This is the third attempt I’ve made at reading The Face of Another (a clunky translation, but I can’t think of a better one, so I should probably shut up). Years ago, I watched a film called The Woman of the Dunes, which is based on another Abe novel. It’s a great film, and you should watch it if you get a chance, but it’s also very long, not a lot happens, and really focuses on the internal psyche of its main character. Coincidentally, that last sentence could just as easily be applied here.
A scientist has been horribly scarred from a chemical accident at his lab. His face is left a mess of keloid scars, and has resorted to wearing bandages to cover the sight every time he leaves his house. But one day he wonders what it would be like if he wore a mask. With this in mind, he sets out to create the perfect mask, one he can use to interact with everyday people. As with all scientific experiments, though, it has a high chance of going very, very wrong.
Obviously the disconnect between the face and the interior is not an exclusively Japanese concern – Western postmodernists have been having a field day with it since the 1960s – but I think it’s certainly one of the main concerns of Japan. This is unsurprising, when you consider just how much of Japanese society is based on external appearance, on presenting a polite face to the rest of teh group in order to avoid causing meiwaku, or trouble, for other people. There exists a gap, then, between what you must present to the rest of the group, and what you really think, and this provides fertile ground for authors and philosophers to explore questions of identity, and how much the world around us shapes who we are, and how much we can repress.
I use the word “philosopher” carefully and deliberately here, because this is as much a philosophical musing as a novel. One of the time-honoured “good things” about the written word is that we get the chance to see inside the inner workings of characters, to try and get inside their minds to understand why they do what they do. Abe doesn’t disappoint in this respect. A large chunk of this novel is not about plot or character, but about the potential implications for society if he goes ahead with his plans for the mask. We start with a treatise on faces, and the four main face-shape type, and how each one sees the world differently, and is seen differently by the world. It takes our protagonist some time to decide what kind of face he wants to project to the rest of the world, musing on the pros and cons of each type. Unsurprisingly, he eventually chooses a rather aggressive type, one that fits in with his strangely aggressive way of thinking.
The actual creation of the masks is glossed over quite quickly, though that is not really the point of the novel, so it doesn’t really matter. Once he has the mask, the tone and focus shift, and we begin to explore what the protagonist can do with this new face. He starts small, but gradually works up his courage to go out into the wider world and interact with people using the mask. This culminates in his conducting an affair with his own wife, disguised with the mask, to see if she can notice. She can’t. But there’s a rather nice twist at the end of this tale, and it turns out that the wife knew all along – how could she not? For her, it is not just from his face that she knows who he is, but from a whole host of other reasons.
One of the central concerns of our protagonist is his ability to see and understand the suffering of minority groups, particularly those minority groups who are visible in their difference – black Americans, for example, and the Koreans who live in Japan. He is now able to understand what it means to be ostricised by society simply by what you like. As such, he seeks out company with people like him – he drinks in Korean bars; he is enthralled by a young woman who has been visibly been affected by the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima. Of course, this is problematic – for the masked man, he now has the option to become “normal” by using his disguise, negating any sympathetic feeling he may have for these people. He acknowledges as such, which in many ways, only serves to strengthen his point about the importance of appearance. There’s a nice sub-plot, too, if you can call it that, where the protagonist has a series of conversations with the mentally disabled daughter of his landlord, who can see he is the same person, even with his mask on.
This is not an adventure novel. Plot and character are seemingly secondary to Abe’s wider vision – his desire to explore the ways in which people interact, both with faces and in other ways, overtakes any kind of literary fireworks or touches that may be present. But it’s an interesting premise, and some of the hypotheticals posed by the work leave you wondering about the ways in which we all lead our lives.