(English title, Pitfall )
a film directed by Hiroshi Teshigawara, screenplay Kobo Abe, music Toru Takemitsu (1962)
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Employed by Death
- Hiroshi Teshigawara’s Pitfall -
1. The movie
An unnamed man and his young son desert from a mining town in the middle of the night, while the camera is following their fearful moves in complete silence. The silence is followed by occasional, discontinuous, unexpected noise of musical instruments, as a sign of potential danger present in an unseen form. The music does not tell a story. The story does not tell a story. The absences, incongruities, silences and sharp noises with no image-correspondence weave the coarse texture of Kobo Abe’s narrative.
Train railways will guide the family and a friend to another workplace, from where again, they will desert, at midnight. Just like in modern days, the necessity of a job, the search for any kind of job as long as it is a job, ought to define the search for survival. This need for survival will take the unnamed man and his son to an unnamed town, for an unclear job with an unidentified employer. The unnamed town has a distinctly eerie atmosphere, with identical houses standing in a line, seemingly uninhabited. The camera zooms out for a diagonal perspective on morning lights and shadows cast over the barren soil. Oddly, the more the daylight suffuses the space, the more menacing the space becomes.
The music continues to tear up this space with noises and silences following their own rhythm asynchronous with movement. Nature, with its ascending and descending mountain-lines, blooming and dying sunrays, pits and pitfalls, sets up the background of negative abstractions. There is no warning, nonetheless the unnamed man will die.
This is Otoshiana, Teshigawara’s first movie (1962). The script was written by his friend Kobo Abe in 1962, year Abe had been expelled from the Communist party, alongside other Japanese literary figures who stopped believing in the party’s politics. At the end of the movie, a child is running down a wavy road, into the distance. Otoshiana finishes with a child running, alone, in the middle of nowhere. The sense of purposelessness and the search for freedom are already felt here, interwoven. We turn back 20 seconds and see the child running straight towards the camera. 40 more seconds back and we see the child stopping, and having a caramel candy while tears are running down his cheeks. The end of the movie is certainly unsettling. Before the title Otoshiana has been chosen, another title was leading the options: Kodomo to kashi, The Child and the Sweets. What sort of bitterness are the candies supposed to sweeten up will be revealed by the rest of the movie, yet, the fact that the child is, in a way, the main character, is strongly emphasised by means of repetitive images of the child and his heavy silence.
The child’s father (who has no name, just like all other characters in the first half of the movie) is murdered by a stranger, apparently with no reason, in the first 25 minutes of the movie. He is murdered in a deserted town, being himself a deserter. Upon their arrival here, the camera shows, in an oblique direction, a street with identical houses. The first 2 houses have each a visible message: "now" 今 and "safe" 安. Right there where it should all be "safe" 安全, the tragedy will take place. Inexplicably.
The father is a miner, and his normal world is one of a continuous potential danger. Mines are collapsing, as the documentary images show in the 8th minute of the film, and when they do, they turn into the hell where “you crash and burn”. Therefore, the miner, comparing himself to a stray dog, keeps running away from mines and potential dangers, until he arrives in this ghost-town, for a job. Against his expectations, he will not be the subject performing a job, he is the object of the job. In other words, someone else’s job is to kill him. From obvious potentialities of catastrophe, to an inexplicable, and meaningless ending.
In 1951, when Abe was 27 and has been awarded the Akutagawa Prize for Kabe 壁-S・カルマ氏の犯罪, he was living in a boarding house next to a factory workers’ dormitory. He was organizing literary circles among workers and declared to have wished “to associate with workers as closely as possible.” (1) His knowledge on the life of workers is therefore most direct. In the postwar years of the early 60s, Japan is undergoing severe change. Clashes with governmental institutions such as the police were not rare and protests against governmental decisions and ordainments were taking people out to the streets to give voice to their dissatisfaction and requests. Additionally, Abe’s own search for freedom starts with his detachment from the Japanese Communist Party and the desire to escape from a communal establishment. The movie will touch on this topic, with the dream of freedom that the workers reveal. “I want to work somewhere where they have a union. I’d like to have my say and give my boss a good kick in the ass.”, says the miner who will ironically end up being murdered for, according to the local authorities, his resemblance to a union chief.
