Of the three collaborations between director Teshigahara Hiroshi, novelist/screenwriter Abe Kôbô, cinematographer Segawa Hiroshi (Under the Flag of the Rising Sun), and composer Takemitsu Toru, I least like the most famous, “Woman in the Dunes” (1964; the Japanese title, “Suna no Onna’” means “Sand Woman”). (It was preceded by “Pitfall“, followed by “The Face of Another.”) Not only was it nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar, but Teshigahara was nominated for the best director Oscar, very, very unusual for a film not in English, especially so experimental a film. And the film won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
The meaning of the film was much debated at the time (the time of “L’Aventurra,” “L’eclisse,” “L’Année dernière à Marienbad,” and “Persona,” each of which occasioned a dissensus of interpretations). It was attacked for being fascistic and for being communistic, for showing a desire to escape from society and for showing the necessity to submit to a place, however arbitrarily assigned, in society. Though I think it is open to varying interpretation, showing “a desire to escape from society” is one with no basis.
The high school teacher and amateur entomologist Niki Junpei (Okada Eiji) — who, despite the title, seems to me the protagonist of the film. Misses the last bus and is housed below the level of the dunes near the ocean. He has less than no desire to stay on there, but is trapped. The rope ladder on which he descended is pulled up and it slowly becomes clear to him that the locals expect him to be the helpmate (and sexual partner) of the relatively young widow (Kishida Kyôko) who lives there and, each night, fills buckets of sand that are hoisted out. The sand still threatens to bury the house and gets onto or into everything.
It makes no sense to me that sand needs to be quarried from around a sunken house: there is plenty on the surface that could be collected more easily… and is no more infiltrated with sea salt that makes it a hazardous building material (as an ingredient of concrete).
The rural folk who supply the couple in exchange for the sand from the pit don masks, forming a grotesque voyeur audience for a sexual performance (in exchange for which they allow him up to look at the sea for about an hour at a time).
Eventually, the man is distracted from trying to get a message out via a crow with the technology of drawing water up through capillary motion. Unsurprisingly, the woman gets pregnant, and the man becomes accustomed to his life of absurdity and Sisyphean effort to keep digging out sand threatening to bury the house. He seems to have forgotten his life in the city (with a wife and a teaching job) and to have ceased to find his life under the eyes of rural folk demeaning. I couldn’t say whether he feels more sense of belonging in his new life than he did in his old (the old is not showed), though mindful of the high valuation of belonging for Japanese in general.
Because Teshigahara’s aesthetic interests were well-known (he was also a potter and took over the ikebana school of his father when his father died), the ravishing images have been credited to his eye rather than to that of the cinematographer of this and his other two Abe adaptations (plus “Tokyo 1958”), Segawa Hiroshi. There are memorable compositions throughout the movie of sand in closeups and in longshots.
The Criterion edition includes the 147-minute long cut (Teshigahara supervised a shorter cut to 123 minutes for international release), four earlier Teshigahara shorts — Hokusai (1953), Ikebana (1956), Tokyo 1958 (1958), and Ako (1965) — and a documentary that includes American explicators of Japan Donald Richie and John Nathan (the latter wrote the screenplay for the 1972 Teshigahara drams “Summer Soldiers”).
©2016, Stephen O. Murray