Woman of the Dunes

Woman in the Dunes: A very sandy Japanese classic


I am always on the look of for new films, one reason why I like to comb the pages of Twitter is to find out what others are watching. It is the reason why I enjoy reading websites like Criterion as it is a treasure trove of information on some well known and not so well known classics. It is also why I am attracted to podcasts featuring those who share, discuss and wax lyrical about Criterion releases. Living in the UK means that Criterion releases are both few and far between as well as quite expensive, which is why I have not yet purchased any of them. Yet I dream of the days when I will be able to afford and collect these wonderful films myself, especially when I see that, amongst those limited UK releases, are such classics as Cat People, In A Lonely Place or 12 Angry Men.

It was whilst listening to an episode of Wrongreel with Dave Eves and James Hancock (WR230 here) that I first heard of the US Criterion release of Woman of the Dunes. I'm not sure why it passed me by for so long, I'm a lover of Japanese Cinema, especially Ozu, Kurosawa or Honda, and those giants whose work I have yet to experience - Kenji Mizoguchi or Sadao Yamanaka - I am well aware of their reputations. Yet I had never heard of this film or it's director Hiroshi Teshigahara.

Having listened to Dave Eves enthusiasm for it I was determined to track it down but without much initial success, but I have now discovered that it is available on the British Film Institute's BFI Player. I have already posted two recent reviews of films I have seen on this service – Rashomon (here) and Rossellini's Stromboli (here). One of the great things about online streaming services is that they give you the opportunity to scroll though the available films and create a Wishlist. It was as I was doing this that I discovered the elusive and mysterious Woman of the Dunes.

The story is an odd one. A teacher and 'bit of a' scholar is wondering around some sand dunes searching for bugs. The day gets late and he is offered the chance to stay in the house of a local, which he accepts. The house is little more than a shack and it located at the bottom of a very high wall of sand and the man can only get there by climbing down a rope ladder. When he gets to the bottom he meets his host, a woman who feeds him and helps him settle down. All is well.

The next morning he gets up early, eager to continue his bug hunt, and notices that the rope ladder is gone. He is trapped. The woman doesn't seem concerned and, although he doesn't really pick up on it, she seems to indicate that he is to remain. He is there, apparently, to help the woman dig the sand which is then lifted back to the surface by the locals who drop buckets on ropes down to them. As the days and weeks follow the man gets increasingly frustrated, rebelling against the trap he is in until he is driven almost insane by thirst. In the end he capitulates and reluctantly begins to join the woman digging the sand.

The Villagers look down on the man
The Villagers look down on the man

We are not told much about the man or the woman. We know he is from Tokyo and he says he is a teacher and that he has three days leave but beyond that there's almost nothing. We never find out if he is married or if he has children, or what he likes to do, beyond etymology. They are not important.

As far as the woman is concerned we never find out if she chose to live in this pit. We are told briefly that she had a husband and daughter and that they are both buried in the sand somewhere. We also know that other men have been there before this current captive. She seems to accept the situation and that of her guest (her words not mine) as if it is perfectly natural. In fact she takes a certain pride in her job and her home.

She has the obvious desires – to talk to someone, to work alongside someone and to touch and be touched by someone. She has passion within her that she has missed and, in one memorable scene, they have sex on the floor of the hut, her face distorted by the sand sticking to her face, the music almost discordant and antithetical to the scene we are watching.

In fact, there are two elements that really stand out here. Firstly, the music by Tôru Takemitsu which continually creates a conflict between what we see and what we hear. It keeps us on edge at all times making us question what exactly we are seeing and what we should be feeling.

The second element is the sand. It pervades every scene, probably every frame. Hiroshi Segawa's cinematography is stunning and really captures the heat and dust of the first half of the film. We have extreme close-ups of the protagonists in which it is impossible to tell if you are seeing the man's stubble on his skin or sand sticking to them roughly. These shots are in contrast with the vast expanse of the dunes themselves where the sand is always moving, always falling, a character in it's own right. Early in the film there is a shot of the woman sleeping naked, the curves of her body resembling the dunes that surround them.

The shape of dunes?
The shape of dunes?

It is difficult on one viewing to truly understand what the film is about. It is obvious that it is an allegory of some kind. I have read that it is about the Japanese sense of duty – the man soon develops a kinship and a loyalty for the hut, the woman and the job of shoveling sand although I think this could just as easily been a study of Stockholm Syndrome (where someone who has been held captive begins identifying with their captors). Initially, it seemed to me, that it was about life itself. The film begins with the man in the role of a child, helpless and entirely dependent on the woman, then becomes the rebellious teenager until finally accepting and embracing his adulthood.

After watching it I was also reminded of the Laurel and Hardy great The Music Box in which the two heroes continually attempt to carry a large crate containing a piano up a flight of steps only for it to fall repeatedly to the bottom again. In Woman of the Dunes it is not a piano but the endless shoveling of sand.

But these are just side issues. The important question is – is the film interesting? The answer is undoubtedly yes. Although a little on the long side (2 hours and 26 minutes), it never fails to keep your attention. The acting by Eiji Okada and Kyôko Kishida feels real and truthful and the direction is splendid. Woman of the Dunes is a mesmerising film that grips you from start to finish. It doesn't matter that the story is so odd and that it's meaning is ambiguous, it just has to be watched.

The man tries to escape
The man tries to escape

The moral of all this, of course, is that if you call yourself a film fan, a film buff or a cinephile, one of the most important things you can do is talk and share with others. If it wasn't for a podcast I wouldn't have heard of this film and that would have been such a pity as it should be on the list of any fan of Japanese Cinema.

Woman In The Dunes (Suna No Onna) 1964 Trailer