The Face of Another (1964) Tanin No Kao
By Kobo Abe
With an Introduction by Kaori Nagai
Translated from the Japanese by E. Dale Saunders
Penguin Classics, 237pp
For his second novel Kobo Abe attempted to deal with larger issues of identity and personality on a national scale, by focussing on one nameless man. In Woman of the Dunes (1962), his first novel, Abe’s prose had a simple elegance, but with The Face of Another (1964) the basic form is much diluted, and complicated by multiple questions. The protagonist of Woman of the Dunes was simply trying to escape; the protagonist of this work is trying to find himself and lose himself, and trying to find a way to live in a society that seems to have rejected him. Abe’s novel eventually brings in a host of other concerns – taking in Noh theatre, the Hibakusha, and racism, and all thoughts connected with them. All of this has the cumulative effect of making The Face of Another a less successful novel than Woman of the Dunes, but one still filled with interesting undertones.
The narrator, who tells his story through a series of notebooks (black, white and grey), records how following an accident at the laboratory where he worked is left with keloid scars covering his face. This disfigurement (and the first resonance with the Hibakusha (those people who survived the atomic bomb blasts in Japan and were permanently disfigured)) causes the narrator to feel an outcast in society, and estranged from his wife to whom he feels he can no longer make love. The first Frankenstein allegories becomes clear as the narrator begins to furnish a mask, one so detailed and perfect that it will fit him like skin, and be indistinguishable as a fake. He dedicates himself to this with zeal, perfecting the technique and seeking out the perfect model.
With the mask complete, the protagonist is faced with further questions of identity and personality – can one live as a man without a face? Can one live with another man’s face? The mask begins to exert power upon him, and he finds his personality changing, becoming more forceful and assertive for the mask has given him anonymity, despite having a face.
“The mask was growing thicker and thicker. It had grown at last into a concrete fortress that enveloped me; and I crept out into the night streets wrapped in concrete armour… I hid beneath my mask, which had neither name nor status nor age.” (P.152)
Abe never takes his novel into the horror territory it could quite easily stroll – he is much cannier than that. At times imagination is allowed to run riot – as Abe the novelist and the narrator ponder upon what might happen if everyone were allowed a mask (actors copyrighting their faces for instance), and what crimes one might theoretically get away with. The main concern is of a sexual one, though, as the narrator seduces his own wife wearing the mask, bringing up questions of fidelity and play within a relationship.
As with Woman of the Dunes, the film director Hiroshi Teshigahara turned Abe’s novel into a film (Tanin No Kao (1966)), and though the film is less successful than the novel (or indeed their previous collaboration), cinema is something of an issue within the novel and Abe has clearly been influenced by his collaboration with Teshigahara. In the novel the protagonist watches a film – leading to further discussions upon the nature of masks, for all actors are wearing one though they still have the same face – and it is later revealed that the woman in the film is Hibakusha, the right side of her face covered in keloid scars. The man she loves kisses her finally, and the protagonist asks his wife (and us) what the significance would be if he kissed her on the left or right cheek. Also, we are to consider how much the mask that he is wearing becomes a cinema screen, how much it might remove him from his actions, whether there is any responsibility left there.
From Kaori Nagai’s introduction we learn one further fact. The title Tanin No Kao is a play on words: “By choosing the word which can mean at once the other and the stranger as his keyword, Abe turns our most familiar landscape – the face of our most intimate other – into a baffling maze.” (p.vii) The other can be familiar – the other is his wife – but it is also a stranger. Abe’s novel does not appear baffling, but it certainly becomes a moral maze, filled with ambiguity and doubt.
Our final scene of the protagonist is of him watching and waiting, wondering whether he should commit a crime. It becomes the final perfect metaphor for everything that has come before, and the final unifying choice: he will be committing the crime, whatever face he wears, and the implications of that will rest in him, not on the face, though he shall find freedom.
“I wonder if I shall become a swan with an act like this. Can I make people feel guilty for me? It is useless to think. What is amply clear, at least, is that I shall be lonely and isolated, that I shall only become a lecher. There will be no reward outside of being freed from the crime of being ridiculous. Perhaps that’s the difference between movies and actuality.” (P.237)
Abe’s novel, though not entirely successful, and some of the concepts and thoughts contained within now seem dated or outmoded - we live now in a world where a face transplant has occurred – and it does seem very much of its decade. As one of Abe’s stories of metamorphism – a familiar motif in his work – it is not his best, but one worth wallowing in for a few hours. For like all the best pulp it asks questions of us, and what more can we ask from such fiction?