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Otoshiana, 1962
[The Pitfall]

IgawaUnder the cover of darkness, a visibly harried miner (Hisashi Igawa) and his young, impassive son (Kazuo Miyahara), accompanied by another desperate co-worker, desert their employers at an unidentified mining village in order to strike out on their own as migrant hired laborers away from the inhumane working conditions of (and overreaching control exercised by) the powerful and consuming industry. Some time later, on a desolate and barren rural province, the miner is observed subsisting through an even more meager - and disreputable - enterprise by feigning to prospect for coal at a worthless mine for a gullible old man in exchange for food and lodging, as a methodical and inscrutable stranger impeccably dressed in a crisp white suit (Kunie Tanaka), obscured by the stone memorials of a nearby cemetery, takes a photograph of his subject from an undetected distance. Fleeing to another town before his ruse is uncovered, the miner eventually finds employment at another organized mining operation, where he settles into a familiar routine until one day when the supervisor takes him aside with the ostensibly positive news that a larger agency wishes to personally hire him, the earnest proof of his job offer confirmed through the miner's photograph that accompanies the agency's unusually specific request. However, when the miner and his son arrive at the appointed location, they encounter a disquietingly near empty village whose sole remaining resident, a bored, candy store proprietress (Sumie Sasaki) awaiting her lover to send for her, explains that the town's mine had been closed to preclude the danger of collapse and caused the area to become abandoned as people left to seek elsewhere for employment. Inexplicably lured into the ghost town, the unwitting miner encounters the mysterious man in the white suit and meets his incomprehensible, but seemingly fated, destiny.

Based on the experimental fiction of postwar novelist Kobo Abe,
The Pitfall is a haunting, spare, and elemental, yet surreal and atmospheric portrait on alienation, spiritual bankruptcy, and moral descent. Creating his first feature film, Hiroshi Teshigahara combines the stark realism of his earlier short, documentary works represented by films such as Hokusai, a reverent overview of the works by the seminal Ukiyo-e artist, Katsushika Hokusai; Ikebana, an introductory film on the art, design, and aesthetics of floral composition; and José Torres, a two-part portrait of the humble and mild-mannered Olympic athlete and light heavyweight boxer) with the Kafkaesque psychological nightmare of Abe's allusive modern fiction in order to interweave states of consciousness and subjective realities into a compelling exposition on the nature of existence (an existential theme that is also explored in another feature, Woman in the Dunes). Teshigahara further expounds on existential fate through the use of doppelganger imagery that not only interconnects the seemingly disparate lives (and fates) of the destitute miner and the influential trade union leader (a provocative examination of identity that Teshigahara develops in a subsequent film that is also based on an Abe novel, The Face of Another), but also visually reinforces the metaphysical connection between the living and the dead inhabitants of the literal and figurative ghost town. Note the condemned, perpetual, empty motion articulated by the dead townspeople that mimic their actions at the moment of death, the evidence and validation of their corporeal existence reduced to the Sisyphean ritual of their meaningless - and anonymous - human struggle. Inevitably, the precariously collapsing pit serves as a dark and ominous reflection, not of a town's descent to economic ruin, but of the moral abyss created in the wake of greed, exploitive commerce, and inhumanity.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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Suna no Onna, 1964
[Woman in the Dunes]

Kishida/OkadaHiroshi Teshigahara crafts a spare and haunting allegory for human existence in Woman in the Dunes. An entomologist (Eija Okada) on holiday from Tokyo has come to a remote desert in order to study and collect specimens from the local insect population. As he momentarily rests on the sand dunes, he ponders a fundamental existential question: does a person's recognized achievements validate his existence? Is the value of his life measured by the number of certificates and awards he has received in his lifetime? For the entomologist, the answer is clearly reflected in his latest quest for an unclassified beetle that, if found, would be named after him in all the scientific journals. After lapsing into a daydream, he is awakened with the news that the last bus has left for the day, and the villagers arrange for him to stay with a young widow (Kyoko Kishida) who lives at the bottom of a sand dune. Soon, fragments of the woman's odd existence begin to surface: the pervasive contamination of sand throughout the house, the economy of food and water, the shoveling of the sand from dusk to dawn. She reveals the tragic details of her life - her husband and child buried under the crushing weight of the shifting sand - and alludes to his extended stay as her permanent company. The following morning, his attempt to leave the dunes is thwarted when he realizes that the rope ladder he had used to descend to the woman's house had been retracted, and the sand formations are too amorphous to climb. Eventually, the cyclic, seemingly mindless ritual is laid out before him: the shoveled sand is exchanged for provisions; the sand is hauled away at night and sold in the black market for construction; to stop shoveling would bury the house, and the adjacent house becomes at risk. Given an eternal task similar to the mythical Sisyphus, the entomologist asks the woman: "Are you living to shovel, or shoveling to live?" Resigned to an existence of displacing sand that will invariably be re-deposited by the following morning, can his life have existential meaning beyond deferring the inevitable cascading of the sand? In the barren landscape of the shifting dunes, is there a redemptive purpose in performing the monotonous, uncomplicated task? Or is the meaning of life reserved for only those who pursue the artificial, created cerebral exercises of modern civilization?

