Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Coal play

Posted By on 01.25.12 at 11:00 AM

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"Must a man become a demon just to survive?" wonders the protagonist of Hiroshi Teshigahara's striking Japanese drama Pitfall (1962). On the basis of the movie, I'm inclined to say yes, though the story unfolds amid such a stark natural landscape that even becoming a demon may not be quite enough. You can judge for yourself tonight at 6:30 PM when Pitfall screens at the Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Washington; I'm scheduled to take part in a panel discussion after the movie.

Pitfall was only the first installment in a remarkable collaboration between Teshigahara, the modernist composer Toru Takemitsu, and the novelist and playwright Kobo Abe. The three men knew each other from the Century Club, a little clique of avant-garde enthusiasts from all genres, and after Pitfall they would team up again for three more features: the allegorical drama The Woman in the Dunes (1964), the paranoid sci-fi intrigue The Face of Another (1966), and the gumshoe mystery The Man Without a Map (1968). What seems extraordinary about their partnership—especially now, when each of them is regarded as a master in his field—is how completely they involved themselves in all aspects of the production. As Peter Grilli notes in a wonderful essay for the Criterion Collection, "None of them hesitated to criticize or reshape the work of the others in order to strengthen it or give it deeper meaning."

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Of their four projects, The Woman in the Dunes was the most celebrated, recognized around the world as Japan's response to the French New Wave. But Pitfall—which was heavily influenced by Luis Bunuel's Los Olvidados (1950)—is pretty impressive in its own right. Adapted from a handful of stories by Abe, the movie centers on itinerant coal miners, their miserable working conditions, and their beleaguered efforts to unionize. But Pitfall undulates from one strange situation to another like some kind of fever dream, and woven into the film's social realism (documentary footage of suffering miners, etc) is a creepy Japanese ghost story. Tooling around the ravaged terrain on a motor scooter, clad in white from head to toe, is a poker-faced man with a switchblade and a sinister goal: after he stalks and murders a poor miner, his victim spends the rest of the movie walking the earth as an invisible specter and trying to figure out why he was killed.

Damned if I know; perhaps my fellow panelists will be able to clue me in. All of them are connected with my alma mater, Knox College: Michael A. Schneider is chair of the Asian Studies Department, Mat Ryohei Matsuda is a Kobo Abe scholar who teaches Japanese language and culture, and Orna Shaughnessy is a visiting instructor in Japanese. The moderator will be Robin Metz, director of creative writing at Knox and cofounder (with Elizabeth Carlin-Metz) of the Vitalist Theatre; the company's production of the Abe play The Ghost Is Here runs through February 19 at the Department of Cultural Affairs' Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph.

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