Words to describe Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes can range from “exotic” to “surreal” or “hypnotic” but they are mere understatements if one is going to describe the experience that is set to come. Though if there was one word that hits me when I think of Woman in the Dunes is not “masterpiece,” because such a word isn’t going to do justice to the experience that I had when I watch such a brilliant work. The moment when I first watched Woman in the Dunes was an experience that overwhelmed every thought process that was going through my head – but in such a way that I could not pin everything down on the spot what a film like this is even about, for I had never seen anything much like it. To this day, it still remains one of the most unique experiments that I have ever laid my eyes upon for I’m just in refusal a film like this can be crafted by ordinary human minds – it’s something else altogether.
The setting of Woman in the Dunes is inside of a house at the bottom of a sand quarry. We have the bug collector Niki Junpei, staying in the house together with a widow whose husband and child had passed inside of a sandstorm. There’s a sense of irony that comes about with the situation where Niki is placed in, and that is only a fraction of where the cleverness of Woman in the Dunes is coming in. Adapted from the novel of the same name penned by the screenwriter Kobo Abe, the ingenious that comes in from what Woman in the Dunes is presenting is clear from how everything delivers on the screen – as a clever allegory comes in that turns the film into one of the most haunting pieces of fiction ever to be crafted.
One of the first things that is presented in Woman in the Dunes is an allegory for Niki’s occupation, as he is a bug collector and now that the villagers have placed him to stay with the widowed woman in the bottom of the sand pit, he is now living the life of a collected bug, inside of a small, confined space. But inside of this space, we are observing a bug who is left with another of their kind (the woman) and soon a lust forms between Niki and this woman. It is from the moment in which the villagers (the bigger picture, who observes the bugs living together) remove the ladder to the pit where they are all “caged” much like beetles inside of a tank. The irony which is created is clever, but the reason it works so well is because of what more it represents.
What fuels Niki as he stays with the woman more and more over time is a growing sense of claustrophobia from being confined inside of this space. This claustrophobia drives him to numerous failing attempts at climbing out of the sand pit, but there’s a clever examination that comes about – it is representing humanity adapting to a new environment. The woman is a figure whom has fully adapted, but Niki, a man from the cities, is unable on the count that he is willing to do anything in order to escape, even if it drives him into the lust that fuels the film. His psychology and its descent into madness results in the many bizarre circumstances that are presented, whether it be from the erotic relationship that he has together with the widow or his desperate attempts to leave, but it is all thanks to the brilliantly layered writing presented by Kobo Abe’s screenplay – arguably one of the finest examples of the craft that I have ever come across.
There’s another core factor to Woman in the Dunes that forms the brilliance to which it carries, and it would be the graphic sexual content which it depicts. There is a very erotic flair which Hiroshi Teshigahara is creating for the film, but it is never placed into the film for the purpose of desire, but instead it becomes haunting. Hiroshi Teshigahara works around the erotica in a sense that it shows the destruction of the soul, especially as Niki Junpei’s psychological state only is descending in terms of sanity. The cleverness only grows from how the sand plays a major role to the film, for as it collapses, the hint is clear that it is representative of how unpredictable the course of life moves on, no matter how cruel it may get and even dragging him down to the desires of submitting oneself to another being for sexual purposes but in a manner that it only harms his sanity. Never before have I come across any other depiction of claustrophobia so complex and layered, yet surreal it’s simply mind-blowing.
All of this having been talked about, I still haven’t covered the technical aspects – as even in that level Woman in the Dunes is an absolutely perfect film. Whether it be from how Teshigahara is framing some of the shots or how little he is using in order to let everything explode on the screen in such a loud fashion, it all adds up to something exceptional. It’s a film that demands one’s attention as it moves along, but the experience soon proves itself rewarding especially when it comes to what it is handling from first scene to last. Some of the most beautiful cinematography that my eyes have treated themselves to, one of the most beautiful uses of space that I have ever seen on film, as well as some of the most accomplished efforts in terms of directing that I have ever seen – I don’t even know how anyone can repeat an achievement like it.
Woman in the Dunes is a film that explores humanity and analyses their descending into monstrosity. It’s a complex portrait of man’s dependence on primitive methods for survival especially as a means of coping together with the loneliness that the claustrophobia inspires upon the soul. It’s an overwhelming achievement in all grounds, and to this day, it remains one of the most haunting cinematic experiences that I have lived through. From the first frame alone, I was so hypnotized into the experience that comes along, but all of it added up to my unpreparedness for what I was about to witness, one of the most beautiful works of art that I have laid my eyes on. I knew from the first viewing that this was an instant favourite of my very own, but as I discover more about it from revisits, it only captivates me all the more. It’s something that understands humanity to the level I’m questioning how humans themselves could have conceived something so intricate and layered from start to finish. The first thing I even asked myself was, “Am I dreaming?” because something of such qualities, I thought, could never exist in reality.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Toho.
Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara
Screenplay by Kobo Abe, from his novel
Produced by Kiichi Ichikawa, Tadashi Ono
Starring Eiji Okada, Kyoko Kishida
Release Year: 1964
Running Time: 146 minutes