At the crime scene, the official representatives of governmental establishments, police, forensics, the only ones present in a real “living” shape in a town where everyone is unreal, or dead, are investigating the cause of “death”. Alongside are the reporters, who will, absurdly, discover the miner’s double, a union chief named Otsuka whom he resembles perfectly, resemblance which they believe, was the real cause of death. Every dream a cause of death, what is the movie pointing to?
The world is always changing around people, in people, by people, yet depicting change in one’s time is a challenge for any artist, any film-maker, who’s a witness to the change, and also a subject to change. How to depict a changing world in a Japanese movie of 1962? How to depict political, economical, social or psychological change, a world changing in a way obvious to all, so obvious and so dangerous that day by day it pulls down people’s attention to the level zero of the unnoticeable, of the unseen, and the artistic eye is then challenged with the strong power of representing the unrepresentable? Something so visible that it reaches the deep contours of something invisible, impossible to express in words or images that belong to this world. Thus images and words of a different sort charged with their own negative energies coming from a different world become necessary tools (or weapons).
And yet, it has all been right there, in front of everyone’s eyes, right then, in those days, change going along with existence, change changing existence, existence changing (or not?) the change. People notice that both unreal and real are part of the world they are in, or world they’re part of, and both unreal and real are part of the change trying to transform them by taking them out of themselves, to the limits of the unrecognizable. In Otoshiana, human life is so filled with emptiness, so deprived of present and future, it is death-like.
For a film-maker, a new ordering of a chaotic universe becomes often necessary, an “ordering” that does not always attempt to “straighten up things” artistically, an ordering that does not always pretend to be the kind of solution possible “only in the movies”. An ordering can be a vertical ordering, a deepening, an emphasis, an emphasis on ambiguity, on paradox, on tension, on irony, for a film can be regarded as a type of discourse with its own density and approach, intention and extension of something that although changing continuously, when becoming a past reality, turns into unchangeable material for the director, or even perhaps, an unchangeable archive of personal memories, for small insignificant unrepresentable change is now history.
When one stops knowing what is real and what is not real, a strong emphasis on both can be the best contrast. It might as well be that what the movie is aiming to stress is precisely the unrelatedness between unconnected events, borderlessness of contrasts. Therefore, the movie is not making use of more obvious cause-and-effect dilemmas. Which ordering is less absurd, less devious? Making the dead and the living coexist in the same space could be a good example to test the meaning of devious dwelling inside the rest of the living. Making a clean cut through the human body to get to its core, which was death even in life. Cause of death? The environment or the nation’s politics? Whatever might have been, it seems to have been deadly. From here, with each death, a doubling of the self, a simultaneous detachment from the self and a synthesis of outward events and soundless inward thoughts. Would this approach to the coexistence between real and unreal seem absurd? Which appearance should be called less absurd? The showing of those who died or of those still living? What sort of demons do the dead and the living have in common?
Then something (someone) that should not be there is there. Something (someone) that should be there is not there any longer. The “shouldn’t” causing the “isn’t”. An ethical argument ending innocent existence. A change which cannot coexist with existence, but it is there to subdue it. From danger to form. From form to non-form. From non-form to lack of meaning. From here to the impression that the film was left unpolished.
As a conclusion to the movie, two main characters are left alive at the end: a child and a killer. The camera zooms in for a close-up of the child’s eyes (1:14:23) as it will zoom in again for a view of the killer’s eyes (1:31:08). A child and a killer. I count again. Child, killer. One, two. One, two. Two or just one?
This movie touches on the topic of existence not through fulfillment, but through despair, failure, absurdity and death.
2. Special features
2.1. Tangible and intangible, emptiness and too-lateness
Tangibility is one of the major characteristics in Abe’s novels (2), namely tangible representations of abstract concepts. In Otoshiana, we’ve got the body for the concept of life, the body-ghost for the concept of death. Yet, the way the concepts of life and death are dealt with in this movie is very important to the understanding of the movie as a whole. In a literal meaning, the body can touch and be touched, the body of the ghost cannot touch and cannot be touched. More than this, the body of the ghost as the doubling we are witnessing in this movie with each murder, is the life coming out of a human body, therefore the body of the ghost represents precisely the idea of “life”, “life coming out”. Life is too abstract in itself to be seen, heard, or touched. Life is intangible. Where does life end and where does death start, that is not such an easy question to answer here.
