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Kōbō Abe: 他人の顔 (The Face of Another)

Our hero/narrator is a scientist, who works for a plastics company and who is a specialist in rheology, the science of the flow of liquids. (Note that he is not named in the book, contrary to the Wikipedia article, though he is named (Okuyama) in the film, which differs in other ways from the book.) One day he had a bad accident, which left his face burned and subsequently badly scarred. This has a profound effect on him, not just from the pain of the wound and having to wear bandages all the time, but because of people’s reaction. People often tend to shudder when they see him and children run away in fear. His wife is refusing to have sex with him. The text we are reading consists of three notebooks he is writing for his wife.

He works in the plastics field and had read an article on artificial organs made of plastic. He wonders if he could make a suitable mask. We get considerable detail about how he considers what kind of mask to have, what considerations he meeds to make it look like a face but to protect his skin, whether it should look like him or be modelled on someone else and how it should be affixed to his face.

He considers issues such as colouring, facial type, skin surface, fatty tissue and so on, much of it based on an entirely fictitious books called Le Visage by Henri Boulan. What makes it so interesting for us as readers is the intensity of his efforts, his descriptions, his planning and his feelings about the whole issue.

He struggles, for example, on the issue of what the mask is going to look like, how to disguise the joins (his long hair and a false beard will help), how he could make the mask move as his muscles move, e.g. when smiling.

We know from early on that he has rented a flat for three months where he can hide out and carry out his experiments, pretending to his wife that he is away on business for the final intensive period of the development. One of the somewhat ghoulish things he considers is, once he is wearing his mask, to essentially sexually assault his wife and we get a detailed description of this imagined assault.

The mask is removable so we follow his experiments while wearing the mask. When he had his bandages, he would get strange looks and be visibly shunned but now, of course, people barely notice him. He even rubs up against a woman on the bus and she does not resist, whereas before, she would have screamed.

The key issue for him, apart from the reaction of strangers, is whether the mask is him or has a separate identity. We have seen the idea of the mask giving its wearer a different identity elsewhere, most famously in the comic book series The Mask and the Jim Carrey film based on the comic. While this book is nothing like that, he clearly feels that the mask itself has an identity separate from him. The mask, as the name implied, would forever be my false face; although my true nature could never be controlled by such a thing.

He does plan to seduce his wife as a stranger and see what happens. He is sure no-one will recognise him. I peered into the mirror. A man I did not know looked coolly back at me. Indeed, not the slightest detail would make one think it was me. Indeed, he even considers that he could take up a life of crime wearing the mask, as he would never be recognised.

This could have been a straightforward story. Man is injured. Man is able to develop mask to conceal injuries. Man confronts wife, assuming that she will not recognise him. However, the strength of this novel is not in the relatively obvious plot but in the reactions of our narrator.

Firstly, he is not surprisingly badly affected not just by the injuries but, much more by people’s reactions to the injuries and he spends a lot of time ruminating on this. Secondly, he spends a lot of time developing the mask. We get a lot of detail of how he does this and the implications for him. Thirdly, he spends time examining the effect that the mask will have on people and, subsequently, we see the reactions of people to him and the effect this has on him. Fourthly, he discusses the nature of masks. These include the famous Japanese Noh masks but also other masks that people wear.

Fifthly, he examines in great detail the nature of the mask. Is it a separate personality or an extension of him? I had planned to make a mask, but actually I had not made a mask at all. The mask had become my real face, and thought itself in fact real. Finally there is the sub-plot involving his wife. Will he accost her and how? Will she recognise him? And if he does accost her what are the implications for their marriage?

This is a really superb book which Abe has put a lot of thought into. He was a medical man so presumably knew about skin but not, as far as I am aware, an expert on plastics, yet he seems to know a lot about the subject. Above all, however, it is the attention he has given both to the mental effect of the injury on the narrator but also to the whole business of developing and wearing a mask and its effect on the wearer that make this novel so interesting.

Publishing history

First published in 1964 by Kôdansha
First English translation in 1964 by Tuttle
Translated by Ernest Dale Saunders