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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Updated: Dec 5, 2022

Teshigahara’s Masterpiece Outlives the Sands of Time

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

Year: 1964

Studio: Toho

Verdict: 5/6


Introducing Woman in the Dunes

Woman in the Dunes was a monochrome kaleidoscope of film styles and genres. It was a bold blend of contemporary drama, erotica, and suspense. But first and foremost, it was an existential dive into the horror of the human psyche.

It began with a single grain of sand turning to hundreds and thousands before a massive dune appeared. In the middle of the desert, a man trekked the sandy seas while screaming violins slowly subsided.

«There has never been sand photography like this.»

– Roger Ebert –

And just like that, director Hiroshi Teshigahara started to play with the protagonist, audience, and film medium. His sand trickery made waves around the globe for a good reason; it invited people to reflect on the meaning of their lives.

We are all trapped by the sands of time. Before we know it, life passes us by while we lose ourselves in dreams or fantasies. Woman in the Dunes painted a beautiful picture of the dreadful futility of existence.

The Background and Aftermath of Teshigahara’s Masterpiece

Woman in the Dunes was one of four movies Teshigahara made from Kobo Abe’s books. The original novel was published to critical acclaim in 1962. During this period, Teshigahara worked closely with Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu.

In 1964, Woman in the Dunes was awarded the Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival. The year after, Teshigahara was nominated for best director, while Woman in the Dunes was nominated for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards.

Tough Woman in the Dunes didn’t win any Oscars; it is widely regarded as a timeless Japanese film classic. Roger Ebert praised it as a «landmark of the first century of cinema».

It is also worth noting that Woman of the Dunes presents one of those rare occasions where the film is argued to be just as good as the book. JCA will weigh in on this argument when I find time to read the book.

A fun fact about Woman of the Dunes is that, for some reason, it is often reported that it was shot in the Tottori dunes. In reality, it was shot at the Hamaoka dunes in Shizuoka prefecture.

Woman in the Dunes Summary

A bug-hunting teacher was trapped in a desert when missing his last ride home. Some locals offered him shelter for the night with a woman nearby. As it turned out, she lived at the bottom of a sand ravine. The only way out was a rope ladder.

At the bottom of the ravine, the man was welcomed into the humble home of a young woman. At nightfall, she went outside and started filling crates with sand. Every night, she hoisted sand out of the ravine for sale on the black market.

The next day the rope ladder was gone. The man was trapped and isolated from the world, left to aid the woman for who knows how long. Instinctively, he reacted with disdain and noncompliance, but then the sands started to change him.

Over the following months, he went through fits of denial, rage, desperation, depression, and apathy before falling in line and kowtowing to his captors. By then, the memories of his life in Tokyo had washed away like pictures in the sand.

Before that, he gave up his dream of bug-collecting accolades. Instead, he got obsessed with concocting escape plans. After several failed escape attempts, his newfound fixation was replaced with a fascination for water-pump invention.

Meanwhile, he learned that the village sold sand under the table to construction companies. The sand quality was poor, which led to insecure buildings, but neither the villagers nor the woman in the dunes seemed to care.

Their amoral ways finally overtook the man when the villagers asked him to violate the woman in the dunes for a chance to see the ocean. At that point, he lost his humanity and stooped to an all-time low when attacking his mistress.

It all seemed bleak and hopeless when one day, the woman in the dunes got severe stomach pains. As it turned out, she was pregnant and needed to go to the hospital immediately. In the commotion, the villagers forgot the rope ladder when they left.

Anxiously the man climbed out of the pit. Seeing the ocean reminded him of his water-pump project. So, he climbed back down, thinking: «There’s no need to run away just yet … I’m bursting with desire to tell someone about the pump.»

Grit & Grime | The Woman of the Dunes Production

Many have attributed the film’s success to the unique imagery, and Teshigahara certainly used the dunes to his advantage. His creative angling of sand in all its forms, shapes, and movements was undeniably hypnotizing.

