The mid-to-late 1960s were a time when regard for cinema as Art was at its height, and there was endless discussion of what “Persona,” “L’aventurra,” “Last Year at Marienbad,” “Woman in the Dunes,” etc. meant. Not just what they meant but what happened was, I’m told, discussed at cocktail parties (I was too young to drink and did not live anywhere near where foreign-language films played).
“Woman in the Dunes” was the second film that Teshigahara Hiroshi (1927-2001) directed based on experimental writings of Abe Kôbô (1924-1993). Its international success brought attention to their first collaboration, “Otoshi Ana” (Pitfall), a mystifying, surrealist mix of ghost story, murder mystery, paranoid thriller, leadership rivalry, documentary about coal mining in Kyushu, and more. In one scene there is a corpse, two ghosts, and two murder suspects who will kill each other and soon become ghosts. Plus an Imamura-like rape by a policeman of the woman who witnessed the first murder.
Teshigahara had made some documentary shorts (four of which are included in the four-disk Criterion edition of the first three Teshigahara/Abe movies), but in “Pitfall” seemed to have some of the enthusiasm for a new toy (cinema) that Orson Welles displayed in “Citizen Kane.” As in “Citizen Kane,” there is some notable deep focus, albeit outdoors rather than indoors.
“Pitfall” was based on a stage play rather than on a novel, though it is intensely cinematic, mostly taking place out of doors. And the indoor shots are anything but straight ahead, with shots down through the rafters (also reminiscent of Imamura’s 1950s movies about women who persevere through rapes). There are very unusual pans and lots of tracking shots and jump cuts (in vogue from the French nouvelle vague). Etc.
Though much remains mysterious, there is a plot. A poor man (Igawa Hisashi) with a young son (Bicycle Thief, anyone?) who has been working in a mine demanding unsafe and illegal practices flees, takes another job hauling coal or something onto a ship, and, with his pay, is given directions to a jobsite-a ghost town left from a closed mine surrounded by slag heaps.
Before he gets there, he is knifed by the Man in White (Tanaka Kunie), who drives a white motorbike, as the son (Miyahara Kazuo) watches from the bushes. Also watching from a wooden house from which she sells candy (don’t ask to whom!), is a woman (Sasaki Sumie). The killer gives her money and instructions on what she is supposed to tell the police she saw happen.
The ghost wants to find out why he has been murdered and the second half of the movie suggests that the murder was part of a union-breaking (or at least disuniting) plot. The Man in White returns and kills again and the boy watches two more deaths. The boy, btw, was the first person to notice the Man in White, though the killer never seems to notice the boy, even when nearly running him down in the ghost town.
And only the viewer and other ghosts can see or hear the ghosts, so asking “Why?” is unheard and left to the ghost to interpret.
I’m not sure “Pitfall” would appeal to most fans of ghost stories. It is rather cerebral for a murder mystery (with the whodunit question never in doubt: what is in doubt is the why and who may have planned the first murder). Takemitsu Tori’s music adds to the eeriness. As do shots of various creatures, including a frog that is skinned alive, feral dogs on a slagheap, a scorpion caught on a hook, a snake, and dead and dying ants.
Abe’s fascination with doubles, mistaken identity, and lost identity are central to the movie. One leading character even has two doubles (both played by the same actor as the original, who has all the volition of a pinball).
The disc (in addition to the disc in the four-disc Criterion set of Teshigahara shorts and a two-hour documentary about Abe and Teshigahara, together and separately in various artistic endeavors) has an excellent analysis by James Quandt of the visual techniques along with an interpretation of the ending that convinced me. There is also a trailer. Neither should be viewed before grappling with the wonders of the movie, which runs 97 minutes (that includes fairly lengthy closing credits).
Despite my general aversion to sci-fi aspects, my favorite of the Teshigahara films I’ve seen (four feature-length ones and four short ones) remains “Face of Another” with the great Nakadai Tatsuya (Kagemusha, Ran, Kill!). (I was bored insensate by his 1990 “Rikuyu” and underwhelmed by his 1984 documentary on Antonio Gaudi.)