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.
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’.
‘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.