The complete intangibility appears in the first image of the ghost town (00:36:11), filled with people who died but somehow continue the movement of their past activities. There are no material objects, the tools they used to handle are now invisible (broom), yet the action of sweeping is still there. An unreal person sweeping with no broom. Structure of the image: NoSubject-Verb-NoObject. We might as well consider the possibility that the concept of death is totally symbolic in this movie. Namely, that death is not meant to be considered as an afterlife status, but as a metaphor of destruction of life within life. The governmental politics of the moment, the pressure and redirectioning of people’s energies towards areas where they could not find any freedom, creates the monstrous image of a life which is as bad as death. People become invisible. Their action of “doing” things must, nevertheless, with a well-defined governmental purpose, continue. Life becomes an empty form, a pit, an abandoned mine, a mine with no minerals, a private hell.
Minerals are another element present in Abe’s novels, minerals as a symbol of transformation of the human being. In Otoshiana, we have got the mine empty of minerals, the miners’ transformation as they turn to ghosts, and as metaphor of minerals, the whole life is seen like an empty mine, an intangible emptiness which should have been filled with tangible material-the coal. If the coal in a mine is the equivalent of meaning in a life, then the lack of minerals leads to the simple idea of lack of meaning.
The stomach is another pit, an empty pit where hunger finds the perfect space to manifest itself. The comic repetition of the miner’s complaint “I’m so hungry” (1:32:41) expresses this intangible emptiness within the body. Just like a sterile mine, an empty stomach cannot be filled, it is too late, the food should have been there already. The body is deprived of its life, and of the basics needed for survival.
As part of the lack-of-meaning sequences, a woman, the only being who has not deserted the ghost town, will be also murdered by the same killer. She is murdered so that she cannot talk about the real face of the killer, and also, so that the money paid for her silence, 7000 yen, to be taken back. After this second murder, the woman’s hands are seen trying to turn the postcard she has been waiting for from the man she loved, to give her a purpose, a place to go, a place to live, in togetherness. Yet the postcard cannot be touched by her hands which are not in the real anymore, and therefore the written part cannot be turned. Her hands cannot touch things and things become intangible realities. Words stay secret, in a time of their own. For the woman, it is too late. Too late to know. “I’ll never know what it says, but it’s too late anyway.” (1:14:58)
Real and/or unreal are fragile spaces, sometimes cut horizontally by blinds in a multiplicity of narrative layers, creating the tangibility of the other side as a real illusion of precisely the impossible. (1:21:09) The blinds show the ghost of the miner here in its own space, close but departed in the distance, trying to make sense of the woman’s murder and reaching the wrong conclusion “So it was you”, an attempt to the understanding of things in real life which are fragile and vulnerable in their conclusions just like the blinds in the wind.
What is tangible then? The tangible appears through the touch of an innocent hand on the architecture of perishability: the unnamed man’s child is seen making sculpted shapes out of soft material (clay) brought by his father from the rather sterile mine (00:04:05). The tangible leads to the idea of form. Human life starts with a form.
2.2. The ineffable , the impossibility to express emptiness or too-lateness, words deserting the body
On the way to a meaning, the form demands words. Human life demands words to express the meaning of life. In Otoshiana, expressions are reduced to the ineffable. Is the ineffable something that cannot be expressed, or something that has been silenced? Is the ineffable poetry or restriction?
The kid is the main character in the movie and still, his bizarre lack of reactions to all he is witnessing is perhaps, the most unsettling element in the whole movie. He knows who the killer is and does not say a word. He witnesses people being murdered or killing each other and does not move. The more he sees, the more he knows, the more candies he steals, the more candies he eats. And he was not a candy eater at the beginning of the movie, when, on the bus, a woman offered him caramel candies. He silently refused (00:10:34). The child’s behaviour emphasises the treatment of human beings as matter, the freeing of the human being from emotional bondage. Whose treatment? We do not know. What is the message of this movie, if the child, who is supposed to represent the future, is reduced to rigid, emotionless matter? What is this image saying, if anything, about a changing Japan? Everyone is dying around this child, and his space is a space filled with ghosts, or formless entities, or lives with no life. Is this child, who should represent the future, a future which knows no trace of life, a lifeless future? Is this child going to grow up and become the killer? A killer? A symbol of meaningless crime? A meaningless future of a whole country named Japan?