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Tanin no kao, 1966
[The Face of Another]

Nakadai/KyoAn off-camera psychiatrist (Mikijiro Hira) overseeing a processed batch of prosthetic appendages describes his fragile role of diplomatically treating - not a patient's physical imperfection - but rather, the psychological insecurity that underlies his seemingly superficial malady. The curious, fragmented shot of randomly floating, artificial body parts is subsequently reflected in an X-ray profile of a smug and embittered burn victim named Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) as he recounts to the quietly receptive psychiatrist his own culpability in the fateful industrial accident that had permanently disfigured him and now estranges him from his co-workers and family. The clinically disembodied images are then commuted into the equally cold and sterile Okuyama household through a dissociating, close-up shot of a human eye that zooms out to reveal his beautiful and mannered wife (Machiko Kyô) busily occupied in her hobby of polishing gemstones as the acerbic and insecure Okuyama attempts to test her affection and fidelity with vague and allusive casual remarks and open-ended questions. Spurned by his wife after a spontaneous and awkward attempt at intimacy, Okuyama returns to his psychiatrist and agrees to participate in the testing of the doctor's latest experiment: a prosthetic mask molded from the facial characteristics of a surrogate donor. Now liberated by a sense of faceless anonymity and relieved of personal and professional entanglements, Okuyama takes up residence at a modest boarding house and begins to test the limits of his traceless identity.

Marking Hiroshi Teshigahara's third adaptation of novels by modernist author Kobo Abe,
The Face of Another is a highly stylized, psychologically dense, and provocative exposition on identity, persona, freedom, and intimacy. From the opening sequences of isolated anatomy, Teshigahara establishes the fractured tone of the film's narrative. Surreal, aesthetically formalized shots of the oppressive prosthetic laboratory underscore the atemporal and geographically indeterminate nature of the universal parable. (Note the disjunctive effect of freeze-frames, muted ambient sounds, and cultural polyphony of the doctor and patient meetings at a German pub-themed bar that further contribute to a sense of existential ambiguity and pluralism). The intercutting parallel, elliptical narrative of a facially scarred young woman (Miki Irie) - whose character introduction is intriguingly accomplished through a wipe-cut (and therefore, may only exist as a figment of Okuyama's imagination) - creates, not only a pervasive sense of alienation, but also betrays the unsympathetic protagonist's internal chaos and capacity for emotional violence. Combining striking, elegantly composed visuals with innately humanist themes of connection and identity, Teshigahara composes a haunting, cautionary fairytale of masquerade and revelation, defect and vanity, impersonation and self-discovery.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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Antonio Gaudi, 1984

