247. WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

Suna no onna

“TO see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour…”

–William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eiji Okada, Kyôko Kishida

PLOT: An schoolteacher and amateur entomologist’s search for an elusive beetle takes him to a remote seaside village. Needing a place to stay, he asks the townspeople for lodging and is offered shelter with an odd young widow who lives in a shack at the bottom of a pit. The next morning, as he prepares to leave, he finds that the villagers have tricked him and he is trapped in the pit, forced to shovel sand in return for food and water, presumably for the remainder of his days.

Still from Woman in the Dunes (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • Kōbō Abe wrote the novel “The Woman in the Dunes” in 1962 and was in the rare and enviable position of adapting it for the screen himself two years later. Abe wrote a total of four screenplays for director Hiroshi Teshigahara, all of which were scored by legendary composer Tôru Takemitsu.
  • Takemitsu’s score was recorded by a string ensemble, then electronically distorted.
  • The film was cut by  about twenty minutes during its original release. The full length film runs about two and a half hours.
  • Woman in the Dunes was nominated for a Best Foreign Language film Oscar, and, more impressively for a Hollywood outsider, Teshigahara was nominated for Best Director. Dunes lost in 1965 to Italy’s Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, while Teshigahara was personally nominated for the 1966 awards instead (losing to Robert Wise for The Sound of Music).
  • The nudity and sex in the film were daring by 1964 standards, causing the import to be marketed in the U.S. with the tagline “The most provocative picture ever made.”
  • Teshigahara retired from filmmaking in 1979 to enter the family business—flower arranging!

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sand, endless sand. Shifting sand, cascading sand, crumbling walls of sand, grains of sand stuck between toes. But to narrow it down, the dream sequences where the entomologist sees women superimposed over the sand, once with the sand ripples mimicking strands of hair, and once with a dune tracing the curve of a hip.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Feminine mirages; rotting sand; voyeur drum circle

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The plot of Woman in the Dunes—a man trapped into slavery in a remote village, forced to labor to earn his keep—is almost plausible, allowing the unimaginative to view it as a dull version of an escape movie. The hypnotic pace, bleakly beautiful cinematography, and Toru Takemitsu’s unnerving score inform this fable’s weird construction, however, creating a sense of strangeness that slowly gets under your skin like beach sand gets under your swimsuit.


Original Japanese trailer for Woman in the Dunes

COMMENTS: A man, a woman, sand: those are the triangular borders of Woman in the Dunes. Within this minimal landscape, the movie exhausts every grain of possibility. The entomologist, trapped in a sand pit like one of his bugs, dreams of escape, but finds it impossible to scramble up the shifting walls that line the pit. He uses his own ingenuity, along with the household items he finds lying around the widows hut, to try to craft a plan of escape. For her part, the woman is resigned to her fate—to shovel sand for the villagers until she dies—-and views the new arrival as a companion and surrogate husband who makes the only life she can imagine more pleasant. Inevitably, they make love; to fight boredom, if nothing else. But, although the man may develop some tenderness towards the woman, this is no romance movie; there is a feeling a desperation to their coupling. Although there are moments of sensuality in Woman in the Dunes, an erotic romp it is not, any more than it is a daring escape movie. What then, exactly is Woman in the Dunes? That is a question that has pleasantly perplexed audiences for decades, and one that has no single answer.

Putting the plot to one side for a moment, the movie is almost crushingly beautiful, and it finds its beauty in its strangeness. The movie’s first post-credits shot is an extreme closeup of a crystalline grain of sand, part of a series of images that gradually zoom out to reveal an immense desert. Immediately, we are shown a dizzying scope, a sense of nature’s insignificance and magnificence. Black and white captures the otherworldly sandscapes in ways that color photography never could. As brilliant as the desolate, sandblasted cinematography is, however, it is Tôru Takemitsu’s disquieting score that creates the mood of mystery. Years before Stanley Kubrick would borrow György Ligeti’s avant-garde howls to hint at the incomprehensibility of an alien civilization, Takemitsu was pioneering the use of dissonance to evoke the uncanny, taking Bernard Hermman’s screeching Psycho strings to the next level. Grating strings, drones, odd percussion, sudden thumps: everything in the musical atmosphere puts us on guard, warns us that this world is not ours, that we should be wary. The first sex scene starts with subdued clattering percussion and evolves into an eerie—and depressingly subdued—violin and timpani climax. The visual and aural elements meet their height when the villagers, wearing strange goggles and ceremonial masks, surround the lip of the pit by torchlight, dancing to barbaric tribal drums while goading the captives into performing a public sex act.

