Mr. Okuyama (Nakadai) is a man whose face and ears were burned off by liquid nitrogen in an industrial accident. He is pretty bitter and rage-filled about it, going so far as to tell his wife (Kyo) that he seriously considered destroying her face with acid so she'd be just like him. Mr. Okuyama sits and seethes about the hypocrisy of a world which pretends like appearance is no big deal when it actually is.
Eventually he meets Dr. Hira, a plastic surgeon who has the ability to create a flawless latex mask that will allow Mr. Okuyama to interact with the world as a regular person. Dr. Hira worries that being a completely anonymous person with a false face will warp Mr. Okuyama's personality, but proceeds anyway. Mr. Okuyama is delighted with his new face, and resolves to use it to seduce his own wife.
A second and completely unrelated plotline follows a young nurse at a mental hospital, who is heartbreakingly beautiful, except for the ghastly scar that covers much of the right side of her face.
Based on a novel by Kobo Abe.
- And Starring: Machiko Kyo got an "And Featuring" credit at the end of the cast list.
- Aspect Ratio: Shot in the old 4:3 ratio that was old-fashioned in Japan by that time.
- Attempted Rape: The nurse is nearly raped by one of the patients at the mental hospital, but manages to escape. Towards the end of the film, after being rejected by his wife, Okajima tries to rape a random woman he encounters on the street. He's arrested.
- Barefoot Suicide: The nurse takes off her shoes before drowning herself in the ocean.
- Brother–Sister Incest: The nurse, evidently starved for physical affection, eventually crawls on top of her brother and has sex with him. Neither of them feel too good about it, as he is weeping the next morning, while she kills herself.
- Deadly Hug: The farewell hug between Dr. Hima and Mr. Okuyama concludes with Okuyama plunging a knife into Dr. Hima's back.
- Deliberately Monochrome: By 1966 most Japanese films were shot in color but this one is in black and white.
- Dutch Angle: Used dramatically in the scene where Dr. Hima is putting the mask on Mr. Okuyama for the first time. The entire image pivots 90 degrees clockwise, resulting in Dr. Hima looming directly above Mr. Okuyama on the screen as Hima talks about how the mask will make him a "new man."
- The Faceless: Literally, in the case of Mr. Okuyama. Also mostly true with Mr. Okuyama and his real face. The film never really shows a good look at what Mr. Okuyama really looks like. There's one shot from above, and a couple of quick looks as Mr. Okuyama is rushing around the room trying get his bandages to hide from the landlord's daughter. That's it.
- Facial Horror: The brief glimpses we get of Okuyama's face confirm that it is this in a big way.
- Fanservice: Machiko Kyo's topless scene came in an era where censorship rules in Japan were loosening and nudity in mainstream film was first becoming acceptable.
- Footsie Under the Table: Okuyama does this with his wife at the club, while wearing the mask and pretending to be an anonymous stranger.
- For Science!: Dr. Hira worries that "masks like this could destroy all human morality", due to granting their wearers complete anonymity, and also frets that the mask could take Mr. Okuyama over and drive him mad. He proceeds anyway, because he's so damn curious, and insists afterwards on full reports from Mr. Okuyama on how the mask is affecting his behavior.
- Instant Death Bullet: Instant death knife, as Dr. Hima gives Mr. Okuyama a shocked look and then collapses in death after Okuyama stabs him in the back.
- In the Back: Where Okuyama puts his knife, right in Dr. Hima's back.
- Jump Cut: Several jarring cuts in a scene where Okuyama is walking down an alley, calling himself "no one", right after he discovered that his wife has locked him out of the house.
- Kids Are Cruel: The nurse throws a ball back to some children, only for them to say "Oh gross!" and "She's scary!" once they get a look at her face.
- Latex Perfection: In typical Latex Perfection style, Mr. Okuyama's mask looks perfect. The doctor warns him that he should wear sunglasses as the join around the eyes might be visible, but even that doesn't appear to be true.
- Le Film Artistique: Several odd touches.
- The doctor's offices are a model of Surrealism, with glass panels and giant models of human ears lying around. And the doctor's "office" isn't shot on an office set; it's bits of office furniture on an otherwise bare soundstage.
- In one shot, the door to the doctor's office is opened, revealing not a normal exterior, but what appears to be a closeup shot of human hair floating in water.
- There is a quick insert of Mrs. Okuyama on her bed, embroidering, as the bed flies over the rooftops of Tokyo. Its relevance is not clear.
- There's a scene in which the doctor approaches a blind man, who is sitting on a giant model of an ear, and asks if he can see something. The blind man announces that he can. The nurse then gives the blind man a shot. The scene isn't connected to anything else in the movie.
- As the brother screams at the window while watching his sister the nurse commit suicide, there is a cut to a giant hunk of butchered cow, hanging in the same position.
- Mad Scientist: Dr. Hira, who pays lip service to ethical concerns but in reality seems to enjoy the heck out of the experiment.
- Match Cut: From Okuyama tucking the mask back in place, to the nurse carefully tucking her hair away before committing Suicide by Sea.
- No Name Given: For the nurse. For that matter we never get a first name for Mr. and Mrs. Okuyama and Dr. Hira, emphasizing their own alienation in atomized post-war Japan.
- The Peeping Tom: In one scene Mr. Okuyama looks through a keyhole at his own wife while she's undressing.
- Psychological Horror: Mr. Okuyama, who already comes off as mentally unstable before he gets the mask, goes completely insane afterwards.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran:
- The patients at the mental hospital where the nurse works. Several are still in uniform and/or doing military drill. One repeatedly comes to attention.
- The entire film seems to be at least in part a metaphor for the scars of Japanese trauma in the war. Besides the veterans at the hospital, there's the line where the nurse asks her brother if he remembers the fishermen in their old hometown—Nagasaki. And as the nurse walks into the ocean to her death, the camera pans up to focus on a sun that looks just like the Rising Sun symbol of Japan.
- Suicide by Sea: The nurse drowns herself in the ocean after having sex with her brother.
- Tempting Fate: "But I am who I am; that can't change," says Mr. Okuyama after donning his mask for the first time. It turns out that he's quite wrong about that. By the end he's referring to himself as "no one."
- Two Lines, No Waiting: The main story (Mr. Okuyama and his new face) and the second story (the scarred nurse) never connect. In the source novel, the story of the scarred nurse was the plot of a movie that Mr. Okuyama goes to see.
- Two-Person Love Triangle: Discussed Trope when Mr. Okuyama explains his plan to seduce his own wife while wearing the mask, Dr. Hima calls it a "triangle", and Okuyama laughs. Ultimately averted when Okuyama angrily starts ripping off his mask after sex with Mrs. Okuyama, only for her to shoot back that she knew it was him the whole time and she thought they were role-playing.