The camera work was flawless for the most part. The score was sparse but very effective, and the lighting perfectly added to the overall atmosphere of desperation and isolation.

Though the mood is quite extraordinary, thanks to the striking cinematography, it glued together something even more remarkable. Like perfectly fitting puzzle pieces, the location, casting, storytelling, and imagery underbuilt the protagonists’ issues.

Underneath the unforgettable visuals was a two-and-a-half-hour story, most of which unfolded in a single house. The weight of the tale was put on the shoulders of two actors alone.

Two Stars Between the Grains | Eiji Okada & Kyôko Kishida

It takes guts for any director to rely on their actors like that, but for Teshigahara, it paid off. The crowning achievement of Woman in the Dunes is the chemistry between Okada and Kishida.

The sparse setting and small ensemble enhanced the suffocating atmosphere and demanded engaging storytelling. Teshigahara delivered the goods. Via captivating acting performances, Woman in the Dunes became the highlight of his career.

Much of the attraction stemmed from the changed feelings between the man and woman in the dunes. What began as contempt transformed into desperation and ended with affection. The viewers experienced a similar emotional turmoil.

First, we routed for the man to get out of the pit, but before long, we found ourselves more interested in the relationship between the two than the actual escape. All the while, we wondered who was good and who was bad.

Woman in the Dunes Analysis | One point of View

The man’s final thoughts left the audience plummeting into a pool of existential questions. «If not today, maybe tomorrow. I’m sure I’ll end up telling somebody. I can think about escaping the day after that.»

At last, he felt content, in captivity no less. Like an institutionalized prisoner, he’d lost touch with the outside world, but still, he found some meaning in life. What was real and not was, of course, up for discussion.

Was his previous nine-to-five life any less imprisoning than the forced life he forged in the sand pit? Was the bug-collecting not as much an escape from the daily drudge as his water pump engineering?

Many have argued that Woman of the Dunes reflected the harsh work environment in 60s Japan. Salarymen working themselves to death was so common that by the end of the 60s, Japan had come up with a name for the overwork epidemic: Karoshi.

Lifetime company contracts were the norm, with no escape in sight. Never-ending work with few moments rest. Hordes of salarymen felt enslaved by life. Escaping from reality provided workers with a sense of meaning to existence.

Around the time when Woman in the Dunes was released, workers had begun to disappear from society, a phenomenon called Jouhatsu. Instead of working themselves to death, they ran away from family and company to start anew.

As such, Woman in the Dunes can be seen as a comment on the effects of the rapidly modernizing Japanese society. The bug collector even commented on the strict documentation of every citizen and how society labeled people like utilities.

Woman in the Dunes Analysis | Another point of View

Allegedly, Kishida and Teshigahara had different opinions about the Woman in the Dunes and its meaning. Teshigahara decided that the female lead should be portrayed as typically Japanese, while Kishida felt her issues were more universal.

Teshigahara might have won the discussion, but Kishida brought up a good point; that Woman in the Dunes was a comment on the human condition. Shoveling sand seems an apt metaphor for the meaningless grind most of us go through in life.

Escaping into hobbies and interests is a natural way to cope with reality. Finding joy in hobbies or pastimes, to the extent that real-life problems are swept under the rug, is a defense mechanism most of us are familiar with.

Kishida’s character had transformed into a cog in the machine to the extent that she didn’t need distracting interests. The man, on the other hand, got so invested in the defense mechanism that he gave up on escaping when he got the chance.

As time passed by, he found new meaning in life. Solving problems in the sand pit kept him content. It also underlined how easy it is to get settled in mundane ways and how good we humans are at putting our real problems out of sight.

The Underscoring Score of Woman in the Dunes

The score by Toru Takemitsu was not so much music as dissonant wailing of strings and keys. Whenever the cries resumed, a disturbing atmosphere filled the air. As the story progressed, the wailings intensified, like slowly suffocating desert sands.

