DVD Review Of Woman In The Dunes

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/23/10


  1964’s Woman In The Dunes (aka Woman Of The Dunes, Suna No Onna, 砂の女,) is the third film of director Hiroshi Teshigahara’s that I’ve seen, and of the de facto trilogy put out by The Criterion Collection, Three Films By Hiroshi Teshigahara, it and a great film, and the best of the lot for as very simple reason: it has the least flaws. The earlier Pitfall and later The Face Of Another both are films that can dazzle, and both can stake claims to greatness (I’d accept the first film’s claim and reject the third film’s), but only this 147 minute long, black and white, film maintains itself in almost every scene. Granted, of the tercet, it is the least diverse film, in terms of tale and characters, but that is a minor quibble with a major work of art.

  Like the other two films, this one is the product of Teshigahara’s collaboration with novelist and screenwriter Kobe Abe, and like those films, the whole film plays out almost like an extended ‘lost episode’ of The Twilight Zone (in many ways like the episode, Five Characters In Search Of An Exit), or a heretofore unknown Samuel Beckett play. The premise is rather simple, an amateur entomologist and Tokyo schoolteacher named Junpei Niki (Eiji Okada, from Hiroshima, Mon Amour)- although we only learn his name before the end of the film, has left Tokyo behind for three days, to visit a local desert and hunt for bugs. He aims to both disappear and become famous. The former he states in a speech wherein he declares he is sick of modern modes of identification, and the latter when he reveals that he wishes to find a new variety of insect so that he can gain a slice of immortality by having the bug named after himself.

  Niki stays too late in the desert to catch the last bus back to Tokyo, and a group of locals offers him shelter at the home of a local widow (Kyoko Kishida, who would play a nurse in The Face Of Another), who is never named, and lives at the bottom of a sand pit. To get down, Niki has to climb a rope ladder. Without it, he is as trapped as the widow, or an ant in the lair of an ant lion (a title could have as aptly been crafted with that insect metaphor). Now, here is the first fork in the film. If one is the sort unwilling to suspend disbelief, one will scientifically know that a pit as steep as shown in the film simply cannot exist. The dunes would quickly fill it in and entomb the duo, in less than a couple of days, at most, and if it was all sand, it could never attain a 90 degree angle, and the structures the villagers build on its slopes (such as a pulley and winch) could never be firmly planted. So, clearly, the film has become a metaphor or allegory. However, once accepting that internal reality, the rest of the film flows rather logically. During the first night, he finds out that she spends her days and nights digging sand for the villagers, and to keep the sand from overflowing her house, which would then overflow the next, and the next, etc. She is supplied once a week by villagers. Now, again, suspension of disbelief is required, for we find out that sand is the commodity the village uses to sustain itself- but, of course, why would they need to dig the sand from the bottom of the pit, and trap the widow (and many others, it is learned) in a pit, treated as a de facto slave? It doesn’t. But, the film makes good use of its contrivances.

  The next morning, Niki finds that he is trapped, and that the villagers refuse to let him leave. He tries to escape, but find it futile. Of course, again, in reality, such an escape would not be difficult, but, suspend a little, eh? He attempts to escape several times, then imprisons the widow in exchange for his release. But, he fails, and capitulates, when he needs the water they supply. Over the course of time, Niki devises many ruses to try to escape, and one almost succeeds one night. He gets out of the pit, but is chased by the villagers until he falls into quicksand. He is rescued, then tossed back in the pit to keep helping the widow shovel sand. They become lovers, even though, one night, promised with a ‘parole’ of sorts, the villagers demand that he and the widow have sex while they watch from above, with garish costumes and flashlights shone upon them. He tries but fails to coerce her. Eventually, after months, his desire to escape wanes, as he discovers that a crow trap he set actually evinces the fact that the sand draws moisture from below, as a sort of natural pump. When the widow (who claims to have lost her husband and daughter in a sandstorm) gets pregnant, she has health issues, for it may be ectopic. The villagers come to take her away to a doctor, and accidentally leave the rope ladder in place, Niki ascends, and this time has a clear path to freedom, in daylight. All he need do, like the Charlton Heston character in The Planet Of The Apes, is follow the shorelines to civilization. But, he instead returns to the pit, now fully enveloped in a variant form of Stockholm Syndrome (a term that would not be coined for nearly a decade), and eager to show the villagers how his pump works. It can be assumed that feelings for the widow, and his child with her, also play a part in his decision. The film then ends with a visual of a police missing persons report, wherein the audience first learns of his name, and that it has been seven years since he disappeared.

  A minor tangent is that, during the 1960s, there was a spate of kidnappings (as seen in Akira Kurosawa’s High And Low) and people who just went missing, so that may explain why the film struck such a chord in its native land). It went on to become an international sensation at the Cannes Film Festival (among many film festivals), and at the Academy Awards. Technically, the film is masterful, starting off with microscopic shots or enlarged sand grains that resolve ever smaller, and through the many technical devices that are a staple of Teshigahara’s films. Hiroshi Segawa, the cinematographer, is at the top of his game, even more so than in the other two films, for the aqueous nature of sand has never been better portrayed. In fact, over forty years later, the acclaimed Sandman Origin scene in Spider-Man 3, employing modern CGI, has nothing on the images seen her. The best use of this is a shot, after coitus, which shows a river of sand running down a dune like a stream of semen down a thigh. Add to that revelatory shots of Niki always seen imprisoned by bars or diagonals, while the widow is seen straight on, almost as if a source of nature, only enhance the film. Toru Takemitsu’s score is an apt presage for similar opening scenes of the desert in The Planet Of The Apes, a few years later, for Jerry Goldsmith really plundered this film’s treasure trove of ambient sounds. Takemitsu, though, repaid the favor, by plundering Goldsmith’s score for his own score on Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. The screenplay, by Abe, is right on the money, as long as one accepts its basic premises, for the tale never deviates from the dictates of its universe. Narrative that stick to a set of rules, no matter how absurd, at least have some integrity, whereas those that change the ‘rules of the game’ as they go on do not. It is asked by Niki, of the widow, ‘Are you living to shovel sand, or shoveling sand to live?’, but no answer is given.

