By Tom Nixon
Sporting an existential prison worthy of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped or Alain Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad, with Sisyphus re-imagined as a desert beetle and all the more loaded with allegorical resonance, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes demonstrates that sometimes the simplest metaphors are the most potent.
Opening with a microscopic close-up of sand grains resembling diverse minerals, only to cut out and out as Penderecki-style strings rage above like a howling wind, this eerie 1964 masterpiece at once conveys the indifferent vastness of its universe. Eiji Okada’s nameless protagonist is introduced climbing a dune in search of insects, trapping them in pots, poking them about in the sand as they scuttle along without obvious purpose. Teshigahara is ironically foreshadowing what’s to come for this entomologist and, as soon becomes clear, what has always been. After he misses the last bus away from the desert, men from a nearby village invite him to stay the night in one of their homes. Their narrow eyes and carefully chosen words speak of hidden, malicious intentions. The humble abode chosen for his stay is hidden in a claustrophobic sandpit, accessible only by rope ladder. A widowed woman lives there, alone, and her expression as he first enters is some mixture of awe, glee and trepidation. As he climbs down they tell him “don’t look up, you’ll get sand in your face” – like many lines in the film, this has a double meaning.
This woman in the dunes, played with considerable range and strangeness by Kyôko Kishida, awkwardly employs a myriad of archetypal expressions and gestures, as though an insect trying to mimic a human. She spends her days shovelling away sand which flows down from above in intermittent avalanches; she must not stop, lest it swallow her home and in turn the entire village. The entomologist laughs at her quaint and futile ways, but next morning his smirk turns to horror upon discovering that the rope ladder has been removed; he’s been recruited to help remove the sand… indefinitely. The moment of realisation leads straight into an avalanche of perspective-cleansing intensity, and although his first action after a pathetic escape attempt is to imprison the woman in turn, glutton down her food and grin maniacally at his own cleverness, he will soon discover that assisting her is his only means to survival.
A penetrating microcosm of everyday life, Woman in the Dunes acutely highlights the routines which serve as God for an otherwise chaotic, fleeting existence. The protagonist meticulously cleans sand from between his toes, even though more will inevitably replace it. Later, he hunts and captures the insect he was looking for at the beginning of the film, proving he’d be doing nothing different in his previous, larger-scale prison. He rails against this idea of course, claiming “even a monkey could do this work”, refusing to “die like a dog”. Ahh, but don’t we all work like monkeys and die like dogs? His disdain for perceived primitiveness, his elevated opinion of himself and his life, these traits are for Teshigahara a mark of humanity’s arrogance and denial. The townspeople mockingly highlight his absurdity when he questions their medical authority; their doctor understands the ins and outs of pregnancy because “he used to shoe horses for a veterinarian”.
In a film full of astonishing scenes, the best may be the two contrasting escape sequences which chart the character’s internal transformation. One is a futile heart-in-mouth flight across the open wastes, dogs prowling, the air full of threat and desperation. The other is a deliciously reluctant ascent, dogged by an understanding that even bounded in a nutshell he can count himself a king of infinite space (“no need to rush away just yet”). It’s the difference between modernity’s “I’ve got a job, I can’t waste time,” “it’s a pain not having electricity, huh?”, and the wisdom of understanding the arbitrary nature of such concerns, a growing sense that he’ll settle into his new world just fine once his outrage has diminished.
Indeed, by accepting and facing their plight head on, the woman and her people seem more fulfilled than his wandering self (who went to the desert to “get away” from the bustle of Tokyo, with the grand aim in mind of getting his name into a research book) has ever been. The shovelling of the sand and the couple’s developing union (including one of the most erotic, haunting love scenes ever put to celluloid, as the sand flows into the pit like semen) are the ritual dances of animals thrashing in the dust, yet by serving primal drives toward survival and procreation they seem more meaningful than much of life outside the pit. When the woman is lifted out for medical care and wails as though ascending into the abyss, he can’t help but abandon his previously unwavering dedication to the idea of returning to his prior life.
Shorter with every viewing but no less mesmerising, Woman in the Dunes dwells on the borders of territory David Lynch and David Cronenberg would later pillage in its uncomfortable, insectile familiarity. What might be a contrived allegory in poorer hands is made to seem elemental by Teshigahara’s poetic eye, every image a wall-hanger possessed of swirling Martian beauty, sands ebbing and flowing with ghostly mutability. Indeed, while the leads are both magnificent, it’s the sand which is the star; its gradual transition, from faceless arch-villain toying with its human captors to a water-giving object of fascination, has no peer in film.
The punchline in a movie full of good jokes is a missing person’s file, in which the protagonist’s name is revealed for the first time. Niki Jumpei found his way into a book after all.
Tom Nixon is the Senior Film Critic for the magazine.