Zola Jesus on… the Transportive Wormholes of Hiroshi Teshigahara

'The Woman in the Dunes' (1964)


Discovering artists you so wholly connect with can become a spiritual thing. Their world becomes your world, their ideas and fortitude seeps into your own. You come out of it in a stupor, unable to see life unaffected by their grain. It’s especially exciting to find such deeply impressing imaginations without so much a dowsing.

I wasn’t expecting Hiroshi Teshigahara to exist, but once I stumbled upon him, it felt impossible to think of Japanese cinema without him. The films he created in his best years were full of such thick, spirited nerve; they took you over without a second thought.

Teshigahara got his artistic start in ikebana, the art of floweriness arranging. This is unsurprising when you consider the tempo of his films. Everything about ikebana is concerned with meditation, thoughtfulness, and minimalism. The same is immediately apparent in his filmmaking. Not a single frame is wasted or hollow.

There is something very powerful in both the parts and the sum of his films. From the image to the score to the novels they are often based on, each element is so discretely an environment unto itself, yet it is hard to imagine them apart once they are together. Each element relies on the others to finish the thought. Furthermore, his films feel ancestral, which may owe to age-old Japanese art practices such as ikebana.

Teshigahara’s first feature, Pitfall (1962) is a surreal tale of two labor union leaders who are set up by a mysterious man in white to kill one another. The souls of dead victims fruitlessly try to intervene, looking on from the other side. A complex meditation on life, death, and society illustrate his point-blank political ethos met with a confidently ethereal aesthetic. His debut married social commentary and surreal imagery, something that would follow him until the end of his career. These values would engrave the core of his identity as a

Pitfall was also the beginning of his remarkable collaborations with writer Kobo Abe, cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa, and composer Toru Takemitsu, whom he worked with consistently thereafter. Teshigahara’s loyalty to his crew was undoubtedly much to thank for creating his very unique thumbprint within Japanese cinema. It is my belief that his best films were made when all four men were involved, which makes one consider the importance of Teshigahara’s team.

His second feature, Woman in the Dunes (1964), became his most well-known work. Barren desert sets the landscape for an entomologist lost in the world of a dune-dwelling woman who lures him into following her beneath the sand, with no escape. Existential themes of loneliness and imprisonment weave between stunning photography of desolate dunes and the claustrophobic chambers within them. It’s interesting to see how each collaborator uses their voice to contribute to the immersive universe of this film. Takemitsu’s score delivers an analogue to the sparse location; his use of traditional Japanese instruments was surprisingly unorthodox for its time, though they work perfectly to create an atmosphere that mixes sound design with minimalist avant-garde arrangements. Segawa’s images are so spellbinding in their contrasts, from expansive wide shots of whitewashed dunes to tight cuts of the woman writhing underneath in darkness. It does glorious justice to the pensiveness of Abe’s work. Teshigahara is the true mastermind behind it all of course, but most importantly it is his genius in curation that is his greatest asset.

Teshigahara’s third movie with his collaborators, Face of Another (1966) is his most outwardly sci-fi. After burning his face in a fire, a man receives a mask molded from a stranger’s face. The film’s abstract visuals suggest deep overtones of identity in modern Japan, not to mention the subplot of growing gender struggles in his dysfunctional marriage.

His last movie with his collaborators, minus the early departure of Segawa, was The Man Without a Map (1968). The fourth movie based on a novel by Kobo Abe is about a man who is hired by a woman to investigate the disappearance of her husband. It reflects on similar issues of identity, as the two men begin to blur together.

After that he continued to work with Takemitsu, but all other collaborators dropped off. While the output in his later films was provocative and atmospheric, such as his documentary on the Spanish 19th-century architect Antonio Gaudi (1985) they didn’t quite hold the same pulse as his earlier work. There was something undeniably magical about his work with his collaborators. The ecosystem they created together bore an unexplainable aesthetic that can only be understood as quintessentially “Teshigahara”—contemplative, ethereal and sprawling. I’ve never found anything quite like it in or outside of Japanese cinema.

Criterion Collection has released his first three films in a pack that is certainly worth renting or buying for new Teshigahara fans. It comes with a booklet including a great interview with Teshigahara. There is also a highly recommended documentary about Toru Takemitsu called Music for the Movies (1994). Takemitsu shares plenty of fascinating insights about his own process as well as Teshigahara’s. I look forward to discovering more artists that offer as much of a transportive wormhole as Teshigahara, but in the meantime I’ll be getting lost to Woman In The Dunes on repeat.

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