of the hallmarks of 1960s art house cinema was Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes, adapted by Japanese
author/playwright Kōbō Abe from his own
1962 novel. The picture won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1964 and was
nominated that same year for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.
The following year, Teshigahara was nominated for Best Director (but lost to
Robert Wise for The Sound of Music).
is avant-garde cinema at its finest—or perhaps its most tedious, depending on
story is straight-forward. Niki (played by Eiji Okada, the male lead from Hiroshima mon amour),a schoolteacher and amateur
entomologist (he studies bugs), has ventured to a desert-like area of Japan
(does one exist?) near the sea to find specific species of insects. He is
stranded and needs a place to stay overnight. The “villagers” (we never see a
village) point to a dilapidated shack at the bottom of a deep sand pit where a
young woman lives. They throw a rope ladder over the side of the pit so that he
can meet the woman (Kyōko Kishida). She seems nice and welcoming
enough, and she’s attractive, too. The next morning, the rope ladder is gone.
Niki is stuck in the sand pit with the nameless woman, despite several attempts
is the woman’s “job” to shovel sand from the pit, which is raised by the
villagers to be used in concrete for sale. It also prevents the shack from
sinking into the sand and being forever buried. Niki is forced to be her
helper, whether he likes it or not. Weeks and months go by—eventually he
becomes the woman’s lover. Even when Niki does manage to escape, he is caught
and brought back to the pit. The sand becomes his lot in life (pun intended).
this takes place over 2-1/2 hours. Is it entertaining? Yes and no.
symbolism and metaphors may have been revelatory in 1964, and I always tell my film
history students to judge a film within the context of when it was
released, not by whether it “holds up” today. In that perspective, Woman in the Dunes is fascinating. It’s
obviously meant to be a modern-day take on the myth of Sisyphus, a Greek king
who was punished by the gods to continually roll a heavy stone up a hill, only
to have it roll down again. Niki and the woman toil with the sand, day after
day, and yet there’s always more sand. The couple represent, of course, man and
woman, the pit represents life, and the villagers are the “taskmasters” or
perhaps the gods. It’s not a spoiler to say that Niki, in the end, accepts his fate.
to whether or not a young audience today will find much to like about the
picture is a matter of aesthetics. The film is beautifully shot in glorious
black and white (but in the old Academy ratio, i.e. not widescreen, unusual for
1964) by Hiroshi Segawa. The shots of sand, in particular, are striking—sand
slipping, sand falling, sand on skin, microscopic sand, sand everywhere. The arty love scenes (there is some nudity, but this was Japan, not
America, in 1964) are notable because the sand coats the sweaty bodies, causing
one to wonder where all that sand is going. Ouch.
Criterion Collection released the film a few years ago on DVD as part of a set
of Teshigahara’s pictures. Now comes a stand-alone Blu-ray edition with a new
high-definition digital restoration, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
The images are suitably grainy (sorry,
couldn’t resist). Supplements are ported over from the earlier release: a 2007
video essay on the film by film scholar James Quandt; four short films by the
director—Hokusai (1953), Ikebana (1956), Tokyo 1958 (1958), and Ako (1965);
Teshigahara and Abe, a 2007 documentary
about the collaboration between the director and writer; and the trailer. The
booklet contains an essay by film scholar Audie Bock and a 1978 interview with
Woman in the Dunes is an important work
of international cinema from the 60s and will be appreciated by serious art
house cinephiles; the rest of the audience might feel like taking a shower
after a viewing.