Theories abound about the lesson we are meant to glean from this parable. One interpretation that you seldom see advanced is that Woman in the Dunes is an allegory for the exploitation of labor. Japan has little tradition of Marxist literature or filmmaking[1], which is perhaps why the idea doesn’t occur frequently in the context of this film. But the entomologist and the woman are essentially blackmailed into working for food and water, for their mere subsistence, and see none of the profits of their labor. The work itself is senseless, and the product, low-grade sand used in shady construction projects, is of little social value. The relatively rich villagers abuse the destitute workers in the pit, exploiting them not merely for their labor, but also for entertainment. It may not be the film’s main focus, but the political Left would certainly take comfort in the absurdist depiction of labor and corrupt control over the means of production shown here.

The most common (and likely most rewarding) approach to  the movie is to see it as an existentialist fable, something that a Sartre or Camus would invent had they been born in Tokyo rather than Paris. “Sisyphean” is the inevitable adjective used to describe the task before the couple, filling up endless buckets of sand to prevent their hovel from being buried, only to find the pit filling up again nightly. “Doesn’t this all seem pointless to you?,” complains the shoveling entomologist one night, in a case of bleak understatement. Such thoughts don’t concern the passive female, who simply accepts the way of things. Before his imprisonment, in a daydream, the man muses about the fact that his social identity is fixed by documents: “contracts, licenses, ID cards, permits, deeds, certifications, registrations, carry permits, union cards, testimonials, bills, IOUs, temporary permits, letters of consent, income statements, certificates of custody, even proof of pedigree. Is that all of them? Have I forgotten any?” His grand ambition is to discover a new subspecies of beetle that will be named for him, thereby fixing his immortality in writing. But in the pit he has no documentation and no paper trail: does he even exist? A task is thrust upon him, but he takes no satisfaction in work. He only works to stave off death, which looms above him on all sides: at any moment he may be buried under a crushing avalanche. Can he find meaning in such an existence? Is it his longing to escape itself what gives his life purpose? Or is there something else?

Other interpretations of the skeletal story have been proposed, or arise naturally. Perhaps the man and woman in the pit is simply a black metaphor for marriage. Dunes also features a particularly Japanese treatment of the theme of duty, of the relationship between the individual and the family unit to the larger society (a like a grain of sand to the dune). In her essay for the Criterion Collection release, Audie Bock points out that at the time unexplained disappearances of urbanites from the city were a hot topic in Japan’s collective consciousness; Dunes probably plays on those anxieties. Even more questions arise when we consider the film’s ambiguous ending, however. Is it happy or sad? Has the man’s spirit been crushed, has he been successfully conditioned to accept the intolerable, or has he at last found peace? Woman in the Dunes‘s simplicity suggests almost as many interpretations as there are grains in a bucket of sand.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a strongly allegorical, strangely engrossing film.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“… like some weird dream.”–Rob Mackie, The Guardian (DVD)

” A bizarre film, distinguished not so much by Kobo Abe’s rather obvious screenplay as by Teshigahara’s arresting visual style of extreme depth of focus, immaculate detail, and graceful eroticism.”–Don Druker, The Chicago Reader

IMDB LINK: Woman in the Dunes (1964)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Woman in the Dunes (1964) – The Criterion Collection’s Dunes page has the trailer, a five-minute clip, and links to articles by Audie Bock and Peter Grilli

Woman in the Dunes (1964) – Overview – Turner Classic Movies’s page hosts three movie clips and an essay by Nathaniel Thompson among the usual information

The Woman in the Dunes Movie Review – Roger Ebert’s essay on the film for his “Great Movies” series

Page to Screen: Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe – A fine essay/review by writer Brian Greene, who finds little difference between the novel and movie but plenty to discuss nonetheless

READER RECOMMENDATION: WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)‘s original reader recommendation for the film for this site

DVD INFO: The Criterion Collection released 2-disc DVD set (buy) and a Blu-ray single disc (buy) versions of Woman in the Dunes in 2016. Extras include three short films from early in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s career (spanning 1953-1958) as well as one from 1965 (White Morning, a 30-minute short feature from a Kōbō Abe screenplay). Also included are a video essay from James Quandt and a documentary about the collaborations between Teshigahara and Abe. A trailer and booklet of essays round out the typically impressive offering.

This release replaces Criterion’s old version of the film, a three-movie, four disc Teshigahara collection (buy) that also included his ghostly 1962 debut Pitfall and 1966’s Face of Another, about the psychological effects of a face transplant. Both of these films were written by Abe. The Quandt piece, Abe/Teshigama documentary, and shorts appear on a fourth DVD. Unfortunately, this appealing set is an out-of-print collectible and used copies can be pricey (although you never know when you might find a reasonable deal).

Woman in the Dunes is also available for online rental or purchase (rent or buy).

  1. In fact, writer Abe had been a member of the Japanese Communist party, but informally resigned (official resignations were not acknowledged) soon before the publication of “The Woman in the Dunes” due to concerns over artistic censorship and the growing totalitarianism of the worldwide movement. []

2 thoughts on “247. WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)”

  1. This is an incredible film that was a great example of art cinema when people were trying to figure out what that meant. Woman in the Dunes is an experience.

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