By Robert Nishimura | Press Play July 20, 2011 at 3:48AM
I can't recall exactly when I first saw Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes, but it had a profound impact on my cinematic upbringing. It was most likely on 16mm or third generation bootleg VHS, and even looking past the grainy transfer and static I could see a beautifully crafted film, the likes of which I had never seen before. I immediately sought out Kobo Abe's original novel and any related material I could lay my hands on. The film also opened my ears to the music of Toru Takemitsu, the composer responsible for damn near every Japanese film made in the 60s. These three auteurs would ultimately become the holy trinity in Japanese film history, not to mention equally excellent in their own respective fields. So when Criterion announced a Teshigahara box set, I was ecstatic. Up until that point the other films were not available in the US, and I was anxious to see more. Once I had that gorgeous box in my hands I soon found that Pitfall and The Face of Another were equally great; the set boasted delicious array of supplements, including Teshigahara's short films on Hokusai and his father's avant-garde Sogetsu School for Ikebana (the traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement).
But I also found one glaring omission; the fourth film in their unfortunately short-lived collaboration, The Man Without a Map.
Based on Abe's novel The Ruined Map, The Man Without a Map would be the final collaboration between Teshigahara, Abe, and Takemitsu. What separates it from the other three films is that it was shot in color and CinemaScope, which was somewhat of a surprise considering they had held out in favor of black-and-white long after the studios had shifted production to color. Critic and film programmer James Quandt makes only a passing remark in his Criterion essay on Face of Another in regards to Man Without a Map; he describes how Teshigahara's adherence to traditional ratio and black-and-white film emphasized the arrangement of mise-en-scène, utilizing a strict visual design undoubtedly inherited from his training in ikebana, but the choice to use color and Scope reveals a "discomfort with both." It has also been argued elsewhere that this film ultimately is inferior to the team's preceding films, perhaps due in part to the decision to adopt the CinemaScope fad. While I agree this film may not be on par with the first three, Teshigahara's use of CinemaScope superbly enhances his stylistic determination. As my Three Reasons hopefully exhibits, nearly every frame of this film is calculated and arranged beautifully, and at the same time provides the perfect visual equivalent to Abe's existential themes.
On paper, the plot sounds simple enough: A detective is hired to find a missing person named Nemuro. A series of seemingly meaningless clues are thrown at him wherever he goes, characters float in and out of his way as he desperately tries to make sense of why anyone would just disappear without cause or reason. Even as evidence is laid out (or manufactured?), our detective searches for a deeper meaning until finally he begins to question his own identity. Therein lie the common threads linking all the Teshigahara-Abe-Takemistu films; identity, alienation, existence. Who am I? This is not my beautiful wife. Why am I in this pit? What the hell is going on? In every film, characters struggle with these problems, but in the end there are no solutions. In regard to Abe's narrative influence, Man Without a Map falls perfectly within the sensibilities of the other films. But its source, The Ruined Map, is straightforward compared to other Abe novels. Having the protagonist be a detective instead of an amateur entomologist is a helluva lot more accessible. The film benefits from this device as the audience tries to find meaning in the seemingly random events that our detective finds himself involved in. Fans of film noir will enjoy the playful subversion of the hard-boiled detective and femme fatale archetypes, and there's a surprising dream sequence that will throw viewers off if they don't pay attention to certain visual cues. This film was released years before Robert Altman's 1973 film of Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely,, but just like Elliot Gould's mumbling Philip Marlowe, our detective has a fondness for cats.
I'll admit, I'm tempted to just scold Criterion for not trying harder to include the film in the first place. It is the final piece in an amazing body of work. To exclude it would be a travesty. Travesty, I say! But Criterion did an amazing job with what they had, even without Man Without a Map. At this point the movie remains unavailable outside Japan, and there doesn't seem to be much acknowledgment of its existence in the West. And since there is no Mayor of Movies to write angry letters to, we just have to wait for Criterion to correct the matter once the Teshigahara box gets Blu-graded.
Robert Nishimura is a Japan-based filmmaker, artist, and freelance designer. His designs can be found at Primolandia Productions. His non-commercial video work is at For Criterion Consideration. You can follow him on Twitter here. To watch other videos in his "Three Reasons" series, click here.