Where are words now, where are the words that can change the way of things, the words to save the future from this sort of dark symbolism? Words are not allowed to find their freedom. Words will find themselves in the impossibility of being expressed by the woman in the ghost town, after her murder. She is one of the few who know the real face of the murderer. The humour comes with the inaudible thoughts she has when asked “Anyone home?”, namely “How am I supposed to answer?” (1:18:01). Answers cannot be given anymore, yet the camera reveals, ironically, the schedule for the train and bus on her right. An unnecessary information stays there unchanged, expressing time, the time of a train or a bus which cannot be reached, a time which one does not have anymore, expressing both an empty routine defining people’s lives and a lost chance to future departures.
Words are not even used to tell us who these people are. Names are not used to define most characters, and the words being used to address them are reduced to a merely “you” and sometimes, a sourceless image. “Isn’t this your picture?” 「これ、お前の写真じゃない」(00:16:09), the miner is being asked by his most recent employer, who, after identifying him without knowing him, sends him to nowhere. The human being is stripped of what can be essential about it, there is no name attached and no concern towards one as individual, yet the unnamed man is recorded in someone’s files, information on his looks and whereabouts is for some strange reason, available to some unknown people. The human being is powerless, cannot name itself, cannot express itself, for it has already been defined by outside forces, which defy its very right to existence. The politics of life deprive humans of names, and words, and the form defining their individuality and existence. In the context where a man trying to desert the workplace is brought back on his knees from a train-railway busy industrial townscape, this can be interpreted as a critique to a government promoting the politics of death to a mass of people who are expected to only work, and not to have an individuality.
3. Instead of conclusion
As we have discussed the form, the tangible and intangible, the emptiness and the too-lateness, and the ineffable, the impossibility to express emptiness or too-lateness, with words deserting the body, we created a path form-words-meaning, and it is the right time to ask questions on the meaning of the events in the film.
In the last sequences of the movie, the ghosts of the murdered woman and of the murdered miner get together and approach the killer to ask the question why. “Who are you? Why did you kill me?” (1:31:13) The killer does not notice their ghostly presence, but tells himself “Exactly as planned” 正確だ。Intrigued, the ghost of the miner keeps trying to understand the reason “There must be a reason to kill a man”.
The miner has given some hints to an answer in different moments in the movie, without managing to answer the why question. “Must a man become a demon just to survive?” 人間はやっぱ鬼にならんと生きていけんのじゃろうか。, he asks when referring to Otsuka, whom, for a moment, he blames to have killed the woman (1:20:19). The word “oni” appeared before, in the 10th minute of the film, when the miner’s friend states that in a different life, he would rather be a demon, an “oni”, as it is easier that way. We allow ourselves to follow the etymology of the word “oni” 鬼, namely the apparently unconnected “on” 隠, 隠れて見えないもの, “that which cannot be seen, for it is hiding”, and look at the three main meanings, “in Buddhism, a frightening monster” 仏教では、地獄に住む怪物, “a cruel and merciless creature” 冷酷で無慈悲な人 and “a bill (money, debt) collector” 借金取り、債鬼 (saiki). The last word, “saiki”, even contains the Chinese character for “oni”. The killer in a white suit covers all meanings. He is always hiding in the distance, he is hiding in a Buddhist graveyard (00:04:13) the first time he appears in the movie, which is, according to the first definition, the place where “oni” come out from. He is cruel and merciless and will come back to kill the woman to collect the money he paid for her silence. More than the obvious, he is the symbol of a hiding danger, and does not necessarily represent an individual.
The camera shows all sorts of signs along the movie: a Self-Defense Forces recruitment announcement 自衛官採用 (00:12:14), the messages of “security” 今・安 hanging on the abandoned houses in the ghost town, followed by the strongly communist political speech of the union chief (01:03:08). The words “double-crosser” 裏切者 and “trap” わな are frequent all the way. Can we conclude from here, that there is a possibility for the politics of Japan to be considered a trap to individuality, the “oni” which gets life out of people with no reason?
