“Are you shoveling sand to live, or living to shovel sand?” If there’s a central question in Woman in the Dunes, this would be it. This is the film most responsible for avant-garde director Hiroshi Teshigahara’s international reputation. As an allegory, it falls short of greatness, though in the process it does manage to showcase some magnificent photography.
- Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
- Writer: Kobo Abe
- Cast: Eiji Okada, Kyoko Kishida
Junpei (Eiji Okada) is a schoolteacher searching for insects in the desert. When he stumbles across a group of local villagers after missing his bus home, he finds himself forced into a sand dune pit with a wooden house where a women (Kyoko Kishida) lives alone. Like the woman, Junpei is forced into labor, digging sand for sale with seemingly no hope to escape. Junpei plots to escape but his time in the sand pit may have altered his purpose.
There are several captivating elements within the first thirty minutes make you feel as though you’re witnessing a masterpiece. As part of the Japanese New Wave, Woman in the Dunes is in some ways more accessible when compared to other films of postwar Japan. For one, there are no intricate back stories of Japanese feudal or samurai history required. Also, the influence of kabuki theatre is not as pronounced as it is in other films where extensive make-up and stylized acting is center stage. From the opening shots, we’re presented with an easily understood situation in which a well meaning school teacher is hijacked by villagers, although their motives are not entirely clear. Some of the most captivating sequences involve little or no dialogue.
Teshigahara employs an excellent use of lenses to further provide texture to the setting, as we get closeups of sand, insects, and Junpei’s movements. Handheld shots add a layer of intimacy to the action, while an eerie score by composer Toru Takemitsu provides an element of impending danger. But with a running time of 147 minutes, Woman in the Dunes takes too long to tell what may have otherwise been a much tighter and more impactful story of mystery. Instead, Teshigahara at times seems to fetishize the situation at hand, at some points even leading into strangely erotic moments that begin when both lead characters are removing sand from each other’s bodies. Throughout much of the film director Hiroshi Teshigahara seems to be presenting an allegory, though the underlying message is not exactly clear. On a literal level, the story involves a man who gets trapped in an inescapable predicament and is forced to a great deal of reflection. As films with a simple setup and a significant level of ambiguity often demand, interpretations are inevitable. Within critic circles, some have argued that the main theme of the film is the desire to escape from society. But Woman in the Dunes is meant as an allegory, it fails to find a clever way to really convey what it is trying to tell us.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
There is something intriguing when Ebert points out that Woman in the Dunes is “one of the rare films able to combine realism with a parable about life”. Though I am tempted to contend that some of the events in the film are nearly impossible, mainly the geographical location in which the house exists, it is true that much of the film is not grounded in fantasy or magical-realism. The situation is very real, despite being highly unlikely. I would have loved to have seen an aerial shot of the surrounding terrain. The logic of the film, as Ebert acknowledges, is questionable. And while logic can be easily dismissed when one is inclined to praise a film for its artistic qualities, I think it keeps this film from being great. However, Ebert makes a few additional points that deserve mention. For one, he sees Woman in the Dunes as “a modern version of the myth of Sisyphus, the man condemned by the gods to spend eternity rolling a boulder to the top of a hill, only to see it roll back down.” He also goes as far as stating that this may the best sand photography ever, and he’s quick to include Lawrence of Arabia when making that claim. Most engaging about his review, however, is the fond way in which he describes Teshigahara’s life and his own reflections on life based on his viewing of the film.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: Good
Do you like Woman in the Dunes? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: The Match Factory Girl
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes this week, he now has 321 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.