Published Feb 06, 2013For an avant-garde art film that so fastidiously layers existentialist metaphors, Hiroshi Teshigahara's brilliant visual translation of Kobo Abe's novel was extremely well received upon its release in 1964, netting the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and a pair of Academy Awards nominations.
Woman in the Dunes displays a rare mastery of the power of cinema to refashion and strengthen the symbolism of ancient myths in a modern context. Abstraction, futility, hope and adaptability are the key tools and concepts Teshigahara puts to sublime, profound use in this allegory for the human condition, which echoes the myth of Sisyphus.
Junpei Niki (Eiji Okada) is a schoolteacher on vacation, pursuing his hobby as an amateur entomologist. His search for a new variety of tiger beetle, which he seeks for the tangible posterity of having something named after him, leads him across the desert to a remote seaside village. So caught up is he in capturing sand-dwelling insects that he misses his chance to catch the last bus back to town.
A kindly local offers to find him lodgings within the village for the night and since Junpei isn't privy to the red flags being set off by Toru Takemitsu's menacing score – full of dissonant string swells and chaotic bursts of instrumental clatter – he graciously accepts, climbing down a rope ladder to a shack at the bottom of a sand quarry.
The partially buried home is inhabited by a young widow who prepares him food and tea, careful to cover the table and kettle due to the perpetual trickle of invasive sand. Junpei is a little thrown off by her comments about not needing his help to shovel sand off of the roof on "the first night," since he intends to leave the following day. At dawn, he tries to leave, but the ladder is gone and his attempts to climb the steep sand walls prove futile.
Trapped like the insects he collects, Junpei initially responds to the loss of control he's accustomed to exerting over lesser creatures with hostility towards the widow (magnificently realized by Kyoko Kishida), tying her up out of a frustrated sense of revenge (mostly though, he's just got a fetish for pinning things down instead of trying to understand them). Eventually, he unties her and they set about achieving something resembling a routine of normalcy amid the senselessness of days filled with shovelling ever-shifting sand for the villagers to sell to factories.
The tedium of life and inexorable march of time is punctuated by the perpetual drizzle of sand; it's as though they're living inside of an hourglass that will never be upended. Junpei never gives up hope of escape or discovery but over time, like all creatures, he adapts to his situation and his hope takes on a new shape, as the woman (who is never named) questions just what it is he's so eager to return to in Tokyo.
There isn't just one reading to explain Woman in the Dunes. Teshigahara uses extreme close-ups to create an alienating sense of abstraction of the human form, and alternately to imbue insects with a sense of intimacy seldom attributed to creatures we're not used to seeing as equal life forms. This mirrors the treatment of the woman by the villagers and indeed most women in strongly patriarchal societies.
The story is equally about rationalizing circumstances to find purpose in the meaningless, the lure of escaping the frivolity of city life and why people cling to impractical lifestyles. Beyond the elegant philosophical symbolism and gorgeous cinematography, Teshigahara achieves a level of tasteful eroticism juxtaposed with desperate depravity that has rarely been equalled. Woman in the Dunes is a beautiful, haunting achievement that has stood the very test of time it so assuredly examines.
Woman in the Dunes screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Japanese Divas retrospective at 6:30pm on February 8th, 2013. (Pathe Contemporary Films)