Review: Woman in the Dunes (1964)
Woman in the Dunes or Suna no onna (1964)
Hiroshi Teshigahara’s art-house sensation Woman in the Dunes is about four things: food, water, sleep, and sex. Or rather, the movie is a parable that instructs us that life is about four things: food, water, sleep, and sex. While this is a factual statement about the content of this movie, it does absolutely nothing to describe the emotional impact of the situation, a situation that equals the human condition in general. Nor does describe the extent to which everyday eroticism serves to distract us from our plight.
In Woman in the Dunes, Jumpei Niki (Eiji Okada), a Tokyo based entomologist and educator, is out collecting specimens of sand insects. When in misses the last bus back to the city, he accepts the hospitality of the local villagers and is led to the home of a young widow (Kyôko Kishida) at the bottom of a massive sand pit, accessible only via rope ladder. When he awakes in the morning he finds the ladder gone. As the woman explains, it is her job to shovel sand by night and by day in order to save her home and thus the string of homes behind it. That’s her job and the villagers bring her food and water and carry away her sand. She can’t do it alone however, and the fate of our intrepid entomologist is sealed.
Woman in the Dunes, based on the novel of the same name by Kôbô Abe (he also wrote this screenplay) is a modern retelling of the myth of Sisyphus. There’s some flaws in logic here – I mean, why doesn’t this woman just move? But that’s just stupid rationalism and beside the point. In the most delicate way, without any ham-handedness, Teshigahara comes at this parable sideways and sneaks it up on the viewer. Life is a struggle, no? There’s a constant struggle to survive – to eat, to drink, to sleep, to mate. All else falls by the way in the face of that hierachy of needs. The point is that there is no point but to live another day.
Parables runs the risk of over-simplification – the hare is fast but lazy and thus always loses the race. Woman in the Dunes is never simple and escapes cartoonishness by being unrelenting real and so damn tactile. Visually, the movie is an ode to humble but dangerous sand – so common and minute, yet so fundamental and omnipresent as to be sinister. We see it close up and sand is hilariously huge. We see it cascading down in sheets and it is magnificent. Then there is the woman and the woman’s body. This widow, whom we learn has lost a husband and child to the sand, accepts her fate fully – she wouldn’t leave if she could. And she offers the tantalizing trade off – her body, presented as the ultimate erotic prize by the camera, in exchange for a lifetime of toil.
Woman in the Dunes certainly ran the risk of an unrelenting bleakness, at least in concept. The camera work and the visual composition saves it from bleakness, but so does the revelation of the human spirit at work in the character of Jumpei Niki. Unlike the woman, the entomologist does not just accept his fate. He struggles to get out of the pit and when he cannot turns his mind to the wildlife that visits his prison. And then he stumbles upon a discovery. His human curiosity leads him to discover a way to extract water from the sand. It is one, tangible triumph in an unending, impossible struggle. It is also a flicker of hope in a tale about our impossible struggle to hold back the sand that will surely get us in the end.
Where to see Woman in the Dunes
Woman in the Dunes is playing at TIFF Bell Light Box as part of the TIFF Cinematheque programme Japanese Divas: The Great Actresses of Japanese Cinema’s Golden Age. This programme is part of Spotlight Japan (January – April), a city-wide festival celebrating classic and contemporary Japanese culture for which five of Toronto’s leading cultural institutions came together (the Japan Foundation, TIFF, Canadian Stage, The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre and Soundstreams).
Woman in the Dunes screens on Friday, February 8, 2013 at 6:30 pm.
Galley of Images from Woman in the Dunes
Trailer for Woman in the Dunes