Movie Review – Woman in the Dunes

Woman in the Dunes (1964)
Written by Kōbō Abe
Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara

Hiroshi Teshigahara was the son of an ikebana master (the art of flower arranging). This craft informed Teshigahara’s work as he was intentional and meticulous about filmmaking. He would eventually shift from narrative to documentary in the 1970s. In 1980, his father died, and Teshigahara assumed the position of headmaster at the ikebana school his father had run. He would focus on creating stunning bamboo art installations, eventually moving on to calligraphy and ceramics. Such an eclectic life is inevitably going to produce unique, incredible art. Woman in the Dunes is precisely that: a strange masterpiece that uses a deceptively simple situation to examine human existence. 

Niki Junpei (Eiji Okada) is a schoolteacher from Tokyo spending his weekend near a small beach community. He’s an amateur entomologist, and this region is populated with some unique insects to add to Junpei’s collection. Losing track of time, the man finds himself stranded when the bus departs without him for the day. A village elder and other locals suggest that he stays in their village. Junpei agrees, but he doesn’t have many other options, and they guide him to a rope ladder into a pit. They tell him this is the home of a widow (Kyōko Kishida) who won’t leave because her husband and son’s bodies are apparently buried somewhere under the sand surrounding her home. It quickly becomes apparent that Junpei is not allowed to leave this pit when the rope ladder is pulled up. The widow engages in a mad cycle of digging up sand that it lifted via pulleys to the villagers at the top. The villagers sell the sand to a cement factory and pay the widow with food and water once a week. Junpei finds that he will succumb to the same madness as his fellow captive if he does not leave soon.

There is a tangible texture to Teshigahara’s direction. He’s taken the base text of author Kōbō Abe’s novel and screenplay and transformed it into something living and breathing. The shifting of sand acts as a constant movement in the film, piling up on the roof or slipping between someone’s feet as they try to scale the crumbling walls of the pit. The story is a metaphor for the human experience. Two people, a man & a woman, are trapped and made to face the elements of a barren, lifeless void. Because the film is set primarily in this house at the bottom of the pit, meticulous detail is put into every aspect of the building and how the characters interact with it. The structure is slowly being devoured by the sand, with some rooms opening right into the elements, walls barely hanging on.

Much of Woman in the Dune’s subtext is connected to elements of Japanese culture. While the film explores identity, it does so in a way that meshes with the cultural norms of that country. The most immediate relationship in the movie is between Junpei and the widow, so the film wants to know what his identity is related to her. Are they lovers or strangers or something else entirely? Prisoners? There is also the identity that comes out of Junpei and the widow’s relationship with the villagers. Are they part of the village or its captives? The widow seems adrift without a concrete identity. She’s a wife and mother without a husband or child. So what does that mean for her? It certainly explains how lost she is and why she clings to the repetition of the days. Junpei seems confident that the outside world has noticed his absence and is looking for him. But as his captivity goes on, that becomes much more suspect. Not until the end of the film do we get any sense that the outside has noticed he was gone. 

In the 1960s, a new phenomenon was occurring in Japan. It was labeled jouhatsu and was used to talk about the increasing number of people withdrawing from social structures. This could be an unhappy marriage or an intolerable job. Many of these people would not just get divorced or quit; they would vanish from the public square. They understood that taking these extreme measures would make them a social pariah, but they couldn’t keep going along with the everyday routine as if they were mentally well. These people were watching colleagues commit suicide or work themselves to death and didn’t want either of these to be the ultimate endpoint of their lives. Jouhatsu provided these people with a chance to start over, move to a city or town where they had no established presence, and find a way to integrate themselves. Not everyone found peace, though, and private detectives hired by families would sometimes find their missing loved one stuck in gambling addiction or living withdrawn in a small apartment. Organized crime like Yakuza would often use these people because they were harder to trace. 

The effects of modernized Japan are seen in the opening of the film. Actor credits are accompanied by fingerprints, referencing how citizenship was meticulously documented. We hear car horns honking and public service announcements at a transit hub. The sounds transition into traditional Japanese instruments and signal to the audience; this film is about transitioning from a modern way of life to an older one. The instruments are also associated with a form of puppet theater, implying our main character will be manipulated by forces outside himself. Junpei is introduced not as a noble hero but by complaining, the first line of dialogue. Not long after, we see him pinning his bug specimens down, showcasing a vein of cruelty in him. Junpei and the widow are called various names by their captors. He’s Teacher and then becomes Helper after toiling in the pit for months. The widow is called an Old Hag and then Mrs by the end. 

Junpei finds fulfillment by the end of the movie in an unexpected way. The story concludes with a strong sense of uneasiness. We’re not sure what happens next to our main character. His relationships with these people are so profoundly altered it leaves uncertainty. The widow treats him with tremendous care despite how cruel he becomes towards her. They both become obsessed with pleasing this group of often faceless puppet masters who live beyond their pit, and neither person seems entirely joyful about their situation. Life boiled down to such hollow, empty components ceases to be life. Instead, you are a nothing-person, a shell that moves from one spot to the next, performing rudimentary tasks. You please the ones above you because your labor provides them with wealth, but your self-fulfillment is never seen as valuable. 

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