The function of science fiction is not to predict the future's details, but to help us anticipate their emotional impact. The Face Of Another is not about when or how the details of the human body will become malleable, print-on-demand commodities, but about how that would force us to think about the morality of having an identity tied to our physique. Who am I to you, or to myself, if I can erase everything you would normally use to single me out? That was the subject of Kōbō Abe's novel, and Hiroshi Teshigahara's film adaptation (both from 1966), both of which revolve around a possibility that has since passed out of the realm of SF and become feasible. Book and movie alike both suffer slightly from the intellectual preciousness that tends to infect mainstream books built on SF concepts — it's as if they don't want to be caught dead being called "SF", so they work overtime to be called "Kafkaesque" or "existential". But both works also know that the problem of modern life is that while we have no technical solution for our spiritual ills, we're very good at convincing ourselves otherwise. For a while.
The invisible(d) man
The general outlines of Abe's novel could have been written by Michael Crichton a decade or so later. A highly intelligent chemist is disfigured in a lab accident. His vision, hearing, ability to ingest food, are all intact, but his face is now a blurred mess of scar tissue. When out in public, he wears a shroud of bandages that bring to mind the Invisible Man. The metaphor is doubly apt: even though people can see him, they seem to making an effort not to. Who wants to be caught staring? Not his friends or coworkers; certainly not his wife, who remains devoted to him even though he can tell her attraction to him has been muted.
The unnamed narrator, relating his story by way of a set of notebooks left behind, decides to experiment with creating a lifelike mask he can wear in public. It isn't hard to create one, thanks to modern polymer chemistry. What's harder is whose face to use, since he has to work from an existing subject. He ends up paying a stranger a sum of money for the right to use his face to create the mold. With dark glasses and artificially added facial hair in place, he looks, well, human again. Human, and also anonymous, since this new face of his technically does not match any other face; it's based on his subject but not a copy of it.
As he grows accustomed to wearing the face, its implications become clearer. A man without an identity is existentially free to do as he wishes. He flirts with various transgressions, but returns to the idea that has been simmering away under the surface all this time: to use his new face and seduce his wife in the guise of a stranger, to reawaken both of their libidos, but mainly to satisfy his own.
Slaves to the passions
When I first read Abe's novel some years back, it reinforced a feeling I'd been developing about how Japanese literature throughout the twentieth century and beyond self-sorted into roughly two buckets. The first was work written mainly to be read by Japanese audiences, whether low-, middle-, or highbrow, and so into that bucket fell everything from Akiyuki Nosaka to Yasushi Inoue to Jirō Akagawa. Second was work by Japanese authors that had the potential to appeal to Western audiences in translation, because it resembled other highbrow Western fiction in some form: Kenzaburō Oe, Haruki Murakami, and also Kōbō Abe. This wasn't so much about trying to sort them by quality (e.g., which is more "authentically" Japanese, or some other presumptively high-handed criterion) as it was sensing how others would also approach and classify them — and how, in turn, they might be marketed and discovered. Nosaka and Inoue were only marketed to a terribly narrow vertical of self-identifying "readers of Japanese literature"; Abe was marketed in the West as mainstream fiction alongside the likes of John Updike and Saul Bellow.
That put Abe's work, and The Face Of Another in particular, in the company of of a specific strain of contemporaneous Western fiction, involving intelligent people who find themselves slaves to their passions and unable to use their intellects to do much about it. John Barth (The End Of The Road), John Fowles (The Ebony Tower), and Iris Murdoch (A Severed Head) all touched on this in their own ways. Abe, though, was one of the few who used something like SF as the mode for all this, instead of conventional drama or postmodern farce.
The cool, detached, intellectual tone of the book is set at odds, deliberately, with the boiling frustrated passions described in it. For all of his technical genius, for all his brilliant, all-encompassing rumination about the impact of forensically perfect masks on society, the one thing he cannot think his way out of is his own quandary, because he didn't think himself into it to begin with. He was propelled there not so much by his passions as his loss of privilege. Where he once had the privilege of being trivial — just another man with a face-shaped face — now he wants most not to learn how to make the best of what lot he has, but to regain that lost privilege, to reshape the world to conform to his new demands. Or, if not the whole world (as he fantasizes about in sections where he speculates freely about what the availability of masks like his would do to society), then at least his immediate corner of it, the one where he and his wife still reside.
