The Man Without a Map is Hiroshi Teshigahara’s fourth and final collaboration with Kobo Abe. I read the novel and watched the film in close proximity to one-another. It’s a tough novel to adapt. Though full of internal monologues, I thought it was surprising – and pretty refreshing and admirable – that Teshigahara and Abe decided not to use a voiceover for the film. The result is a movie that, standing alone, is gorgeous, intriguing and mysterious, but when compared to Abe’s fantastic novel, is a bit lacking.
We’re given a signal that this will be different than say, The Woman in the Dune, right away in an incredibly colorful series of arabesques as the credits roll:
The credits also signal the palette: rich and saturated. Teshigahara and cinematographer Akira Uehara make reds and yellows pop in this film. From one kind of map, we move right to another, this one perhaps more traditional. Helicopter shots of the city, at first rendered in a ubiquitous beige-
-and then in the fantastical and monochrome of the real city:
These three early juxtapositions are pretty key to the film, as we transition from extreme color to a lack of color, to realistic color. In Abe’s novel, the city is crowded and distant. No one knows anyone else no matter how hard they try. It’s similar in Teshigahara’s film. The city has multiple personalities and refuses to be solved.
To replace what is lost from the source novel – namely, among other things, the detective’s (Shintaro Katsu) internal analysis, his inability to pin down or read any character whatsoever (he’s certainly a play on, and perhaps a satire of, your classic detective), and the world being just somewhat out of step with the character, Teshigahara takes on a shooting style meant to warp and disassociate.
He shoots through objects frequently. Faces are partially obscured, separated from bodies, distorted, hidden, and entirely blocked:
Even in dialogue scenes that play out more traditionally, characters are pushed to the fringes of the frame (look at that red jacket overwhelming the color scheme)-
-there’s action in the background that intentionally distracts from that occurring in the foreground (not the greatest example as a still, but the woman in the middle-ground, frame right, does some awesome dancing here, drawing our eye easily away from the detective closer to camera)-
-or a color so overwhelms while setting everything else nearly to the point of invisibility:
In short, the strategy is to disorient and fragment as a way to echo Abe’s theme of disillusionment and solitariness.
There are several things I was really sad to see go from the novel. Two of which have much to do with the idea that the detective is slowly taking over the identity of Mr. Nemuro, the man he is seeking. One is when the detective suddenly gets the urge to tickle Mrs. Nemuro (his client) in the same way that her husband used to. It’s written as gleeful, almost insane, and really stunning. The other are these lemon-yellow curtains-
-so frequently mentioned in the novel and so beautifully depicted here. I miss the fact that, in the novel, there’s a critical moment when those curtains are no more. That scene is no more in this film.
The book also reminds me of Nabokov’s great Invitation to a Beheading in the way a world sort of folds in on itself. While Teshigahara can’t make that happen visually in 1968 he does do plenty of experimentation. There are negative images thrown throughout, and this eerie sequence, where the detective covers an imaginary Mrs. Nemuro with leaves-
-only to have the leaves blow away, leaving a body that is divided into its constituent parts:
There’s also this, one of my favorite images from the film-
It’s not the only superimposition that Teshigahara uses. It’s sexual and bold and really does feel like both city and woman are looming menacingly. It’s also used in a key point in the narrative where the detective seems truly lost in the unfriendly metropolis (side note: I never got this from the novel, but the film really seems to push a much simpler concussion explanation).
There are plenty of other examples of the overwhelming city. A car surrounded by noisy motorcycles:
Foreshortened overheads, like this one (another of my favorite shots) that are at once lonely and crowded (two solitary men, busy tile-work):
Images made more claustrophobic than they really are by careful framing (and look at the popping blue!):
Eventually, the city is an empty place:
It’s not just lonely, but deserted. It seems barren and uninhabitable. Is it that the detective no longer fits in a world that’s so illogical (in the book, his logic is absurd; in the novel it doesn’t seem that his reasoning is absurd as much as the whole damn thing is ridiculous)?