Only the 1960s could have produced a film as radical, avant-garde and iconoclastic as Pitfall. Hiroshi Teshigahara made Pitfall against a backdrop of political upheaval in Japan during the 1960s. Many of the directors who formed part of the Japanese new wave were politically active during this time, showing their collective opposition against the signing of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan (1960). The treaty effectively sanctioned the expansion of US troops in Japan whilst extending America’s hegemonic economic reach. Both Teshigahara and writer Kobo Abe were part of the student protests that took place in Tokyo at the time. Such political dissent was inevitably reflected in the cinema of the Japanese new wave and whilst Pitfall was not as ideologically rigorous or transparent as the films of say Nagisa Oshima, the four picture collaboration between Teshigahara and Kobo Abe produced some of the most uniquely idiosyncratic imagery of the 60s. Pitfall also saw the first of numerous collaborations with music composer Toru Takemitsu. Described by Teshigahara as a ‘documentary fantasy’, Pitfall follows a coal miner and his son who is searching for work. When he is pointed into the direction of an old mining town, the miner (Hisashi Igawa) arrives with the promise of work but they discover the town is deserted except for a shopkeeper. Unexpectedly, the miner is killed by a mysterious stranger in a white suit who has been waiting for him. The miner’s son (Kazuo Miyahara) watches on helplessly as his father is stabbed to death. Before leaving, the killer pays the shopkeeper for her silence. What Teshigahara does next is both audacious and gusty – he revives his central character, yes the dead miner lying face down in a muddy river bed, as a ghost. The ghost of the miner who is in denial about having been brutally murdered wanders the mining town only to discover the people around him are also ghosts. In one hilarious moment, he is told by another ghost that if he died on an empty stomach then he will remain hungry for the rest of his life. The miner’s transformation into a ghost is a magnificently atmospheric idea executed with a wonderful feel for the desolate coal mining locations.
A murder investigation is opened by the police and a chain of events leads to a strange discovery – that the dead miner has a double Otsuka working in a nearby coal mine and who more importantly is involved in the coal mining trade union. In an attempt to cover up his tracks, the killer murders the shopkeeper. It becomes apparent that the original intention was to kill Otsuka and that an ideological conflict between the old and new coal pits offers an invaluable insight into Japanese labour relations. However, Teshigahara seems much more fascinated by his characters behaviour than scrutinising any kind of ideological theories in depth. In terms of political symbolism, the killer in his white suit, gloves and shoes could be interpreted as meditation on corporate power or is he somewhat more metaphysical – a figure of death? It’s exciting when you come across a work as original and challenging as Pitfall. Like a lot of the films made by the Japanese new wave from the 60s, Pitfall is a film way ahead of its time in terms of both form and content. It’s a film bursting full of ideas and energy – it’s also darkly funny. On a final note, some of the reviews I have come across have referred to Pitfall as a flawed film but I am getting kind of despondent about this way of labelling films – is it not simply the case that most of the great films are flawed in some way or another – that’s what makes them so fascinating to watch!