Kobo Abe is a writer I came to learn of after having watched a trilogy of films by Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara, all of which were adaptations of Kobo Abe’s works. The first film I watched was The Face of Another, based on Abe’s novel with the same title. And because the film is both excellent and philosophical (putting both Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni stylistically in mind) I immediately sought out a number of Abe’s works.
As a novel, The Face of Another is a very good book, albeit I don’t think it is as good as the film. But since this is a review of the book and not the film, I can only say that I do recommend this book, despite the novel not adding much to that of what the film already accomplishes. The story tells the tale of a scientist who has been physically scarred from a laboratory accident, thus resulting in hideous appearance — so much that he is forced to bandage his face. Eventually he creates a mask of his own — one that is undetectable, with a face he “purchases” from a stranger. On one hand, The Face of Another offers a greater exploration into isolation and loneliness, and the scientist, who is left with no one, cannot even connect with his own wife because she too has grown disgusted by him.
The mask is so convincing that not anyone, save for a retarded girl who lives in the same building as he, is able to recognize that the man in bandages is the same one in the mask. And as the narration progresses, it is actually the mask that, in a sense, “takes over” and isolates him even more from culture than did his actual scars. For example, when he decides to seduce his wife, the scientist becomes angry because he is convinced his wife is unaware of who he is, thus believing her sexual act with him is on par with marital infidelity. This scene is dramatically acted out within the film, where the wife claims she did in fact know the man was her husband, and ironically, for as much as he desires human contact and comfort, when he is finally offered it, he rejects it.
The narrative is told in first person, via a series of three notebooks, each of a different color. The speaker notes that there is no significance to these separate colors, only that he used them as a means to distinguish one notebook from the next. The very act of telling his tale this way offers up an interesting metaphor, in that, if one’s face is merely a cover, and bears no more significance than the color of one’s notebook, then why are we ultimately so affected by outward appearances so much that suicides have occurred due to the marring of one’s facial skin? And just to take it a bit further, it is not merely the physical he speaks of, but our motives and how our motives appear to others. The parallels this tale has to that of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis cannot be denied.
Abe’s prose is not intensely lyrical as much as it is cerebral, though he does a good job of getting into the detailed mind of a scientist, even though the character himself is not particularly likeable, and nor is he the most uplifting of souls: “Human relationships are merely trivial appendages of human endeavor. If they are not, the only thing left to do is to give up this makeshift masked play and commit suicide.”
As the ending nears, the novel weakens in narration when the speaker feels compelled to preach a bit excessively, thus sounding a bit self-righteous and didactic: “The mask that descends on you this time will be a wild animal. Since you have seen through it already … you have dug your own grave by yourself.”
Then when he hears the clicking of a woman’s heels, “only the mask remained; I had vanished.” Moments as these come across a bit heavy-handed in its symbolism, and instead of allowing an already strong, built-up metaphor speak for itself, Abe feels the need to dip into moments of didacticism by telling readers what it all means, rather than allowing us to figure it out. There is also a weak scene involving a scarred woman who engages in incest with her brother, a scene that was one of the weakest in the film as well. But overall, Abe creates a strong portrait of an isolated individual who is struggling with not only loneliness, but also his own rational musings. After a while, we do not know who is really speaking — is it the man or the mask, or has the man ultimately become the mask? The novel poses the idea that ultimately we are the masks we wear if we allow them to be. If we allow others to see us only as how we wish, then we too ultimately become as distorted as the images others have created in their own minds.
The film allows for the secondary characters to materialize more than they do in the book, and so for that, I grant kudos to Teshigahara for knowing exactly how to bring about the book’s strengths in the best possible way. As is, The Face of Another, novel and film, are two works I recommend, even though now after having experiencing both, I would still give a slight edge to the film. Abe, at least in this book, is ultimately an idea writer, and The Face of Another offers many rewards, one of which is a curiosity for more of Abe’s works. Thus, until my next review, I am on to another.