  It is one of many existential themes in the film, but it is not, as many bad critics claim, a Sisyphan task, for Sisyphus’s task of eternally pushing  a boulder up a hill is not something borne of necessity, but the whims of cruel gods. By contrast, the widow and Niki must shovel sand lest all they have be lost, including their lives. That this claim is repeated ad nauseam evinces not only critical cribbing, but the fact that many critics of the arts are simply not schooled in even the most elementary aspects of human classics and metaphor usage. Unfortunately, this inaptness of metaphor was seized upon by the nation’s most powerful film critic, Roger Ebert, thus ensuring its repetition for decades more. However, in his review’s close, he nearly redeems himself, by declaring, ‘But is struggle the only purpose of struggle? By discovering the principle of the water pump, the man is able to bring something new into existence. He has changed the terms of the deal. You cannot escape the pit. But you can make it a better pit. Small consolation is better than none.’ Other critical boners (and they seem legion with this film) are when the film is called an erotic love story. Well, while there is sex involved there is no eros, whatsoever. Desperation, yes, but no eros. Then there is an odd critical claim that Niki has a wife, portrayed by Hiroko Ito. But this is simply not true. Yes, there are several shots of a second woman’s body and face seen in the sand, but in no way does Niki nor the film indicate that this is a wife of his. Perhaps this is an imbuement because the character in the book mentions a wife, but, nonetheless, there is no such correlation in the film. Yet another mis-take on the film occurs when Niki almost succumbs to the taunts of the villagers to rape the widow, as they voyeur them. Some critics have claimed that this scene represents Niki’s passage into the demented world of the villagers, almost like the scenes near the end of Tod Browning’s Freaks, wherein the freaks claim new members by chanting, ‘One of us.’ But, there is no truth to this, as Niki is repulsed by his degradation. And the fact that they do not treat him any differently, after the fact, is proof that this claim is wrong. It is just a perverse sense of torture. Nothing more, nothing less. The villagers may, indeed represent Japanese society, humanity, or a variety of individual groups who are under the film’s scrutiny, but this scene does nothing but show them in a horrid, fascistic light. Their perversity, however, clearly influenced scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

  And this reality connects the film to that masterpiece of another medium, one which aired just a few years later, the British television drama, starring Patrick McGoohan: The Prisoner. Parallels between the plights of the two male protagonists abound. Both are trapped in circumstances, held by unknown forces in a ‘village,’ forced to go along with the villagers’ perverse mind games, thwarted in their increasingly desperate ploys to regain control of their lives and bodies, etc. The difference is that, in the end, Niki submits to his tormentors, who are external in nature. By contrast, No. 6 defeats his foes, and we learn that they are, and always have been, internal.

  The DVD package, from The Criterion Collection, Three Films By Hiroshi Teshigahara, comes with a fourth disk of supplements, the main feature of which is a documentary about Teshigahara and his Kobo Abe’s lives and collaborations. There are also four short early documentaries by Teshigahara, none of which presage his fictive films. They are: Hokusai, Ikebana, Tokyo 1958, and Ako. The actual disk with Pitfall on it contains the theatrical trailer and a video essay by film critic James Quandt on it. One of the more interesting nuggets gleaned from it is that the bulk of the film was shot in sand dunes close to Mount Fuji. This is quite interesting since the dunes clearly look Saharan, as opposed to other desert’s sand formations. Overall, it is a solid video package- with a few early blemishes, shown in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, although the lack of an English language dubbed track would have been a great help because the white subtitles blanche out against many of the ultra-white shots of the film. The booklet features a career overview by Peter Grilli, an interview with the director, and essays on the films.

  Woman In The Dunes is not only the best of the three films in this DVD set (oddly, a fact most critics agree upon), but also the most Absurdist. Yet, I do not think there is a causal connection between those facts, for there is a good deal of realism, as well. This is shown in many of the scenes where Niki is trying to devise escape plans. In his scientific zeal to catalog his experience, his sense of inventiveness mirrors that of the titular character in another 1964 film, Robinson Crusoe On Mars. It also continues the theme of the corruption of big business and unionism that was at the material core of Teshigahara’s own Pitfall. It is the work of a master artist at the height of his powers, despite the minor contrivances the film takes on and asks its viewers to forgive. And viewers should forgive it, for that is its only ‘flaw,’ if one can call it such. And, for that solecism one gets a hefty reward of emotional and intellectual satisfaction from this almost two and a half hour long film that, despite its simple setup and spare cast list, barely feels like it runs for an hour. That’s how engrossing its conception and execution is. That sort of service to the film going public deserves- no, demands, reciprocation. Go. Do it.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Spinning Image website.]


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