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Pitfall (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on February 25, 2013

A miner (Hisashi Igawa) hops from job to job, with his young son (Kazuo Miyahara) in tow.  He gets a new job, but soon is given a sudden transfer and sent elsewhere.  When he arrives, he finds a ghost town, and looking for the work site, is murdered by a mysterious man in a white suit (Kunie Tanaka).  Now wandering as a ghost, he tries to find out why he was killed, what it has to do with the union leader who looks exactly like him, and why the sole witness, a candy vendor (Sumie Sasaki), lied about what she saw.

Criterion’s DVD box set is called “Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara”, but there are three other principals who play a major role in these films.  Kôbô Abe, the writer; Hiroshi Segawa, the cinematographer; and Tôru Takemitsu, the composer.  This trio of enigmatic movies is the work of all four.  I point this out not to diminish the contributions of Teshigahara, but clearly working with this core group of people was part of his formula for crafting such unusual works.

Pitfall (the second movie with that title I’ve rewatched this month) is the weakest of the three, but only because the competition is so strong.  Where it falters is in its social commentary.  There’s some very complicated dialogue outlining the conflicts between the mining company management and the union that was split in two.  It’s a confusing premise that doesn’t pay off.  We never see any representative of the management (except their hitman) and that’s an interesting, unusual choice… but it might do more harm than good.

But there are other things going on here that work quite well.  If the more specific social commentary (workers vs. bosses) doesn’t quite gel, the larger theme of a cutthroat, every-man-for-himself world rings clear.  Everyone is looking out for themselves, and even in death no one cares much about the other guy.  The ghost miner’s frustration isn’t out of a sense of justice as much as it stems from his belief that making things right will put his soul to rest.  And the other ghosts have no interest in his problems.  The woman is easily bought off, and the policeman who checks up on her takes advantage of the situation.  By the end, the son has witnessed enough to know that you fill your own pockets at the first opportunity.

Takemitsu’s dissonant score is jarring and unsettling, lending an extra layer of strangeness.  I imagine the film would seem much more pedestrian without it.  Segawa’s photography is not as striking as it would later become, but there are some wonderful shots and fun camera tricks.  Igawa handles his dual role nicely, and I always enjoy seeing Tanaka… his droopy eyes make his face quite memorable.  The film has a cynical tone with a touch of black comedy, and except for a slightly sluggish opening is very watchable.  Rating: Very Good (83)

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