Pros: Photography and visuals; soundtrack; thought-provoking

Cons: Too dense, slow-moving, and ambiguous for many

Described as a “documentary fantasy” by its director, 1962’s Pitfall (the feature film debut of director Hiroshi Teshigahara from a script by famed novelist/playwright Kobo Abe) takes place in an almost hellish landscape and follows the tale of a down-on-his-luck miner and his young, mute son. After leaving one hopeless mining job in favor of other opportunities, the miner receives an offer of potentially lucrative employment and heads off to the job site. On his way there however, he’s brutally attacked and murdered by an unknown assassin. Returning to life as a ghost, the miner proclaims that he’s going to solve his own murder at which point, he’s (rightfully) advised by another undead being that doing this will only result in his suffering. The miner’s search for the truth indeed turns out to be more difficult one than expected, as his murder winds up involving a pair of rival labor unions and a shopkeeper that witnessed the murder who’s been paid off by the killer to hide his identity. The unraveling plot here is rather dense, and like subsequent Teshigahara films like the acclaimed Woman in the Dunes from 1964 as well as 1966’s The Face of Another (both written by Abe), Pitfall never quite reveals all its secrets, playing out in a very ambiguous manner. Ultimately, this slow-moving but captivating film could be read in any number of ways, and it’s exactly the type of film that would thrill the art-house crowd.

A strong visual sense is perhaps the film’s best asset.

Photographed in high-contrast black and white by Hiroshi Segawa, who worked closely with the director, this film is positively stunning to look at. Much of the film (appropriately) has a very drab, dirty, and downtrodden look to it, and the white colors in the film (which universally seem to sear the screen in the way they’re captured on camera) have their own connotation that’s indicative of an inevitable conflict with fate. Teshigahara utilizes all sorts of experimental techniques to both throw off the viewer to an extent and make the piece incredibly interesting from a visual standpoint. Included here are unique styles of fades that hint at the various character’s mindsets, expressive camera movements (which culminate in a memorable tracking shot during the film’s conclusion) and a truly innovative hard editing style that positions the viewer right in the midst of the action. Frequently, the editing style of Fusako Shuzui seems a bit jarring, but the choice of camera angles and takes (often transitioning from extreme long shots showing panoramic views of the characters’ actions on a macroscopic scale to tight close-ups that convey the emotions written on their faces) expertly relates the ideas that Teshigahara wants to get across to the viewer.

The entire mood of this film is rather dark and distressing: nothing pleasant happens at any point and the barren landscapes seem to replicate the sense of loneliness that exists in the mindset of the characters. All of the people here seem to have little connection to the world around them, perhaps most evident in the young boy who witnesses his father’s violent murder yet seems unfazed by his death. There’s also a definite edge of surrealism present in the picture: witness the seemingly unrelated images of ants swarming over a plate of bread, the moment (represented onscreen by playing a sequence in reverse) when the miner suddenly returns to life as a ghost, or a complex moment when two ghosts circle around two humans interacting with the dead body of one of the ghosts. I’d also have to say that the violence that exists in the film also plays out in a manner consistent with surrealism. The murder of the miner becomes a sort of avant-garde ballet played out in a mud bog, and an underplayed scene in which the young boy rips a frog apart is a definitive shock moment both gross and undeniably intriguing.

What would a surrealist film be without ants?

Considering that this film never actually declares its purpose or in the end, settles anything, it’s entirely up to the viewer to detect underlying themes relating to man’s propensity towards violence (most noticeable in the story about a pair of rival union leaders who resort to violence after each suspects the other man of plotting his demise) and corporate greed (in the material relating to a union being pressured to comply with harsh company demands or face extermination). One could also derive some sort of commentary on the ways in which humans have distanced themselves from those around them, an idea that has perhaps become all the more relevant in today’s society. The imagery in this film could quite honestly be analyzed almost indefinitely, and in this way, Pitfall is very similar to Teshigahara’s next and most famous film Woman in the Dunes, a piece which takes many of the ideas included in Pitfall and refines them.

Acting here is fairly low key but top-notch, with Hisashi Igawa doing a fine job in what is probably the film’s only major role as the miner on a search for an elusive and quite possibly confounding truth. In smaller roles, Sumie Sasaki plays the self-absorbed female shopkeeper who witnessed the miner’s murder and Kunie Tanaka (star of many a samurai and Yakuza film) is menacing and business-like as the mysterious assassin. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Kazuo Miyahara who makes a strong impression as the miner’s son, even if he doesn’t speak a word throughout the piece. Miyahara’s character in many ways is a sort of ghost himself, existing in the periphery of the story and quietly watching what takes place. One could make an argument that the film in a bigger sense is more about his character than any other. The action in the story plays out to a wonderfully eccentric soundtrack created by experimental composer Toru Takemitsu that features jarring outbursts of discordant tones and lots of strange sounds. It’s the perfect accompaniment to this undeniably bizarre but mesmerizing film.

One of many shots featuring stunning, deep-focus photography

In the end, much as might be expected from Teshigahara, Pitfall stands as a piece that would fascinate those who appreciate thought-provoking art movies and utterly frustrate just about everyone else. This isn’t so much an entertainment film as one which prompts a viewer to think long and hard about what he’s just seen. Certainly, it could simply be taken as a weird story about ghosts trying to solve their own murders in the human world, but there’s definitely more to this film than what exists on the surface. The problem for many viewers would be that it offers up precious few answers to any of the questions it poses. In ways, it’s not at all difficult to determine that this was a debut feature: it has some issues with tone, consistency, and pacing and the fact that the film introduces then quickly drops some of its many subplots is indicative of the fact that the director and writer were experimenting and developing their style as they went along. Despite a few missteps though, the technical genius on display and strong visual sense are enough for me to recommend it to adventurous viewers. Get ready to face a complicated puzzle and you’ll probably enjoy this singular work.

Released by the Criterion Collection as part of the four-disc Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara box set (with Woman in the Dunes and Face of Another). Pitfall is presented in its original full-frame version, in Japanese with English subtitles. The print had a few noticeable digital artifacts, but generally looks fantastic. Included as a bonus feature on the Pitfall disc is a video essay by film critic James Quandt, which discusses the various motifs in the picture. While this individual disc is pretty decent by itself, the Teshigahara box set is an extremely well-done package.

5/10 : A violent murder by stabbing, including some brief shots of gore, as well as views of dead bodies exhibiting fatal wounds. Also, a random act of aggression towards a (real) frog.

5/10 : A decent amount of harsh language in the subtitled dialogue including some strong, four-letter profanity.

3/10 : A woman scuttling around onscreen in a flimsy nighty, and an implied rape scene. No nudity.

6/10 : The art-house crowd would enjoy this one, but it wouldn’t be to the taste of the typical cult film aficionado.

Thought of the day: “Must a man become a demon just to survive?”

This trailer provides a good idea of what to expect (NSFW-ish):

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