Casa BattloHiroshi Teshigahara's Antonio Gaudi is a spare, astonishing, and haunting documentary on the designs of famed turn of the century Spanish architect, Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926). A profound influence on the Spanish art nouveau movement, Gaudi's sensual adaptation of Gothic, Middle Eastern, and traditional architecture is a truly a unique artistic vision. Teshigahara immerses the viewer into Gaudi's unorthodox vision using lingering takes and mesmerizing panning sequences, accompanied by an equally eclectic soundtrack that vacillates from lyrical symphony to disquieting near silence. The film, largely structured without verbal narrative, unfolds as a figurative mosaic of Gaudi's early influences and nascent vision in the mid 1800's - from an overview of the Catalonian culture, to the contemporary works of other prominent architects, to the medieval art and architecture pervasive in the region. The first building featured is the Gaudi and Cornet collaborative project, the Casa Batllo (1904-1906) in Barcelona - a bizarre fusion of organic and inorganic, primitive and modern architecture: the massive, sinewy columns that flank the main entrance; the windows sectioned off by bone-shaped structural members; the textured, reptilian-like free-formed roof; the profile of the stairs resembling an arched vertebrae. The second building, Casa Mila de Pedrera (1906-1910) was constructed to function as a residential complex: the undulating structural profile reminiscent of a beehive colony is echoed in the latticework of the main entrance, and the scalloped ceiling pattern further emulates the motion of the waves. The Casa Vicens (1883) and the House of Guell (1884-1887) further exemplify his medieval influences, from the ornate floral work (Casa Vicens) to the elaborate dragon entrance (House of Guell). Guell Park (1900-1914) was designed to provide a seamless coexistence between nature and structure - the fantastical, fairy-tale inspired playhouses; the whimsical, intricate mosaic of the fountains; the fanned columns resembling a palm tree; the amorphous open field. The unfinished Temple of Expiation of the Sagrada Family (1882-present) near the Barcelonian waterfront is a visually intoxicating monumental work with its intricate religious sculptures, soaring arches, disorienting spiral staircase, and patterned mosaic work. The project, abandoned due to Antonio Gaudi's untimely death and the Spanish Civil War, has recently been reactivated as a testament to the legacy of this architectural visionary. Sadly, reluctantly, the film concludes with a shot of the construction site as Gaudi's profoundly simple philosophical statement appears on the screen: "Everything comes out of the Great Book of Nature. Anything created by human beings is already in there."

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Rikyu, 1989

Mikuni/YamazakiAn early episode in Rikyu shows the ceremonial tea master, Sen-no Rikyu (Rentaro Mikuni) meticulously poring over his modest garden in search of a perfect flower, carefully cutting his selection behind a retaining trellis, before instructing his apprentice to cut all the remaining flowers in the garden that are in full bloom. Moments later, the powerful warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), concernedly looks around the flowerless garden before entering the spartan and intimate tearoom by climbing through the small door opening and into the direct line of sight of the harvested flower that has been arranged on the opposite wall. Instantly, the hurried and distracted Hideyoshi changes his demeanor and pauses in stunned silence, visibly overcome by the thoughtful presence of the solitary white flower in the humble room. It is an understated moment that summarily defines the mutual respect and kinship between the methodical and disciplined Rikyu and the brash and mercurial Hideyoshi's relationship as well. Once serving as the tea master under Lord Oda Nobunaga (Koshiro Matsumoto), an ambitious warlord who aggressively sought to unite Japan under his rule and opened diplomatic, religious, and trade relations with the Portuguese (who had access to the Asian spice trade route through Goa), Rikyu retained his venerable position under Hideyoshi after the loyal and calculating general avenged his master's death and wrest control of Lord Oda's vast feudatory over the traitorous, competing warlords. Using invitations to Rikyu's formal tea ceremonies as an effective ruse from which to conduct delicate diplomatic negotiations among the unassimilated, rival feudal states, Hideyoshi eventually succeeds in realizing Lord Oda's ambition to unite Japan through peaceful means. However, when the Hideyoshi declares his intention to invade China as a step towards his overreaching quest to create a Japanese empire in the Pacific, Rikyu's tempering influence over his impulsive student is tested.

Based on the life of the legendary tea master Sen-no Rikyu (1522-1591),
Rikyu is a serenely contemplative and formally exquisite exposition on aesthetic philosophy, refinement, and spiritual unity. Thematically expounding on Rikyu's spare and minimalist principles of the wabi-cha (literally, 'desolation-tea', or the reductive practice of paring the tea ceremony to its humble and meditative essence in order to heighten one's sense of awareness), Hiroshi Teshigahara incorporates wide spatial framing (often placing characters in medium shot), natural and diffused lighting, and slow, unobtrusive tracking shots that distill the film's essential visual composition and maintain purity of focus. Teshigahara further reinforces the cultural legacy of Rikyu's simple, yet elegant integrated life philosophy by dedicating the film to mid-century modern designer Isamu Noguchi and Sofu Teshigahara, the filmmaker's father and founder of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana that integrated principles of modern art into the traditional art of floral composition. Set against the transience of history as a united, 16th century Japan initiates a campaign for the invasion of China - a devastating imperialist policy that would again resurface during the early 20th century with the Manchurian conflict - the film becomes a subtle, yet provocative testament to civilization's true enduring legacy, not through militarism and territorial aggression, but through the peaceful cultivation of taste, art, and national culture.

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