It's been said that it's easier to make a good film from a bad novel, or a mediocre one, than a good movie from a great novel. A middling book tends not to be very adventurous in its storytelling or narrative construction, so it provides a base on top of which a movie can build any number of fascinating extensions. Many great novels make use of techniques that can only work on the page (The Great Gatsby), and so resist being filmed unless they end up being radically deconstructed in the process (The French Lieutenant's Woman).
Abe's novel was written in the form of a diary-like notebook left by the narrator for his wife. Teshigahara's film version discards this device, but introduces some new ones. In the original story, the narrator's mask was more or less his own invention, with only minimal guidance from a specialist in creating prosthetics. In the film — adapted by Abe himself — the specialist, a doctor, is essentially a co-collaborator — he creates the mask for the protagonist, guides him through the process of acclimating himself to it. But the doctor serves another important function in the movie — he provides a foil, a "reflection character" in screenwriting terms. From the doctor's mouth come many of the ruminations that in the book were confined to the pages of the diary. Where before the protagonist talked only to himself, now he has the face of another to speak to, to guide him, to confirm his feelings, and ultimately to take the wrath for his failed plans. The only downside to this strategy is something that befalls a lot of movie adaptations of literary work: it leads to a few too many scenes that are overlong and talky, even if what's said is theoretically fascinating. This is an aspect of the problem I referred to in the opening paragraph: the original story, and the movie derived from it, sometimes work a little too hard to convince us they have serious intentions.
Several things save the movie from being stultifying. First is the casting. The unnamed protagonist is none other than Tatsuya Nakadai, the haunted-looking, baritoned actor at the center of so many other great Japanese films (and who voiced the animated phallic Satan in Belladonna Of Sadness). For the first third or so of the film he isn't allowed to use his greatest physical asset, his intensely sad eyes, given that he spends that entire time with his head englobed in bandages. But we hear his voice, and that by itself accomplishes so much. And then, after he's fitted with his mask, he's allowed to use the full expressive power of his face and his voice together, and it works wonders even when his eyes are once again partly hidden behind dark wrapraound glasses. His wife, elegant and proper, is played by another Japanese cinema legend, Machiko Kyō — she who embodied one of the central mysteries in Rashōmon, the doomed love in Gate Of Hell, the alluring woman of mystery in Ugetsu. She is nowhere nearly the fool her husband wants very badly for her to be.
The dehumanized condition
The other great boon is Teshigahara's filmmaking. Cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa also collaborated with the director on his equally excellent Woman In The Dunes (another Abe novel adaptation), and as with that film, they elected to photograph everything in full-frame black and white. The results are simultaneously coldly clinical and dreamy, especially in the scenes where Nakadai's character consults with the doctor and has his mask fitted amidst avant-garde semi-transparent set designs. All this is offset further by Toru Takemitsu's musical score, alternately romantic and unsettling.
Teshigahara and Abe also find various ways to stay faithful to the book without getting lost. One section near the end, about a young girl disfigured from the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima (another "faceless" one), is interleaved with the rest of the action and used to comment on it progressively. I actually liked this better than the all-in-one-lump way it's provided to us in the book; I suspect interleaving it in the book would have run against its narrative construction. Also, this way, the movie's treatment of it builds suspense and narrative interest not found in the original; it comments more directly on the mainline story.
The first time I read The Face Of Another was some years before the first human face transplant was successfully performed. Not a trivial surgery: it took multiple operations and many months of work. But much good SF is about noticing how things that were once exclusive and difficult would become democratized by technology, and how that would in turn affect how we live. What The Face Of Another saw was how the power is, to use Melvin Kranzberg's phrase, not good or bad, but not neutral, either — and also an exposer, if only inadvertently, of things we take too readily for granted. If society taught itself to be less reflexively repulsed by the disabled or disfigured (something the subplot about the girl also touches on), the mask would not be needed, and perhaps the narrator would never have felt the need to use it to steal back something he felt had been stolen from him. But we don't live in that world; instead, we live in a world where the greatest of intelligence and technical acumen cannot make us feel less dehumanized. That is, as it always has been, up to us alone.