Woman in the Dunes

Dir: Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964. Starring: Eiji Okada and Kyôko Kishida. Japanese. Asian Cinema.
Woman in the Dunes

Metaphors are perhaps the greatest and most poetic way to express a concept or condition without heavy exposition in dialog. A good poem, for example, should never be clear in words alone, but with a trained eye, one should and hopefully can decipher what the work is getting at. When I first saw Woman in the Dunes, while watching it and after finishing it, I interpreted it as having many metaphors, one being commitment and the surrender that comes to people in terms of settling down. Also, it places the main character into an alien existence that is far removed from his conventional and vanity-filled comfort zones. The sand in this film also presents a metaphor of its own, but I’ll leave that for you to conclude.

Early Japanese cinema is a leader in this kind of poetic and classic storytelling. Also shot in black and white, films like Double Suicide and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon incorporate centuries' worth of idealism and culture into an hour and a half’s worth of wonder.

True to the actual Japanese obsession with insects and thrill of entomology, the film begins with a teacher, Niki Jumpei, roaming various sand dunes on a sort of scientific expedition in order to capture rare beetles for research and find one in particular that might grant him a certain amount of fame within his study. After missing the last bus out of town and having no options for food and lodging, locals direct him to the home of a widowed woman who lives in the center of a massively constructed dune so grand and deep that a rope ladder must be lowered into it in order to reach the cabin in its center. Here he receives hospitality and lodging for the evening while being introduced to the primitive way in which these village people live. Aside from her harsh environment, the woman’s life has only two edges of purpose: wait for rations by the townspeople, and shovel away advancing sand from the massive dune in order to prevent being buried alive.

Removing himself from all of the situation’s absurdity, Niki waits till dawn without providing aid to the woman’s chores. In the morning, he discovers that the rope ladder that is needed for his departure is now missing, and as time goes on, he realizes that the villagers and this widow have lots in store for his future in the dunes.

Sometimes I think this film can almost read like a horror story, though it is nothing but in an American sense. Japanese cinema can sometimes blur the lines in genres, and at times this film feels like an exercise in terror. The sand becomes a sort of inescapable villain for Niki and the villagers are like its henchmen, designed to humiliate and aggressively pursue this man if he ever was to escape. The deep strokes of violin in the soundtrack, followed by smaller high-pitched ones remind me of scores for movies like The Shining or Rosemary’s Baby. There is also a mutual sense of discomfort when watching it, not only because this man is held captive, but because the sand is so vicious and lifelike. Teshigahara has many gorgeous shots of sand seeping into the most ridiculous places: clothing, hair, eyes, and even in their food, to the point that I almost expected to lift up my shoe and find a menacing pile underneath it. The later and fairly erotic relationship of these two characters is also somewhat frightening at parts, not based on it alone, but the environment and conditions that it’s set against.

Woman in the Dunes, aside from its wonderful cinematography and excellently adapted story, leaves you wondering about your own importance in the grand scheme of things, and it is this quality that I admire the most. The Western mind and philosophy circulate around the "I" and the "Ego," which is perhaps why this movie frightens me the way it does. Here I am given an example of what it is like to be "shown my place" in the world, and can imagine what it must feel like to come from an Eastern culture where people mesh into one level of importance, for the most part. Obviously not in terms of government or any sort of political hierarchy, but in the overall advancement of human life. Like the insects Niki pursues and observes, he has become the pursued and observed. I’m glad to have stumbled upon a film that can give you a little taste of its culture, but with a director that was able to hide it and sometimes flaunt it, in order to bring you there, instead of having you be so removed. Highly Recommended!


Woman in the Dunes was nominated for two Oscars: Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 29, 2010 5:53pm
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