While the movie finishes with a wavy road in the middle of nowhere, and a kid with the eyes of a killer eating candies and running away in the big distance, the image before that has, perhaps, a particular meaning. Let us remember that the miner considered himself a stray dog at the beginning of the movie. In the same scene, at midnight, a dog appeared in his temporary shelter, sniffing around, moment when the miner thought “Why did you let him go? We could have made dog stew…” (00:07:43) Ironizing his own symbolism, the unnamed miner lets his own “stray” condition escape him. An ascending slope with six dogs sitting is shown twice in the last 10 minutes of the movie (1:29:53 ; 1:33:07), as one of the main landscape images, along with the deserted mines and ruins on dry soil. The second time, these six dogs will move one by one up the slope, forming a group and leaving together the scenery, as if the “plan” has been accomplished. This image reminds of Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”, where at the end, death is leading the victims of the plague up the slope, while one family, mother, father and child, are the only survivors.
A child and a killer are the only survivors in Teshigawara’s Otoshiana. The killer embodies all definitions of a demon, or “oni”. The child knows the face of the killer, and does not respond to the knowledge he possesses. Their eyes are shown by the camera in an identical way in the movie, reason why we had to ask the question: are they two distinct characters or is their symbolism overlapping? The question asked by the unnamed man, the boy’s father, namely “Must a man become a demon just to survive?” 人間はやっぱ鬼にならんと生きていけんのじゃろうか, does not necessarily take his own son out of the picture.
Is there any hope left, is all hope for the future gone, in Otoshiana only the eyes of the child, the killing stare and the tears at the end can know the answer.
1) 日本ジャーナリスト専門学院出版部、芥川賞の研究, Miki, 1980, p.207, quoted in Motoyama, p. 315
2) Watanabe, p.69
Bruce Altshuler, Book Review The Delicate Thread: Teshigahara’s Life in Art, By Dore Ashton, Tokyo, NY, London: Kodansha International, 1997, in The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol 57 (Aug 1998), No 3, pp 863-4
Mutsuko Motoyama, The Literature and Politics of Abe Kobo: Farewell to Communism in Suna no Onna, in Monumenta Nipponica, Vol 50, No 3, Autumn 1995, pp 305-323
Hiroshi Watanabe, Abe Kobo, Shinchosha, 1976
JAPANESE SUMMARY 要約（和）
ここではこの映画を次のような方法で分析する。1. ではストーリや脚本・映画の背景の分析から作品の基本的な特徴を明らかとする。2. ではさらに作品のイメージとセリフとの関係を以下のようなテーマを設定することで明らかとする。2.1 作品における「死」の描写から見えてくる TangibleとIntangible（現実に触れることのできない死者という存在のイメージを表すと共に、文化遺産のコンテキストではよく使われている無形のものという意味も含まれる）そしてemptiness とtoo-lateness（空虚さと取り返しのつかなさ）について。2.2 the ineffable（言葉にならないもの）；「空虚さや取り返しのつかなさ」を表現することの不可能性について。上記の分析に基づいて3. の「結論に代えて」においては、「生における意味の不在とこの不在を表現する作者の動機とは何か」という観点から作品解釈を行った。
The movie “Otoshiana” has been directed by Hiroshi Teshigawara in 1962. The movie has been produced by Tadashi Oono. The screenplay has been written by Kobo Abe, the music composed by Toru Takemitsu. Cinematography by Hiroshi Segawa. A film by Toho Films. Cast: Hisashi Igawa, Sumie Sasaki, Sen Yano, Hideo Kanze, Kunie Tanaka, Kei Sato, Kazuo Miyahara. “Otoshiana” was filmed in Kyushu and at the Sogetsu Art Centre in Tokyo. A deserting miner and his boy arrive in a deserted town for a job. This is a trap. The miner will be murdered apparently without reason by a man in a white suit. The boy will witness this and the events following, in silence. Other characters will die as well, leaving the killer in a white suit and the little boy as the only survivors. We explained in the first chapter the narrative and the background of the movie, in the second chapter we discussed the form, the tangible and intangible, the emptiness and the too-lateness, and the ineffable, the impossibility to express emptiness or too-lateness, with words deserting the body, and with these we created a path form-words-meaning towards the third chapter, which came instead of conclusion.
At present, Hiroshi Teshigawara's "Otoshiana" can be watched at
(Original with English subtitles)
(Original with English subtitles)