded me of Gregor Samsa waking up and discovering he was a giant bug. With his face heavily bandaged, he's alienated from everyone around him, including his wife, who shrinks from his touch. The film explores identity, acceptance, and whether the mask or persona we adopt liberates or controls us. The minor parallel story of the young woman with the scar on her face also deals with a mask of sorts, and isolation.
Existentialism was common after WWII, and perhaps heightened in Japan by its having lost the war, and gone through more dramatic changes politically and psychologically. Maybe the young woman in the minor story, with burns apparently suffered in childhood at Nagasaki, is a symbol for the country's scars, and its identity fundamentally changing. Similarly, maybe the man losing his face from an accident at work is a symbol for the modern or corporate world changing us, as we work as cogs in a machine.
I loved to think about those things, but the film doesn't expand on them as profoundly as it could have. Instead of a character arc that shows some form of change in the man over time, it gives us mostly dialogue which doesn't land as philosophically as I think it was intended, and commits the sin of telling us instead of showing us in the process. The doctor gives us dire warnings about far more changes than we actually see. Having the man's primary focus be to seduce his wife while disguised in his new mask was unimaginative and uninspired, though I did like thinking about the irony of this being the opposite of love, which should involve an unmasking and getting to one another's 'true self.' There are also banal bits like women putting on make-up being yet another form of mask. As for the parallel story, with the incest, rising sun, and oblivion, I think there is symbolism and some level of desperation or despair here, but it's not strong, and narratively it probably should have been at least loosely integrated with the main story.
Overall though, the film is well worth seeing. The production value is high, with that ultra-cool doctor's office, and the assortment of creative visual tricks director Hiroshi Teshigahara gives us, including freeze frames and surreal imagery. The striking scene in the crowd towards the end is also fantastic, and the film's best. My favorite line to ponder was this one: "I wonder if we see the true face of a gem when it's polished, or in the rough."
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