A bizarre and tense parable that explores identity, gender roles, masculine doubt and the dehumanizing pressure of modern society.
Kenji Mizoguchi’s classic 1954 film Sansho the Bailiff begins with a betrayal. A mother, traveling in 11th century Japan with her two children, takes refuge with a kindly priestess. The next morning, the priestess arranges for transport for the family, but rather than carry them to their destination, the mother is spirited off to life as a courtesan while the kids are sold into slavery. Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes, released 10 years after, starts with similar treachery, one that will have similar, far-reaching consequences for all its characters.
A teacher (Eiji Okada) is on a bug-collecting trip at the ocean, hoping to locate a rare sort of tiger beetle that will make him famous. As he wanders the desolate landscape of dunes, the man ponders human relationships, daydreaming about a woman who likely has left him and musing that people cling to each other out of fear. He is an unfulfilled character, beaten down by modern life and its many rules and rhythms. After missing the last bus back to Tokyo, he encounters a few locals who offer to put him up for the night. The teacher accepts and climbs down a rope ladder that leads to a house at the bottom of a deep sand pit. Below, a woman (the stunning Kyoko Kishida) invites him into the house and prepares him dinner. That night, he wakes and sees her shoveling sand outside. He doesn’t think much of it until the next morning when he notices the rope ladder is gone. He is trapped in the pit with this woman.
Based on a novel by Kobo Abe (who also wrote the screenplay), Woman in the Dunes is a bizarre and tense parable that explores identity, gender roles, masculine doubt and the dehumanizing pressure of modern society. The man, realizing he has been duped, rants and stalks around the pit as the woman explains that together they must shovel the sand each night so the villagers can haul it out with a pulley system. Otherwise, they will be buried (and killed like her husband and daughter) and then the next house in the village will be in danger of being smothered. It is a daunting and impossible task, and now the man is condemned to digging for the rest of his life.
Woman in the Dunes is more about atmosphere than a linear narrative. Cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa does wonders, living up to Teshigahara’s exacting demands of excruciating detail. The sand in this movie can be beautiful, shimmering like the waves of the ocean, or a crumbling, deadly force that can snuff out its characters in the blink of an eye. The director, who quit making film for years to take over his father’s role as headmaster of one of the foremost flower arrangement schools in Japan, gives Woman in the Dunes an exquisite look, creating an unforgettable experience.
That eye for detail makes the sexually charged current powering Woman in the Dunes almost too much to bear at times. Teshigahara and Segawa compare expanses of flesh to the gleaming deserts as the man and woman, trapped together, engage in a battle of the sexes. The man regards the woman as she sleeps nude, grains of sand sprinkling her body. Soon, they bathe one another, and, eventually, the man uses his strength to overpower the woman, tying her up as he continues to plot his escape. He doesn’t give up. Much of the film’s runtime is devoted to him devising ways to get out of the pit, a symbol for the morass of life we push ourselves into and then spend the rest of our time clawing to escape.
But is our daily struggle merely for our own good? The man cannot accept that he has become part of a greater machine, that his toil benefits not only himself but the welfare of the villagers. Through his designs to escape, the man actually discovers a mechanism that can help bring water to the villagers. Suddenly, he finds his place in the world and going back to Tokyo no longer seems so important. In the end, the man doesn’t escape, just like we cannot escape life. We just find ways to make it more pleasant.