WOMAN OF THE DUNES (1964)
Updated: Jul 16
Oscar-nominated Japanese film turns the sands of time to true horror!
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Cast: Eiji Okada, Kyôko Kishida, Kôji Mitsui, Sen Yano, Ginzô Sekiguchi
Related films: The Face of Another, Onibaba, The Ballad of Narayama
It is not without reason that Woman of the Dunes was nominated for best foreign film at the Academy Awards. The story is gripping, the narrative is well crafted, and the acting performances are strong. Not to mention the unique atmosphere created by the desert landscapes in which the film is set.
Underneath the striking cinematography lies a two-and-a-half-hour story. Its weight is put on the shoulders of two actors alone, and the majority of the film is set in a single house. It takes guts for any director to employ such film-making tactics, but by doing so Teshigahara ended up making the highlight of his career.
The story might be somewhat unrealistic, but it strikes a nerve nonetheless. A bug-hunting scholar is trapped in a desert when he misses his last ride home. A local man offers him shelter for the night with a woman living close by. As it turns out she lives at the bottom of a sand ravine, and the only way out is a rope ladder.
The man descends the ladder and is met by a young woman who welcomes him into her humble home. At nightfall she goes outside and starts filling crates with sand. It is her sole purpose in life to fill these crates, which is hoisted out of the ravine and sold by local vendors.
The next day the man discovers that the rope ladder is gone. He is trapped and isolated from the world, left to aid the woman for who knows how long. His dawning realization sets him on an emotional journey with many stops. Over the next months he goes through fits of denial, rage, desperation, depression and apathy, to name a few.
The story, the casting and the location are glued together by Teshigahara’s impeccable cinematography. The camera work is flawless for the most part. The score is sparse but very effective, and the lighting perfectly adds to the overall atmosphere of desperation and isolation.
Many have connected the unique visuals to the film’s success, and the sandy desert scenery does indeed create an extraordinary atmosphere. But what really makes Woman of the Dunes work so well is the chemistry between the two main actors.
The solitary setting and the reliance on two characters alone demanded engaging storytelling. Captivating acting performances was crucial, and this is where Teshigahara stroke gold. The connection between lead actor Okada and lead actress Kishida was a match made in heaven.
They both go through various feelings towards each other, from contempt and loathing to surprise and affection. We - the viewers - experience a similar emotional turmoil. First we route for the man to get out of the hellhole he is in, but before long we find ourselves more interested in the relationship between the two than the actual escape.
Between the lines
As days turn into months and months turn into years, the man finds new meaning in life. The study of his surroundings and daily occupations keeps him sane and sustained. When he finally decides to burn his insect collection it seems to symbolize his final capitulation. But then a rare opportunity presents itself…
Shoveling sand seems an apt metaphor for the meaningless grind most us go through in life. Escaping into hobbies and interests of our own choosing is a natural way to cope with reality. Finding joy in small pleasures, to the extent that real life problems are swept under the rug, is a human phenomenon most of us can relate to.
In this particular case, the man becomes so invested in his defense mechanism that he «forgets» to escape when he gets the chance. Not only does it underline the fact that it is easy to get trapped in mundane lifestyles, but also how good we as humans are at putting our real problems out of sight.
Giving in to your allotted place in life was an especially appropriate topic in post-war Japan. The economic growth was unprecedented. Society was rapidly changing, whether people liked it or not. Adapting became a necessity, while personal indulgences were marginalized. Naturally, the small joys in life became equally more important.
There are several extreme close ups of the man and woman’s bodies covered in sand. These clips emphasize the hardship of living in such an inhospitable environment. Adding to the message of grit and grind are close-ups of sand and water, as well as animals living in the desert. These scenes bring the films of Shôhei Imamura to mind, as Teshigahara’s shots seem equally filled with symbolic undertones.
Whereas Imamura’s nature-shots echoed emphasis on seasonal passing in Japanese traditional art, Teshigahara’s shot of desert landscapes reflect alienation, unfamiliarity and life in oppression. It is never explained if these images point to post-war Japanese society, high capitalism, or simply coming of age and adulthood, but it certainly makes you think.
Teshigahara appears overlooked at times, even though he ought to be noted as a master of Japanese cinema. Woman of the Dunes is an unforgettable film that deserves attention on the same level as the more famous works of Imamura, Kobayashi or Kurosawa. If you are moving towards advanced Japanese film-fanaticism, this film needs to get on your to-do-list right away.
The Criterion version of this film is an excellent choice for US readers. It is loaded with interesting extra material and the transfer truly does the cinematography justice. It is also available for streaming on Amazon Prime, which is the best option for European readers. There is a European BFI-version available on DVD, which is decent, but just as well enjoyed on stream.