Woman of the Dunes: Existentialism at its disturbing best.

Something unnameable goes on between Hiroshi Teshigahara and Kōbō Abe. They produce the most remarkable films together. Of course, they are both extraordinary artists in their own right – perhaps it is the multiple disciplines that works in favour of their collaboration. Perhaps it is Abe’s sublime writing. Maybe it is Teshigahara’s sculpting that gives him such command over the portrayal of the object in his films. Their collaboration has produced several films, and little I have seen equals the beauty and the horror of Woman of the Dunes.

The Woman in the Dunes (砂の女 Suna no onna, literally “Sand woman,” also translated as The Woman of the Dunes) is directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara and based on the novel of the same name by Kōbō Abe. The novel was published in 1962, and the film was released in 1964. Kōbō Abe also wrote the screenplay for the film version.

The surreal and, at times, absurd nature of The Woman in the Dunes has been compared to existentialist works such as Sartre’s No Exitand Beckett’s Happy Days. Aside from its intriguing premise, this film is notable for the life that Teshigahara brings to the ever-shifting sand, which almost becomes a character in its own right.

An entomologist, Jumpei Niki (played in the film by Eiji Okada), is on an expedition to collect insects which inhabit sand dunes. Unfortunately (disastrously actually) he misses his last bus and some passing villages suggest he stay the night in their village.  They offer him some assistance with a rope ladder to get down to an odd house that sits half way down a perpetually crumbling sand dune. A young widow (Kyoko Kishida) lives alone here. She is employed by the villagers to fill buckets of sand which they sell. She also needs to do this to ensure the house doesn’t get buried in the sand.

The next morning, when Jumpei tries to leave, he finds the ladder is missing. The villagers inform him that he must help the widow in her endless task of digging sand. Jumpei initially tries to escape; upon failing he takes the widow captive but is forced to release her in order to receive water from the villagers.

Trapped in their own endless world of cascading sand, and the mindless work that never ends, Jumpei soon becomes the widows lover. Despite this, he still desperately wants to leave. He manages to escape at one point, only to find he gets lost and falls into quicksand.  He is found by the villagers and deposited into the woman’s house again.

Eventually, Jumpei resigns himself to his fate. Through his persistent effort to trap a crow as a messenger, he discovers a way to draw water from the damp sand at night. He thus becomes absorbed in the task of perfecting his technology and adapts to his “trapped” life. The focus of the film shifts to the way in which the couple cope with the oppressiveness of their condition and the power of their physical attraction in spite of — or possibly because of — their situation.

At the end of the film Jumpei gets his chance to escape, but he chooses to prolong his stay in the dune. A report after seven years declaring him missing is then shown hanging from a wall, written by the police and signed by his mother Shino.

The Woman in the Dunes was made the year Tokyo had the Olympics. Tokyo was on the rise and was fast becoming an affluent nation. There was a lot of money around, and a lot of it directed toward the arts. The Japanese New Wave at the time reflects this, and The Woman of the Dunes is also a critique on the happenings of the period. Endless toil and work – for what? Why are we doing this, the film asks.

This darkly beautiful and hypnotic tale works perfectly taken on a purely aesthetic level: the most immediate and striking thing about it is its look. Filmed in high-contrast monochrome with large portions of the screen plunged into complete darkness, each shot is formally composed often to the point of pure abstraction. Long static shots of the natural patterns formed in the arid landscape by the wind segue into shots of the undulating contours of the nameless woman’s gritty body as she tosses and turns in her sleep. The sensation of sand as a fluid, constantly shifting dynamic entity is all-pervading and captures the spirit of Abe’s thoroughly readable novel admirably. As a material caught somewhere between the state of a fluid and a solid, it is depicted pouring through the cracks in the roof, or carried in great drifting clouds by the wind in the desert outside.

It was made on a $100,000 budget – something incredible by today’s standards. It is compliments by a sparse minimalist soundtrack by Toru Takemitsu. Teshigaraha is often been accused of indulgence, by critics both inside and outside of Japan. The son of a famous flower arranger, after an early career as a painter he worked as an assistant on a number of documentary shorts about A-bomb survivors before forming his own production company in 1961. In 1989 he made  Rikyu a gruellingly long dramatisation of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.  I haven’t seen this film, but If The Woman of the Dunes is anything to go by, I am sure it will be stunning. Aesthetes are often accused of being self-indulgent or pretentious.  Frankly, I don’t give a shit. There is little in the world as breathtakingly lovely as this film, and whatever it took for this marvellous director to be able to produce work like this is worth it in my world.

This is a film about life and the absurdity and complexity of the struggle to remain alive. “Are you shovelling to survive or surviving to shovel?” the man asks the woman.  Of course Sand can’t really behave the way it does in the film and of course there is no logic to the basic premise, but this is a Kafkaesque absurdest tale. After all, there is little rhyme or reason behind why any of us do what we do in our daily toil.  IN fact I was reminded constantly of house work, and yard work in this film. What is the point of clearing out dust, vacuuming carpets, and clipping grass?  These are endless chores we do over and over again simply so we know we are alive. Just so we can respond in some way to our environment, experience objects and live.

But the real star of this film is the sand itself. As I was told when the film was recommended to me, “the sand just keeps coming. It never stops.” The images of the sand flow are unlike anything you have seen on film before or after it.

The man sort of has himself to blame for his predicament. He ran to the sand in order to seek solitude. He finds it.  The film opens with a montage of fingerprints and passport stamps, and then there is a closeup of a grain of sand as big as a boulder, and then several the size of diamonds, and then countless grains, with the wind rippling their surface as if they were water. BY anchoring the story so firmly in the sand (one review I read stated the sand was treated as a character in the film and I would agree with this assessment) the cinematographer, Hiroshi Segawa, helps the director pull off the difficult feat of telling a parable as if it is really happening.

There is an intense erotic undercurrent, despite the abjection of being covered in sand. EVERYTHING is covered in sand, and yet the sand is displayed as an erotic visual, when we know the tangible reality is abrasive. The plot is hyper sexual – a wandering man is trapped by a beautiful woman and offered her body in exchange for life long servitude. Eventually the villagers will demand the rape of the woman for their entertainment. And still the sand keeps on coming…

The screenplay is by Kobo Abe, based on his own novel, and it reveals the enormity of the situation slowly and deliberately–not rushing to announce the man’s dilemma, but revealing it in little hints and insights, while establishing the daily rhythm of life in the dunes. The woman participates in the capture of the man because she must: Alone, she cannot shovel enough sand to stay ahead of the drifts, and her survival–her food and water–depend on her work. Besides, her husband and daughter were buried in a sandstorm, she tells the man, and “the bones are buried here.” So they are both captives–one accepting fate, the other trying to escape it. They relentlessly toil on, every day, umbrellas over their food to keep the sand off, waking each morning covering in the fine coat of relentless sand that must be cleared by the end of the day.

I adore this film. It is one of the most visually spectacular things I have ever seen. There is a new print out by Milestone (I happen to own a copy) and you can grab this. This is a film to watch (savour thrill and fear to) over and over so I recommend buying it.