WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)


SAND NEVER RESTS

In Japan, this film is entitled SUNA NO ONNA. In 1964, the movie won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes, and it was nominated for two Oscars; both for best foreign film, and best director. Director Hiroshi Teshigahara was 37 years old when he made this movie. It was his third feature film. He only directed seven others in his career. Teshigahara was well rounded for a film director. He was a poet, a calligrapher, a wood block artist, had worked with ceramics, had directed opera, and ultimately was the good son who took over the family flower arranging business.

Kobe Abe wrote the screenplay, adapting it from his prize-winning novel. The themes prevalent in the book leap from Zen parable to existential horror, and they transferred smoothly to film. It is reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s prose; dealing with people caught up in a nightmare, with a morbid fascination of insects; like in METAMORPHOSIS and THE NAKED LUNCH.

The protagonist, Niki Jumpei, led a gray leaden-eyed existence in Tokyo. His primary interest, spicing up his colorless bland days, was his study of the insect world; attracted to their single-minded need to proliferate and to survive, and to their astonishing viciousness. When he was a child, he happened onto a strange beetle that had yellow legs. Later after becoming an amateur entomologist, he learned that very beetle was rare and anomalous. He spent many years searching the sands for that elusive beetle with the yellow legs. He had learned that desert beetles fly erratically, thus luring out hunters like lizards and mice, getting them to venture out of their safe dens and be exposed to the harshness of sun and sand. When the creatures were exhausted, lying parched and dying, the beetles would circle back and descend on the still living pursuers, and true to their nature, they embraced ferocious cannibalism.

Hiroshi Segawa, who was also fairly young when he lensed this film, did the cinematography. His short career, from 1962-1972, only included six films. In this movie, his brilliant black and white photography maintained a perfect blend between Abe’s prose and Teshigahara’s vision. He played with light and shadow like a painter. He photographed sand as if it were a breathing beast. Roger Ebert wrote,” There has never been sand photography like this.” He helped Sand become the third major character in the film; perhaps even the dominant one. He gave sand a personality, creating a Dali-esque canvas. We watched the wind rippling across the white dunes, spreading the sand like waves of water, flapping the edges like moving silk; or when it was heavy with moisture, it would clump up and drop dangerously. And he utilized a lot of extreme close-ups of skin pores choked with grains of sand, and sweaty strands of hair with white sand clinging to them like venereal crabs.

Sand, as an aggregate of rock fragments, is caught halfway between stone and clay. Oddly most grains of sand are symmetrically equal in size, whether they are gathered from the Gobi, or the beaches of Malibu. Sand never rests. It is a child of erosion, playing patty cake with its uncles, Wind and Water; two great giants that sculpt sand into shifting fantasimagorical shapes. Sand is always receptive to impetus, ready to shift and play.

Interestingly, director Teshigahara found out that sand would not bind to itself on more than a thirty-degree incline; no matter how wet it is. When he attempted to construct those fifty foot sand cliffs from Abe’s book, the sand undulated like silicone pellets, slipping phantom-like back to earth. So the director had to use sandstone for most of the cliffs, sprinkled with sand for effect. Abe had written a realistic parable, but he had envisioned high cliffs of moving sand surrounding and devouring the fishing village. Perhaps he should have titled his novel, WOMAN OF CLAY. In the film, the actors shoveled a lot more dirt than sand.

Toru Takemitsu did the music. He had done the scores for RAN and KWAIDAN. This score was sparse, yet powerful and staccato; piercing through us with flute and drum and strings. Much of the soundtrack played out in near silence, and was not underscored with music. The music only materialized when it was needed and necessary. Mostly we heard breathing and moaning, rolling waves, shoveling, the crackling of fire, the bubbling of water, wet soap on skin, and the terrible creaking of old wood as that house swayed beneath the steady onslaught of the sand.

An essay written by Albert Camus on the “Myth of Sisyphus” influenced the plot. Sisyphus was a cruel arrogant king of Corinth whom the gods had condemned to eternal struggle. He was commanded to roll a huge rock uphill on the side of a mountain. Each time, just before he would reach the top, gravity would grasp it, and it would roll backward. Then he would have to start again, and again, and again. Camus stated,” his entire being was exerted toward nothing, on accomplishing nothing.” But the human spirit in not vanquishable. It will find joy even in Hell. It can emerge victorious regardless of the adversity. Camus wrote,” Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth; inseparable.” Sisyphus achieved emotional victory when he finally learned to love the rock. I have read about prisoners of war, tortured, their arms bound behind them with rope, with their captors wrenching them painfully upward, tearing at the muscles in their shoulders. They remained sane, and they persevered, by learning to love the rope. Camus wrote further,” Struggle itself filled the man’s heart, and it turned to happiness, to silent joy; when he realized that he was, in fact, controlling his own fate.”

In the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Eiji Okada playing the amateur entomologist Niki Jumpei, who wandered the high dunes near the sea searching for that rare beetle. If he were to rediscover that yellow -legged insect, he could give it his name, and thus would achieve a morsel of immortality within the pages of some obscure text. In Abe’s book, the man while hiking high atop the dunes could see the whole village spread below him, looking like a honeycomb of beehive holes with dozens of ramshackle roves barely visible poking out of the pits. A village sinking further and further into the sand. An edifice to man’s obstinacy and arrogance, an affront to the second law of thermodynamics, time an entropy; the principle that things which are not constantly repaired will deteriorate. If this scene had been included within the film, the plot and the parable would have been more cohesive.

