Pitfall - Masters of Cinema series [DVD]
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Teshigahara's debut feature, Pitfall [Otoshiana], was the first of his collaborations with novelist/playwright Kobo Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu. Beautifully filmed in an abandoned, postwar coal-mining town in Western Japan, it is part social-realist critique, part unsettling ghost fable. Examining themes of alienation, workers' rights, and identity, Teshigahara and Abe's exotically strange film evokes the cinema of Antonioni, Resnais, the writing of Kafka, Beckett, Carroll, and the French existentialists. A wandering miner, looking for work with his young son, is pursued by a mysterious, silent assassin in a white suit and hat. As mistrust and killings spread through the barely populated, rundown mining community, ghosts of the dead appear, unheard by the living, yet imploring them for answers. Who is the man in white and why does he sow confusion?
Teshigahara coined the term "documentary fantasy" for this study of the powerless, impoverished worker in postwar Japan. Demonstrating a meticulous aesthetic his father was an ikebana master and founder of the Sogetsu Foundation Teshigahara's efforts with Pitfall earned him the NHK Best New Director award and the luxury of being released abroad. Over forty years later, The Masters of Cinema Series proudly presents Pitfall for the first time in the West on home video.
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As that synopsis might suggest this is an amazing film - a mix of film noir thriller, ghost story, Brechtian social realism, Cocteau-inspired surrealism and Antonioni-style existentialist angst, with a great avant-garde soundtrack "directed" by Takamitsu. Overall, the mix works very well, similar to other Japanese New Wave movies (especially early Oshima), with elements that made me think of many other films, from Schrader's Blue Collar to Wenders' Wings of Desire.
Because the film has political & historical depth, I found Pitfall much more interesting than Teshigahara's better known 60s cult period-pieces Woman of the Dunes & Face of Another (where "pop" style & allegorical contrivance became overwhelming).
This DVD edition is excellent, with a detailed booklet & informative audio commentary from Tony Rayns, explaining how the film evolved slowly out of prior radical theatre & television versions in the context of revolutionary events surrounding the Japanese political crisis of 1960.
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The DVD package, from The Criterion Collection, Three Films By Hiroshi Teshigahara, comes with a fourth disk of supplements, the main feature of which is a documentary about Teshigahara and his Kobo Abe's lives and collaborations. There are also four short early documentaries by Teshigahara, none of which presage his fictive films. They are: Hokusai, Ikebana, Tokyo 1958, and Ako. The actual disk with Pitfall on it contains the theatrical trailer and a video essay by film critic James Quandt on it. Overall, it is a solid video package- with a few early blemishes, shown in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, although the lack of an English language dubbed track would have been a great help because the white subtitles blanche out against many of the ultra-white shots of the film. The booklet features a career overview by Peter Grilli, an interview with the director, and essays on the films. Hiroshi Segawa's cinematography is very daring, and the scoring, by Toru Takemitsu, is always apropos to the scene, underscoring emotions, never exaggerating them, and often adding to the scenes with an askewness to what is seen, which throws a viewer into a different state of mind, aiding the feeling of alienation many of the characters feel.
This alienation is at its greatest when one realizes that the first two murders of the miner and the candy saleswoman are incidental to the real `meat' of the film. And, in this way, Teshigahara is offering up his version of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, wherein the character the viewer presumes is the film's main character, is not. He is merely a plot device, whose raison d'etre is left hanging. The same cannot be said for his son, who witnesses four murders and the brutal sex between the cop and the candy saleswoman. In this way, the film also neatly sunders the convention of a close father and on the road, as portrayed in such films as The Bicycle Thief and Il Grido. That both of those films were influenced by documentary forms, as was Teshigahara's work is no coincidence; as is Teshigahara's will to break with the tried and true.
Pitfall is a film that is great because it is daring, it does not bite off more than it can chew, it provides a strong narrative, but leaves enough mystery for the viewer to cogitate on through multiple viewings, is technically strong, in all areas, and provides solid enough acting (never great) that its just mentioned framework of excellence never frays. It provides a narrative for those drawn to plot first films, yet also has a philosophic heft that works on many levels- from the existential to the ethical, and touches upon identity, the layers of the self, and what is and is not private and is and is not evil. It may be a bit less daring than Teshigahara's later The Face Of Another, as well as lacking in as much razzle-dazzle and narrative complications, but it is also less flawed, and this latter quality is why it stands taller as a great work of art than the later film. However, both films evince an undeniable fact- Hiroshi Teshigahara was a force of great talent and achievement in Japanese and world cinema, and the world of art, and that at large, is poorer for his absence, and the absence of his creative descendants. Hence, sometimes less really, and only, is less.