Woman in the Dunes
d. Hiroshi Teshigahara (1964)
Spine: #394
Blu-ray release date: August 23, 2016
Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s beautifully shot and directed (it garnered Teshigahara an Academy Award nomination for Best Director), allegorical, existential terror film Woman in the Dunes, adapted from a novel by Kobo Abe, is making its way to a Criterion Collection Blu-ray today, giving Blu-ray-only folks the perfect excuse to get to know this strange and powerful film.

Woman in the Dunes Cover

The film revolves around an amateur entomologist named Jumpei Niki (played by Eiji Okada). When we first come to him, he is hunting rare bugs around some remote sand dunes. Lost in thought — about what we are not sure, though a woman does appear as if in a dream — Jumpei lingers too long and misses the last bus out of the village by the dunes.

Woman in the Dunes 1

Eijii Okada as Jumpei Niki

A local man, perhaps too enthusiastic about the situation, says that there is a home, occupied only by a widow, in which he can stay the night. In a good mood, fulfilled by his day and soothed by his daydreams, Jumpei enthusiastically accepts the offer, even when he sees that the home is at the bottom of a sand quarry surrounded by steep sandy cliffs. He can get to the home only by climbing down a rope ladder.

While trying to exchange simple pleasantries with the widow (played by Kyoko Kishida), Jumpei continually laughs warily about the strange things happening around him. She calls him the helper, for example, and refers to things they’ll have to do in several days’ time. These strange provincials, he must have been thinking.

We know that something a bit more sinister is in the works, and Jumpei quickly discovers this as well when he finds the villagers above have retracted the rope ladder. He cannot climb the sandy cliffs, and now he’s stuck below, forced to spend his days shoveling sand out of the home or else suffocate in it.

It’s an interesting, realistic horror story on its surface, as Jumpei finds himself at the mercy of merciless, sadistic locals, but it is also open to many pathways of thought. The sand quarry struggle as life on this earth is an obvious and very fruitful pathway: Jumpei, after all, has found himself, through a cruel twist of fate, struggling daily to dig out the same sand he dug out the day before.

But there are other threads running through this story that nicely diverge from and tangle with the more straightforward Sisyphean struggle path.

One that particularly interests me is illustrated in the screen cap above. Our entomologist is capturing beetles and pinning them to a sheet for examination and for show. The residents of the sand dune village have a kind of large scale examination sheet, and pinned at the bottom of it are the widow and Jumpei. Long ago, the widow resigned herself to her fate, and she is thrilled that Jumpei is pinned to the screen with her; but Jumpei must adapt to this kind of life under the gaze of any interested passerby. And they are interested, leering over the edge to watch the human drama play out below them.

Whenever I see an insect pinned to a board, I immediately think of lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” his existential poem about a man who simply cannot bring himself to escape the doldrums of his own life, fearing failure, who eventually resigns himself to his situation and embraces failure:

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin [. . .]

Eliot’s poem and Teshigahara’s film are not looking at the same issues of existence and the metaphors are not working the same way — for one thing, Eliot’s subject choose to avoid struggle, chooses to avoid being the insect pinned to the wall, where Teshigahara’s subject is always the insect pinned to the wall who is forced into struggle — but both are ultimately about resignation to one’s situation, even when the possibility for glorious change is presented, as it eventually is to Jumpei.

It’s a rather terrifying thought: we can become so complacent and used to our lives, we even fear change that offers hope.

Woman in the Dunes 3

Woman in the Dunes is well controlled and, perhaps surprising given its lengthy 147-minute running time, always engrossing, the tension screwed tight throughout. I highly recommend picking it up.

The Criterion Collection edition: Those of us who love boxsets have to resign a bit ourselves: Woman in the Dunes was part of a beautiful DVD-only boxset, Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara, that also included Pitfall and The Face of Another (both from Kobo Abe, as well). I would have loved to see the whole box come on Blu-ray, but I’m very happy with this individual release of Woman in the Dunes. It certainly stands on its own.

  • Video Essay: First we get a 29:22-minute video essay about the film from James Quandt that was part of the original DVD boxset. Quandt’s essay is one of my favorite supplements of the year (even though it was made back in 2007).
  • Teshigahara and Abe: This is a 34:53-minute documentary that delves into the fruitful working relationship between Teshigahara and Abe.
  • Short Films
    • Hokusai (1953): Katsushika Hokusai was a wood-block artist who lived from 1760 to 1849. This lovely 22:55-minute short focuses on his life during the Edo shogunate and his work.
    • Ikebana (1956): Ikebana is the art of flower arranging, and this is a 32:28-minute documentary on the art, focused primarily on the Sogetsu School of Ikebana and its founder.
    • Tokyo 1958 (1958): This is Teshigahara’s 24:00-minute portion of an omnibus film he made with Susumu Hani, Zenzo Matsuyama, Yoshiro Kawazu, Kyushiro Kusakabe, Kanzaburo Mushanokoji, Sadamu Maruo, Ryuichiro Sakisaka, and Masahiro Ogi. The film is a news-reel style look at the largest city in the world.
    • Ako (1965): Ako, running 28:41 minutes, is also a portion from an omnibus film, this one commissioned by the National Film Board of Canada. “Ako” is a portentous day-in-the-life of a young girl as she interacts with her friends and co-workers.
  • The disc also comes with a trailer and included in the package is a nice booklet containing an essay, “Shifting Sand,” by Audie Bock and an interview with Teshigahara by Max Tessier.
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