Jumpei tarried too long. He rested from his fatigue, lying in an abandoned boat that was mostly buried in the hot sand. This was a wonderful symbol. A landlocked boat filled with sand, which would never touch water again. This was the universe giving the man a potent warning. But it was wasted on the wandering weary Jumpei. Villagers approached him. He had fallen asleep and had missed the last bus back to the city. He asked if there was any nearby accommodations. “I love staying in local homes,” he said, hinting that his own life lacked much color. They agreed to help me. They took him to one of the sandpits, and he was told that he would spend the night with “Granny”.

He descended into the pit on a rope ladder. Kyoko Kishida, a plain thirty-something widow, who was dressed in a welcoming kimono, met him. She fed him well, and fanned him. He found out that a sandstorm had killed her husband and daughter. Later, as he rested, she changed into work clothes and began shoveling at the sand. Seeing her labor, he commented:

Man: It is useless. The sand can swallow up cities, and even countries if it wants to. Your home is absurd. It is like building a house in the water when ships already exist and can negotiate water more effectively. So why insist on a house here?

Woman: Because it is my home. It is where I belong.

The next morning Jumpei prepared to leave, and he saw the woman lying naked, save for a decorated scarf placed over her eyes; her nude body glistened with sweat and sand. Walking outside the shack, he discovered that the rope ladder was gone. He was trapped. The woman, like an ant lion, had sucked him into a sand trap. Furious, he called for help. No one came. Obviously the villagers were in on the conspiracy. He clawed at the cliff, and tried to let his raw fury propel him up the shifting sides. But, alas, he backslid to the bottom, where the woman was waiting for him. He lashed out at the woman, demonstrating his manhood as he tied her up.

But within a few days it became evident that he had tampered with the delicate balance of the pit. The sand cascaded down relentlessly, blown by the wind, and tugged on by that demon gravity. But when the shoveling stopped, so did the rations; even the precious water. Lying on the floor, parched, hungry, and exhausted by his struggle, the man finally realized that he really had only one choice…to accept the woman and the work, to join in on the incessant shoveling.

Man: Do you shovel to survive, or just survive to shovel?”

The woman did not respond. The answer would be in the work. Days turned into weeks. The house and the pit became his whole world, like the claustrophobic hotel room in Sartre’s NO EXIT. Life was reduced to work, food, and sleep. The man became just another faceless stranger plucked from a nameless state. He settled into his imprisoned routine, sustained by the villagers, fed like a worker ant. The rations were always in a direct ratio to the work accomplished. Trapped there, he lost his freedom, but in its place he found purpose, and with purpose he found meaning, and with meaning he found a strange joy; something he had never known.

The man studied the insects within the pit, but he kept noticing the crows that flew so freely above his head. He longed to trap one of them. He constructed an ingenious trap and waited. But he never captured a crow. Rather he captured something infinitely more precious…water. He somehow had engineered a method for extracting water from the moisture in sand. Sharing this discovery with the villagers excited him. The film as parable contrasted modern life with the virtues and simplicity of the past. And insects were the focus of it all, the first creatures on this planet, and possibly the last. Their life was possibly preferable to the anonymity of a modern man drifting featureless in a hectic techno-blur of non-activity.

One interesting sidebar within the film was the erotic elements. Added to the daily list of tasks, suddenly there was sex. The woman, although not beautiful, was lithe, lovely, and available. Their physical encounters were supercharged with passion, drowning their desperate loneliness. The quiet scene where the woman washed the man’s naked body as he stood in a tub of warm water was incredible. There was very little nudity, yet the sexual energy was arousing. As an erotic drama that involved the natural world, this film, with its stark intensity, even surpassed the excellent ANGELS AND INSECTS.

It was hard to tell if the man ever learned to love the woman. Following his baser instincts he made love to her, but his resentment was still worn raw on his sleeve. The scene where he tried to rape her for the amusement of the villagers seemed to indicate his feelings. The woman needed the man emotionally and physically. She simply could not accomplish enough work without him. As the man gradually accepted his rudimentary lifestyle, he seemed to soften toward her. Midway in the film, the man was able to escape from the pit, but outside in the darkness, stumbling around in the labyrinth of dunes and other pits, he became mired in quicksand. He was rescued by the villagers, only to be placed back into the pit.

The woman never tried to escape. Somehow she was resigned to her fate, and to her place within that bizarre community. The men of the village did roam free, looking for strangers to strengthen their sandy hive. Women were never seen outside the pits. Maybe most of them were restricted to the crumbling houses. This was one of the film’s many mysteries. At one point, the woman said,” If a house gets buried, it endangers the house next door.” Roger Ebert wondered did the woman descend willingly into the pit, or was she placed there? Had she committed an offense, or done something wrong? Questions without answers.

The woman became pregnant, and when it was her time, she was hauled gently out of the pit. The man standing alone saw that the rope ladder was left unattended. Finally he could leave. But he made the choice to stay, at least for a while longer. The truth descended upon him; the bug he had searched for turned out to be himself. When the final credits rolled, we see a police memo reporting that Jumpei had been missing for seven years. After seven years a person is pronounced “dead”.

This is a stunning film, perfectly in balance; blending poetry, literature, calligraphy, cinematography, and music. It is what good movies all aspire to be…it is art. It is a classic, almost without flaw. I saw it almost thirty years ago during my University days. At that time, as a twenty-something youth, I was not fully ready to appreciate the subtleties of the piece. But the photography haunted me, and the eroticism; and the existential terror stayed with me. It is a timeless parable of the human condition, a film that begs for more than one viewing. It makes one hunger to read the novel.

I gave this movie a rating of 4.5 stars
Glenn Buttkus 2004