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TCM Imports - June 2019
Remind Me

Pitfall (1962)

This Japanese film is noteworthy for several firsts, but first a little about the film itself.

Described by its director, Hiroshi Teshigahara (1927-2001), as a "documentary-fantasy," the story and style occupy a space somewhere at the unlikely juncture of social realist drama and surrealism. A man and his young son arrive at a town where the father has been told he can find work as a miner, only to discover it is deserted (or so it seems). They eventually become residents of this place of lost souls.

Set against the backdrop of labor troubles within the Japanese mining industry and infused with the political sympathies of the film's creative team (firmly on the side of workers and against the corporate powers that exploit them), production took place in - and incorporated stock footage from - the Kyūshū region, site of a number of mining disasters. At the time of production, mine closures had brought about economic stagnation and starvation among the region's inhabitants.

These very real concerns about the corruption of Japanese society are folded into a story weaving together murder, treachery, a mysterious man in white and ghosts, an approach that has earned the picture a reputation as a horror film as well as an example of the Japanese New Wave. An unsettling and unconventional sound design and a visual style that superimposes the realm of the dead onto stark, barren landscapes contribute to the surreal atmosphere of desolation and anxiety.

Now to those firsts. This was not only the debut feature of director Hiroshi Teshigahara (known up to this time for documentaries, primarily shorts), it was also his initial collaboration with composer Tôru Takemitsu and acclaimed novelist-playwright Kôbô Abe, whose often nightmarish studies of contemporary life have garnered comparisons to Kafka. As avant-garde artists with interests and accomplishments in numerous fields beyond filmmaking, including poetry, photography, sculpture, theory, invention and even ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, the three had a natural affinity that proved very fruitful for several years.

Although this was their first feature film collaboration, the artists had been connected in various ways for several years prior. Takemitsu had written the score for Teshigahara's Hozee Toresu (1959), a documentary short about the boxer José Torres, and produced concerts of contemporary experimental music for the director's avant-garde arts center in Tokyo. The composer also contributed unique soundscapes to Abe's radio dramas. He applied this same innovation to Pitfall, scoring it for a single musician on "prepared piano," a sound pioneered by John Cage but new to film music.

They would collaborate on three more films after this, all based on Abe's novels: The Man without a Map (1968), The Face of Another, (1966) and their most famous film, Woman in the Dunes (1964), winner of the Jury Special Prize at Cannes and an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director. Another short by Teshigahara, White Morning (1965), was based on an original story by Abe but, unlike the other four, does not credit a screenplay by the author.

Pitfall was also the first Japanese film to be released by the Art Theatre Guild, founded in 1961 as a distribution-exhibition company to bring art films to an emerging audience for such works in Japan. Initially, the guild showcased world cinema classics such as Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Citizen Kane (1941). It quickly began promoting home-grown avant-garde and New Wave works and moved into film production later in the decade. Pitfall served as something of a template for the kinds of productions favored by the guild, those created by artists experimenting with style, often abstract in form, while also confronting the most burning issues of the day.

Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Producer: Tadashi Ôno
Screenplay: Kôbô Abe
Cinematography: Hiroshi Segawa
Editing: Fusako Shuzui
Art Direction: Masao Yamakazi
Music: Tôru Takemitsu, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Yûji Takahashi
Cast: Hisashi Igawa (Otsuka), Sumie Sasaki (Shopkeeper), Sen Yano (Toyama), Hideo Kanze (Policeman), Kunie Tanaka (Man in White Suit)

By Rob Nixon