Pitfall was the first feature film to be directed by the multi-disciplinary artist Hiroshi Teshigahara. It was his initial collaboration with the celebrated novelist and playwright Kôbô Abe, a creative partnership that would lead to Woman of the Dunes (1964), The Face of Another (1966) and Man without a Map (1968). Pitfall was also the first Japanese film to be released by the Art Theatre Guild, a company that had been founded in 1961 as a distribution operation with its own cinema chain in order to bring such classics as Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Citizen Kane (1941) to the emergent art-house audience. By the late 1960s, the Art Theatre Guild had ventured into production financing on the basis that budgets would be low but directors would be allowed complete freedom of expression, with Shôhei Imamura’s A Man Vanishes (1967) and Nagisa Ôshima’s Death by Hanging (1968) being early beneficiaries of this scheme. The template for these later successes - an experimental filmmaker engaging with pressing issues through an abstract approach to existing narrative form - would be suggested by Pitfall, which finds Teshigahara making points about the inherently corrupt nature of Japanese society through Abe’s allegorical ghost story. The director had already made the fascinating shorts Ikebana (1956), a study of the art of flower arrangement, and Tokyo 1958 (1958), a snapshot of the Japanese capital during a particularly industrious period, but Pitfall would establish him on the world stage when it was given an award by the NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) and released internationally.
The film begins with an act of desperation and ends with the realisation of expendability: a miner, his young son and another worker make their escape from the mining camp where they have been not so much employed as contractually imprisoned. Attempting to make a living as a migrant hired labourer, the miner resorts to posing as a coal prospector in order to secure food and lodging for the night, a scam that is observed from a distance by an inscrutable man in a white suit, who takes a photograph of the miner. Moving on before it becomes apparent that he is a penniless worker rather than a prospector, the miner is able to settle with his son into some semblance of routine at their next location, where employment is offered. Yet, events take an eerie turn when the miner is informed by his supervisor that his professional services are wanted by a larger operation, with a photograph of the worker being provided to confirm the request. Upon relocation, the miner and his son end up in a ‘ghost town’ inhabited only by a candy store owner who informs them that the nearby mine has been closed due to potential collapse. The reappearance of the man in the white suit leads to the miner’s demise, taking Pitfall in a new direction as the soul of the deceased rises to ask questions about the meaning of his life and the reason for his death.
As with the Teshigahara and Abe collaborations that followed, Pitfall reflects their concerns about Japanese society in the 1960s - in this case, the lack of corporate concern for the living and working conditions of uneducated labourers - but it is arguably the unsettling spectral atmospherics that have ensured its cult status. Teshigahra achieves a sense of realism by shooting in the region of Kyûshû, where a number of mining disasters had occurred and communities were suffering from starvation as the area had been brought to an economic standstill due to mine closures. However, the director ultimately seeks to expose unscrupulous trade union activities through existential enquiry, causing Pitfall to be variously categorised as a horror film and as an example of the Japanese New Wave. Described by Teshigahara as a ‘documentary-fantasy’, the film is as sparse as it is surreal, with the barren landscape of deserted towns and desolate quarries serving as a purgatory where the condemned are left to contemplate the choices that keep them in a state of perpetual motion. This anxiety is emphasised by Tôru Takemitsu’s score, which eschews conventional arrangements in favour of unsettling sound effects that convey distress and isolation, while Teshigahara employs simple but effective superimposition in order to visualise the realm of the afterlife. Unlike some of the other directors featured in the Shinjuku Diaries season, Teshigahara’s work is widely available on DVD, but the inclusion of Pitfall offers an excellent opportunity to experience his uniquely haunting debut on the big screen.