When the man and woman in the dunes gave in to their animal urges, the wailing violins returned, reminding us that their lovemaking was not an act of passion but desperation. It was impulsive and out of their control, just like the sands of time.

Shortly after, the love scene cut to sliding sand, pointing to the never-ending churn of their pointless lives. Escaping from reality, be it by losing yourself to work, alcohol, or love, is a prelude to despair, and Takemitsu never let us forget it.

The plaintive score changed drastically when the village decided that violation was the price to pay for a trip to the ocean. Realizing that nothing matters, the man figured, why not. He could just pretend for the amusement of his ruling abductors.

Ritualistic drums droned on and on as he attacked the woman in the dunes. Fittingly, the villagers had put on deity masks, like the Gods of the pit dwellers they were. Their inhumanity overtook the man, who’d become nothing more than a creep.

What is the message of the Woman in the Dunes?

The message in Woman in the Dunes appears to be that little matters in life other than the things we decide to care about. The question is if it's pointless to find purpose in insignificant pastimes.

In 60s Japan, giving in to your allotted place in life was an appropriate topic. The economic growth was unprecedented. Society changed, whether people liked it or not. They didn’t have much choice, either fall in line or fall behind.

«Are you shoveling sand to live or living to shovel sand?»

– Mr. Bug Collector –

People had to adapt to a new world. Work took over the lives of salarymen and homemakers alike, while personal indulgences were marginalized. Like many of us, they felt like the sand kept pouring in for no discernable purpose.

It hardly seems pointless to escape reality if it gives people a sense of purpose. Isn’t it enjoying the little things that make life worthwhile, whether it’s bug-collecting, water pump engineering, playing video games, or writing Japanese film reviews?

Films like Woman in the Dunes

The many shots of sand and animals adapting to life in the desert added a riveting texture to the imagery in Woman in the Dunes. More importantly, it underbuilt the underlying topics and added depth to the film.

In this sense, Teshigahara used the natural surroundings in a manner that brought Shôhei Imamura’s films to mind. However, the two directors expressed wildly different things with their shots of Japanese nature and fauna.

Whereas Imamura’s nature shots echoed expressions of seasonal passing in Japanese traditional art, Teshigahara’s shots of desert landscapes reflected alienation, adaptation, and life in oppression.

Other than this, Woman in the Dunes had a distinct expression that was hardly comparable to any other film. Thematically, it can be compared to many films, but the complete package was quite unique.

The only film known to JCA that came close to rivaling Teshigahara’s mesmerizing sand photography was Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021). Though the latter was equally mind-blowing, Teshigahara is still the master of the dunes in our book.

Final Verdict for the Woman in the Dunes

Compared to Kurosawa, Ozu, or Mizoguchi, Teshigahara is a somewhat overlooked director. Granted, Roger Ebert and Andrei Tarkovsky praised Woman in the Dunes. Still, it undeservedly flies under many film fans’ radars.

Teshigahara’s filmography might not be as impressive as that of Imamura, Kobayashi, or Kurosawa. Nonetheless, Woman in the Dunes is as thought-provoking and spellbinding today as the day it was released.

Not only that, but in many ways, it proved to be ahead of its time. Upon release, it commented on the state of 60s Japan. Today, it takes on a new meaning when watched with post-millennial eyes.

If that is not the characteristic of a classic, then I don’t know what is. Teshigahara struck a nerve that has plagued humans for all modernity and probably will continue to do so long after we are gone.

Anyone moving towards advanced Japanese film-fanaticism needs to put this film on their to-do list. Woman in the Dunes holds up better than most films of its era and outlives the sands of time with ease.


Deep Focus Review: Woman in the Dunes

Electric Sheep Magazine: Woman of the Dunes

Filmint: Japan’s Modernist Enigma: Woman in the Dunes on Criterion

Senses of Cinema: Teshigahara, Hiroshi

The Criterion An International Journal in English: An Existential Interpretation of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes

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