The cruelty and clarity of life in a sand pit in Japan, circa 1964
Revisiting past pleasures – long-past pleasures in this case – has its particular perils. In the 1960s, any self-respecting student of culture had to be familiar with a film like Woman in the Dunes (1964), which most critics reckoned one of the cinema’s supreme achievements. But how would it play today? The idea of an existential allegory featuring a pair of characters trapped in a sand-pit for two hours sounds stultifying at best, but this is one resurrection that can be welcomed. Woman in the Dunes, as seen on DVD, remains an unqualified masterpiece.
Based on Kobo Abe’s novel, and adapted by the author for director Hiroshi Teshigahara, the story opens with amateur entomologist Jumpei Niki (hunky Eiji Tokada from Hiroshima, Mon Amour) puttering around some sand dunes looking for bugs. He’s on what he thinks is a brief field trip, but the viewer’s aware long before he is that there’s something not quite right about this environment. The director’s signals are unmistakable – weirdly wailing music, sudden sandstorms, and perhaps most disturbing, a motif that recurs throughout the film: overpowering close-ups, of everything from bugs to birds to zenlike sand patterns to the grit-encrusted hairs on Jumpei’s strong arms.
Sure enough, he misses the last bus out of “town,” and some “kindly” villagers offer to put him up for the night. The only problem is that there are no hotels in this vast waste of sand, only strange ramshackle huts at the bottom of a series of deep sand pits. He naively enters one of these pits by rope ladder, and awakes the next morning to find the ladder’s been removed. Jumpei is now a permanent guest of an unnamed woman who spends all her time shoveling sand off her house to stave off her own burial. The villagers, in a fit of what she uncomprehendingly calls “community spirit,” give her weekly rations and water, lowered by rope.
The relationship between the two starts off predictably enough, with Jumpei assuming he’ll be able to leave soon and even willing to fill the role she offers him: “Helper.” Just as the woman is nameless in the film, Jumpei too loses his identity, becoming “Helper” and, most ironically, “Guest.” As it dawns on him that he’s not only a prisoner but one who must shovel sand constantly simply to survive, he becomes increasingly frantic. The woman brings him literally back to earth with a dire warning that he can’t stop shoveling: “Last year a storm swallowed up my husband and child. The sand came down like a waterfall.”
Hiroshi Segawa’s superb black-and-white cinematography makes Jumpei’s “nature prison” one of the most memorably weird of cinematic environments. From simple scenes of the two characters fumbling toward some kind of relationship, there are constant cuts to disturbingly abstract sand patterns, close-ups of glistening flesh dotted with the inescapable sand, and violent shakings of the house as the winds stir up the dunes. Director Teshigahara radically distorts the scale of things to show how out-of-whack this world is: in one shot, a single drop of water occupies the whole screen.
Inevitably, Jumpei and the woman get together in a series of encounters that still resonate with sensuality. In one of the film’s most pleasurable sequences, he stands nude in a small tub, and she lovingly bathes him. However, their relationship is as unstable as their environment, and becomes more so as Jumpei finds himself unable to reconcile his simple dream – “freedom!” – with his present situation. In a brutal scene, he’s goaded into a sexual assault by a band of villagers, who stand high above at the rim of the pit, offering him this means of escape. This is Teshigahara’s vision of Bergman’s missing God – a pack of leering sadists controlling the destiny of one man and forcing him into a debased state.
Even the most beautiful imagery in the film has grim undertones. When the villagers fail to deliver their supplies on time, a parched Jumpei sees a mirage of rippling water framed by the door, a gorgeous image that recalls Ansel Adams in its cruel clarity. The doorway and window look out on the sky, always tantalizing Jumpei with the lure of a freedom that’s ever out of reach.
Teshigahara’s seemingly effortless ability to package profundities in such imagery made Woman in the Dunes a classic of its time, but one that’s also transcended it.