Wednesday, 20 May 2009

JUNE's SCREENING: 'PITFALL', Hiroshi Teshigahara (1962)

Sunday JUNE 21st 5pm


Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962, 92 mins.

Based on the experimental fiction of postwar novelist Kobo Abe, Pitfall is a haunting, spare, and elemental, yet surreal and atmospheric portrait of alienation. Teshigahara weaves actual footage of coal miners and their hungry and desperate families into Pitfall to establish his sympathy for the workers, but do not expect a neo-realist call to arms.

The Plot of the film
Pitfall is set against the background of labour relations in the Japanese mining industry, but the film owes as much to surrealism as it does to "socially aware" drama. The mine in the film is divided into two pits, the old one and the new one, each represented by a different trade union faction. A mysterious man in white, whose identity we never learn, murders an unemployed miner who bears an uncanny resemblance to the union leader at the old pit and bribes the only witness to frame the union leader of the new pit. The two union leaders go to the murder scene to investigate only to come across the body of the witness, who has subsequently been killed by the man in white. They blame one another and begin a fight which ends in both their deaths. The film ends with the man in white observing them before riding off on his motorcycle, satisfied his mission is complete. Beyond this realistic plot, Pitfall shows us the realm of the dead as well as the living, as the ghosts of the victims look on, powerless to intervene in events and bring the truth to light.

It has been argued that the social and political concerns are almost secondary to the real ambition of Abe and Teshigahara, which is to create a narrative that operates on the level of a dream—or a nightmare. Nonetheless the film has a powerful resonance with the decades of struggles in Japan that followed World War II. One of most central of these being the Mitsui Corporation's Miike Coal Mine, where workers gradually built a powerful union during the early 1950s. Another being the wave of student and worker mass protests against ANPO - the Japan-US security treaty. These real world events pervade and haunt Teshigahara's film steeped as it is in an atmosphere of frustration, death and machinations over collective organisation.

19th May 1960: Japanese coal miners, wearing protective clothing, form a human barricade to prevent strikebreakers from entering the Mitsui Miike mine at Kumamoto.

Anti-ANPO protest, 1960?, Location unknown.

In 1951 Abe was organizing literary circles among factory workers, Abe was a member of the Communist Party while Teshigahara belonged to an artist’s circle called “Night Association” that Abe founded. Like Communists everywhere in the world during this period of Stalinism in crisis, both Teshigahara and Abe were beginning to become disenchanted at the time of Pitfall's making. Along with many other Japanese Communist artists and intellectuals, Abe ran afoul of the party leadership. Abe being among the 28 writers expelled in 1962.

Further reading
Otoshiana, 1962 [The Pitfall]
Pitfall (On Abe and Teshigahara's political affiliations)
About the Japan-US Security Treaty
Short History of Japanese Left