The Japanese love allegory—simple stories that represent the great themes of life. Thus, sorting out the role between freedom and responsibility as a man attempts to find meaning in his life overlays Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes (Suna no Onna), based on Kôbô Abes' novel (Abes also wrote the screenplay). Heady material indeed! Many films attempt to reach philosophical depths only to fall flat on their cinematic faces, but Teshigahara succeeds here with a compelling narrative and sensual camerawork that captures waves of sand more intimately than Lawrence of Arabia, and lovingly wraps around the bodies of its protagonists.
The story begins when vacationing Tokyo teacher and entomology aficionado Niki Jumpei (Eiji Okada) searches a remote desert location in search of an unclassified tiger beetle that would take on his name and make him famous in entomology journals—in essence, give meaning to his existence. He drifts into reverie over the possibility, only to be jarred awake to discover that the last bus for the city has left . He readily agrees to stay with the locals and climbs down a rope ladder that evening to a darkened house at the bottom of a large sand dune inhabited by a young widow (Kyôko Kishida).
As she hosts her guest, we learn about her tragic past—how her husband and child were buried by an avalanche of sand. Her present existence is bizarre, like the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was sentenced for eternity to roll a block of stone up a steep hill that only tumbles to the bottom when he reaches the top. She must nightly shovel the damp sand until dawn, and the true reasons go beyond the immediate explanation that the shifting sands that rain down will bury her little shack if she gets too lazy to continue the work.
The next morning, Niki discovers that he has fallen into a pit suitable for The Twilight Zone. The rope ladder has disappeared, and the surrounding crumbling sands are impossible to climb. He is trapped as a replacement husband for the widow, and is expected to work for the bare essentials of water and food by helping with the sand shoveling duties, calling into question the existential question: "Are you living to shovel, or shoveling to live?" She doesn't seem to mind the toil, and the story evolves with the entomologist's inevitable attempt to escape, his failure to escape his fate, and his final reconciliation with his future.
Clearly a fantasy, viewers can find various levels of allegory for the tale. Since Niki comes from Tokyo, he represents modern society—his dreams come from desiring recognition in the new scientific and technical world. Contrast this with the widow's simple desire to preserve the old ways, perform the routine tasks of daily living, and remain close to her dead husband and child. She has no desire to seek the conveniences of an urban community. Niki must reconcile the two, for he loves the peaceful solitude of the dunes and had gone there to escape from the technological overload of the big city. His challenge is to find a meaningful existence, and the film neatly wraps up his life choice.
Teshigahara focuses our attention on the essential details of living, reduced to its basics—eating, drinking, sleeping, working, bathing, and sex. What is most remarkable is how Teshigahara achieves unity between all the film's elements. The set design, dialogue, and camera all concentrate on these items to put the viewer into the fantasy. Adding sensual pleasures, the visuals include seductive close-ups of the widow's sweaty sand covered body, the entomologist's lathered legs and back during a hot bath, and multiple swirling waves of sand in various textures. The director's attention to these details reinforces his overall themes, forcing the viewer to confront the essentials of living. Are we just set here to enjoy life's pleasures, to work endless tasks daily into oblivion, or is there an individual purpose to our lives—questions that have plagued thinking people throughout history.
Once difficult to find, Milestone films thankfully has preserved Woman in the Dunes, and in June it will be available through the Criterion Collection. Why such an award-winning film (two Oscar nominations and the Cannes Jury Prize) was unavailable for many years is puzzling. Perhaps distributors felt that the black and white film was too esoteric for the American palate. Fortunately the DVD explosion has made films like this more accessible. Not all Americans are slaves to Hollywood mentality, doomed to spend their movie lives at some Cineplex buried deep in meaningless stupor.