Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna)

Woman in the Dunes
(Suna no onna)
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Screenplay: Kôbô Abe (based on his novel)
Stars: Eiji Okada (Niki Jumpei), Kyôko Kishida (Woman), Hiroko Ito (Man's Wife), Koji Mitsui (Villager), Sen Yano (Villager), Kinzo Sekiguchi (Villager)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1964
Country: Japan
Woman in the Dunes: Criterion Collection DVD
Woman in the DunesHiroshi Teshigahara has said there are three main characters in Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna)--the man, the woman, and the sand--and it is testament to Teshigahara's visual and thematic audacity that the tiny, inanimate granules of rock that constitute the third main character are so richly alive and memorable throughout the film. The sand does not just exist; it lives. It shifts and moves, sometimes trickling, sometimes pouring, sometimes streaming, and sometimes flowing; at times it is like dust, at other times it is like liquid, and sometimes it is misleadingly solid, giving the illusion of solid rock that crumbles as soon as it is touched. It creeps and attacks, but most of all, it is always present. Teshigahara even opens the film with an extreme close-up of sand grains whose alien surfaces are an abstraction that immediately draw you in.

The story in Woman in the Dunes, which was written by novelist and frequent Teshigahara collaborator Kôbô Abe from his own novel, is stark and direct in eliciting metaphorical interpretations. An unnamed schoolteacher and amateur scientist (Eiji Okada) is combing through the dunes of a coastal desert looking for unique bugs, one of which he hopes will get his name included in a field guide. When he needs a place to stay for the night (he is on a three-day trip), the local villagers direct him to a hut at the base of several large dunes. The woman who lives there (Kyôko Kishida) is sweet and kind, but she makes several cryptic comments suggesting that the man will not be leaving the next morning as planned. And, when he arises the next morning to leave, he finds that the rope ladder he used to climb down to the hut has been retracted and he has no way to escape what he soon realizes is a prison. The villagers have tricked him into a potentially never-ending existence living with the woman, their sole job being to shovel the sand that creeps down into the pit and keep it from overwhelming the hut.

The shoveling of the sand becomes the film's core, with the man asking the woman at one point whether she shovels sand to live or lives to shovel sand. A seemingly Sisyphean task (after all, no matter how much they shovel, more will always come down), there are practical and economic reasons for their work. Although it is never clearly explained, there is some sense that the pit acts as a kind of safety valve for the entire village (which we never see); if it gets overwhelmed by sand, then the rest of the village will be, too. Thus, the hut in the sand pit represents the village's only means of resisting the enveloping nature of the desert, which the man points out has buried entire cities in the past. Also, the villagers sell the sand to construction companies, although, as the man point out, there is too much salt in it to make it good for foundations, an ethical issue the villagers don't seem to care about.

In this respect, Woman in the Dunes, which was a major art-house success in the mid-1960s and even earned Teshigahara an Oscar nomination, is very much a horror movie about the loss of one identity and the gaining of another. From the beginning, the man is something of an enigma; we learn almost nothing about him aside from his occupation and the fact that he lives in Tokyo. Yet, once he is in the sand pit with the woman, about whom we know only that she has recently lost her husband and child to the sand, his identity is wiped clean. This is a moment of panic for him, as all trappings of modern urban life that give one a recognizable identity (licenses and numbers and forms) cease to matter at the bottom of the pit. He has been reduced to “Helper,” and his pointless struggles to clamor his way out of the pit by climbing up the ever-shifting sandy walls seem to be less about his fear of entrapment than his fear of losing himself.

But, in losing that identity, he gains a new one. The woman with whom he now lives eventually becomes his lover, although their couplings have an uncomfortable, desperate quality to them. Woman in the Dunes has often been described as “erotic,” but it seems to me that it is relentlessly anti-erotic in that the sexual encounters seem to arise less out of sexual desire than a hopeless need to somehow connect with another person. The sex ultimately means little, which is underscored in the disturbing scene in which the villagers, who surround the lip of the pit one night, dressed in masks and beating a tribal drum, demand that the man and woman have sex for their amusement. The man, thinking this will enable him to be released from the pit for an hour each day to see the ocean, frantically tries to rape the woman, who resists his advances. On some level, this seems to suggest that she has maintained a level of humanity that he has lost; but, at the same time, she is such a blank figure, a person whose entire identity has been reduced to her task of shoveling sand, that it is discomfiting to assign her such a label.

Given its thematic openness, Woman in the Dunes has been interpreted in a number of ways. The lynchpin to the film's ultimate meaning is the fact that the man eventually becomes resigned to his fate, accepting his role as surely as the woman has. He even begins to find meaning in his life again, especially when a trap he designs to catch a crow turns out to be an unintended pump that brings water--in effect, the essence of life--to the surface. When he has an open chance to escape late in the film, he willingly returns to the pit, suggesting that his prison has become his home. While some have read this as either an embrace of totalitarianism or an existential acceptance of one's fate, I see it as a movingly despondent portrait of a broken spirit. The man's integration into the village community (his work, after all, ensures their survival) was always against his will, and his eventual decision to accept it after years of imprisonment is less a function of free will than a result of indoctrination. His prison is no longer the sand pit, with its steep, shifting walls, but rather his own mind's inability to imagine a life outside of it.

Woman in the Dunes Criterion Collection DVD
Three Films by Hiroshi TeshigaharaWoman in the Dunes is available exclusively as part of the Criterion Collection's four-disc box set “Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara,” which also features Pitfall (1962) and The Face of Another (1966), as well as a bonus disc of supplements. The supplemental disc includes Four short films by Hiroshi Teshigahara: Hokusai (1953), Ikebana (1956), Tokyo 1958 (1958), and Ako/White Morning (1963); and a new documentary about the working relationship beween Teshigahara and Kôbô Abe, including interviews with Japanese-film scholars Donald Richie and Tadao Sato. There is also an insert booklet featuring essays by James Quandt, Howard Hampton, Audie Bock, and Peter Grilli, as well as Max Tessier's 1964 interview with Teshigahara.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioJapanese Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Video essay by film critic and festival programmer James Quandt
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$79.95 (box set)
    Release DateJuly 10, 2007

    Like the other two films in this box set, the new high-definition transfer of Woman in the Dunes was made from a 35mm composite fine-grain master positive and is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (slightly windowboxed). Of the three films, this one looks the best, with the sharpest, most detailed image. Digital restoration has removed virtually all signs of age, which allows the stark black-and-white images to really shine. Given the film's setting in the desert, the image's grayscale is particularly important and allows for a wealth of detail. The monaural soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical fine-grain print and digitally restored. Sound is particularly important in this film, especially the subtle, evocative sounds of shifting sand, which are reproduced with perfect fidelity.
    Like the other discs in this set, Pitfall contains an excellent video essay by film critic and festival programmer James Quandt. In the 30-minute essay included here (the longest of the three essays, although Quandt confesses that Woman in the Dunes is his least favorite of the three films), Quandt dissects the film visually and thematically with plenty of stills and clips as evidence. Quandt's analysis is rigorous and intriguing and adds a great deal of insight, especially when he argues against long-established views of the film that fit it into particular schemas. Also included on the disc is an original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)

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