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Pitfall
cast: Hisashi Igawa, Kazuo Miyahara, Kanichi Omiya, Kunie Tanaka, and Sen Yano

director: Hiroshi Teshigahara

92 minutes (15) 1962
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
I refuse to be held responsible for the passage of time. Nobody is more capable than I when it comes to putting a film into perspective, counter-weighing the finished product against time and circumstance, awarding an extra plus for a first film and credit notice in the face of historical tumult. Hiroshi Teshigahara's 1962 directorial debut Pitfall (aka: Otoshiana) had originality, yet any filmmaker or work invoked by a modern viewing are all people and product that came after that date. No matter how new it clearly was at times there is a flatness that earths it unflatteringly.

It is weakened by its history too, because to learn that the tale began as a 1960 play called Hellfire, in turn adapted for television, only then catching Teshigahara's attention to become this film that fails to fully satisfy, turns one's curiosity instead to the possible value of the television film version.

Herk Harvey and Roman Polanski are two of the directors brought to mind by viewing Pitfall. Harvey's Carnival Of Souls, however, was a clean and fascinating low budget exercise in fantasy horror while Polanski's Cul-De-Sac was a tiresome character thriller. Pitfall falls somewhere between the two. It is one of the those genre defiant films, a slow swirl of avant-garde fantasy, gangster obscurantism and socio-documentary, with a hint of horror and a whack of political barracking, with an extra layer of politics in allegory. It may be catchall but it's an uneasy handful. Made in the aftermath of the Security Pact's political upheaval, it was shot during a worrisome period, a noble first feature effort, but a film that flags grotesquely at times.

An army deserter Otsuka (Hisashi Igawa) and his son (Kazuo Miyahara) move from scam to scam until the father is hired for a job that will result in his premeditated death. A murder victim, it doesn't end there for him, his ghost rising from the corpse, alert and pursuant to the reason for his killing. His son is left to moping and scavenging amidst the long grass and spying on crime scenes and through windows.

The murder having occurred on the outskirts of a ghost town, he returns to its streets to find them swarming with the ghosts of others, trapped in their own private hells, a loop of work activity and journeys without end. The condition at the moment of death, a broken neck, nakedness (in a boy), unkempt and hungry if poor and unfed, dishevelled and cut if the victim of violence, all are maintained into perpetuity. My telling of this will probably make it more startling that you might find it in the actual film. It is not a spooky episode.

The film might have opened threateningly in the dark, with human grunting sounds on the soundtrack and piano or harp strings under a thrash attack, and though the build up to the murder is sinister and weird resulting in a slow, horrible death, from the instant that the ghosts are introduced the horror seeps out of the project completely and you want it back. Sentient and occasionally comic, ghost time, police procedure and a political conspiracy overrun the remainder of the film.

Adding to the ghost's frustration is the inability to contact the living, particularly the female owner of the sweetshop (played by Sumie Sasaki), the only remaining corporeal resident of the once thriving mining town. She has lied to the police, been given money by the killer to supply the investigators with a description of a prominent union leader (Kanichi Omiya) from the New Pit Group. It so happens that our protagonist is the double of the rival Old Mine union leader (also played by Hisashi Igawa), and that his path and murder were part of a greater, more disruptive plot. He will eventually speak to the woman but only once she too has been murdered by the mysterious man in white (Kunie Tanaka), an albino turtle-faced creep in sharp threads; he could have been the Japanese answer to Peter Lorre. It is no less conducive to finding answers with two of them dead and demanding the truth from those who will never hear them. There are no psychokinetic lines of communication or mediums a la Topper or Ghost. The truth is always somewhere else with no one to hear them in order to furnish them with the answers.

There is a lot of the good but great clunking chunks of the mediocre, too, in Pitfall. The camera is flat for many sequences, the opening coal mine con chapter and the expositional of the Old Pit episode in particular. The scenes are overly long and drab. The black and white cinematography is not studied or atmospheric, the film screams for colour in much the same way that Bullet Ballet recently did. The quality of the black and white is alike to that of Carnival Of Souls, but Pitfall does not have the ponderous mystery and magical air of its American rival. There are moments when the camera becomes inventive. There is the liquid spread transition effect, a jump to a long held long shot during the murder sequence and the curious employment of what looks like a trick image shot with a pinhole camera, but they awaken and then distract only. The actor ghosts caught in a repetitive movement are not always the greatest of mimes and the naked boy flinches during a long take when he was supposed to ignore the actor confronting him; it being a long take, and money thin, it had to count.

If you are going to thrust your politics on someone then better you try it on in a fantasy film than in Land And Freedom, I suppose. Teshigahara inherited his politics from his father, who apparently, and I know this only courtesy of the supporting commentary, heralded a radical school of flower arranging. They want to watch that, it can lead to anarchic topiary. Viewers should be warned that a few gruesome reminders of the fates of the real miners and their families during that preceding period are included and, distastefully, the boy skins a frog for play, then to use it for bait for crawfish in the thin waters around the ghost village.

The new subtitles appear to be set by a student of film technique. When the police arrive, the investigator requesting photographic evidence, requiring placement of the crime asks that 'establishing shots' be taken. Tony Rayns lends his authoritative weight to a great commentary. The stills gallery has marginal intrigue. For example, it would appear that during the shooting of the first murder sequence, Teshigahara and his crew share the spotless whites of the murderer, as if to share complicity with evil him and to exact a paranoid terror in the actor-victim. The original trailer is incredibly exciting, in the way that the trailer for Visitor Q is, an editing frenzy of shots, shapes and angles, that projects an appealing, if false, sense of abstract dread and confusion, that the film was sadly to lack. It also features shots of which the Eureka print of Pitfall appears to be trimmed, including a sex scene, which raises questions as to whether other sequences and the tone of the picture have been lost in the edit currently available on DVD. There is a handy 16-page booklet accompanying it, but the answers don't lie there. A worthwhile encounter nonetheless and good enough to suggest chase of better known later films from the director in the sensible assumption that he would clearly improve on himself and master the medium.
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