Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Pitfall (Japan, 1962, Hiroshi Teshigahara)

The first in the fruitful partnership of four films between director Teshigahara and novelist Kobo Abe (which also their masterpiece ‘The Woman of the Dunes’, ‘The Face of Another’ and ‘The Ruined Map’), ‘Pitfall’ is a dreamlike and eerie mystery, typical of the novelist’s output, and directed with great imagination by Teshigahara. Whilst Abe has a reputation as an avant-garde writer, influenced by Kafka and Beckett, Teshigahara was able to translate these works into significant films without compromising Abe’s ideas and visions.

‘Pitfall’ focuses on a mine worker and his son who work at an exhausted mine, yet inform the owner that it will strike coal imminently. Knowing the futility of their work, they seek work elsewhere and notice a sign at a roadside asking for labourers. The town they visit however is a ghost town (literally, in fact). The only inhabitant is a slightly unhinged woman, who eats ants and assumes that the father is the mailman. It appears that the town’s inhabitants have been picked off, one by one, by a mysterious figure dressed in a white suit and sunglasses. The father is soon pursued by this figure, and murdered by the sea.

The dead return to life. Teshigahara uses a neat technical trick of showing the dead father ‘rising’ (whilst his body simultaneously lies on the ground, his spirit rises), who then, like the other inhabitants, asks whether he is dead, and then tries to seek the meaning of his death (and life). He tries to seek explanations of why the man in the white suit killed him. As he didn’t know the man and had only just arrived in the town, it is reasonable for him to consider it a fairly random and motiveless killing, though as we later discover, the victims are all tainted by a level of corruption, associated with union politics.

Many of the lost souls return to their routines and lives of drudgery, but they are able to see each other and interact. Interestingly, the lost souls remain as they were at the point of death, so the man who died when the mine caved in remains horrifically disfigured. Another lost soul recommends to the father that he tries not to seek the meaning of his death, which suggests that he might know more than he is letting on.

‘Pitfall’ then changes tack somewhat, emphasising the corruption element that appeared to be the downfall of the lost souls. Reporters investigating the case find a man (Otsuka) working in an adjoining mining town what is the exact double of the dead father, who was meant to go to the ‘New Pit’, which is located where the ghost town is. Abe’s novels have a recurring preoccupation with identity (the protagonist of ‘The Box Man’ sheds his identity to become a hermit living in a box, and ‘The Face of Another’ focuses on a disfigured man who wears a life-like mask which eliminates traces of his former identity), and confusion arises between the dead father and his double, who are mistaken for each other.

The woman who was the sole living inhabitant of the ghost town had been an unwitting witness to the father’s murder, and is threatened by the man in the white suit to keep her silence, though he insists she tell the police that the murderer was a man who fits the description he gives, which is of Toyama, the first union secretary. His arrest would break up the union, ‘as planned’. Toyama and Otsuka are on different sides of the dispute, but resolve to ask the woman why she has accused Toyama of murder. Before they can do so, she has been murdered by the man in the white suit, and like the others before her, her ghost wanders, asking questions about why she was killed, as she did as she was instructed. Since Otsuka arrives before Toyama, he assumes that Otsuka killed the woman in order to frame him. Thus ensues a struggle between the two. Otsuka kills Toyama, but dies soon after, whilst a banner with the single word ‘Unite’ can be seen, used no doubt as an ironic motif. The man in the white suit appears at this very moment – his work is done. He is followed by the lost souls, who try to seek answers from him, but there are no answers and no explanations. Abe typically avoids standard resolutions. We don’t know the exact intentions or motives of the man in the white suit. All we can assume is that his role was intensify the dispute between the two pits, but we never know why. But what of the mine worker? Was he killed because of mistaken identity? Did the man in the white suit mistake him for Otsuka, and thus was his death an unfortunate accident?

‘Pitfall’ is an incredibly successful meeting of minds between a gifted director and an enigmatic novelist, which would go on the better things with their next collaboration, ‘The Woman of the Dunes’, which is if anything even more imaginative and puzzling than ‘Pitfall’. ‘The Face of Another’, the other collaboration between the pair that I have seen reminded me of John Frankenheimer’s ‘Seconds’, a personal favourite film of mine, with dashes perhaps of Alejando Amenabar’s ‘Abre Los Ojos’. All three films are existentialist allegories and fascinating riffs on themes of identity and futility, usually with ‘heroes’ unwittingly thrown into events by fate, and all are recommended.

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