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Woman of the dunes aka The Woman in the Dunes / Suna no onna Japan 1964

Posted by keith1942 on November 9, 2016

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I had seen this film a couple of times before and I was able to revisit it when it was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of a Leeds International Film Festival retrospective celebrating the ‘film soundtrack’. The film is certainly a favourite that does enjoy re-releases. It reportedly did well at the Japanese box office. On its international release it garnered the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

In terms of soundtrack the film has both distinctive sound and music. The score was composed by Takemitsu Toru, a colleague of the director Teshigahara Hiroshi. The music is electronic and discordant and emphasises the avant-garde style of the film. At certain points in the film noise is used, seemingly amplified, on the soundtrack. The film was produced by the director under Teshigahara Productions and distributed by Toho. There was a ‘road show’ version released in Japan that ran 147 minutes, longer then the international release at 127 minutes. The film was adapted from a novel by Abe Kōbō, and a another variant on the title is ‘sand woman’.

The basic plot involves a man (Okada Eiji): only at the end of the film do we learn his actual name Junpei Niki. He is an amateur etymologist and has taken three days holiday to visit the sea-side near Tokyo in order to collect specimens. Late in the afternoon he is told by local villagers that the last bus has left but that he can have accommodation for night in a local house. This turns out to be that of a widow (Kishida Kyoko), and is situated in steep sided pit in the sand dunes. When he tries to leave next morning he discovers that the rope ladder out the pit has been removed and that the sand cliffs of the pit are impossible to climb. He learns that the villagers have deliberately lured him to this spot and trapped him there in order to assist the widow in coping with the shifting sand. The sand accumulates and drifts everywhere and as it seeps into the pit it endangers the widow’s wooden hut. More importantly he learns that if her pit collapses it will endanger all the houses in the village.

It seems that this tactic is one regularly used by the villagers to preserve their habitat,

“the native place spirit is strong.”

Another women in the village has a trapped salesman. The widow has lost her husband and her daughter in a sand slide. The work to prevent further slides recurs every night as she and [eventually] the unwilling prisoner shovel sand into boxes that are hoisted up and taken away by the villagers. The widow tells the man that the villagers sell it ‘half-price’ as building material though it is actually unfit for this. When he suggests that a more efficient way of preventing sand erosion would be to plant trees she replies simply that

“it’s much cheaper this way”.

The man’s initial response is destructive. Then he ties up the woman and stops her nightly labours to remove the sand. But the villagers respond by cutting off the supplies of water, food, sake and cigarettes. Eventually he becomes a reluctant partner with the woman. The partnership develops to include sexual relations. The first coitus is a fairly violent affair on the part of both the man and the woman. But as he settles to become part of the labour force and the household the relationship becomes rather like a marriage.

However the man continues to try and escape. One night, with a makeshift rope and grapple, he manages to climb out of the pit. As he searches for a way from the sand dunes the villagers pursue him. Then he is trapped in quicksand and the villagers have to rescue him. He is unceremoniously returned to the pit and the house.

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He then constructs a trap for the crows that circle and pounce on any food scraps. However, whilst he fails to trap a bird he discovers that he can collect water through capillary activity in the sand. He thus perfects a water collecting device. At this point it becomes apparent that the woman is pregnant. Signalling to the villagers with a torch on a long pole, the woman is hoisted to the surface and taken either to a doctor or a midwife. However, the villagers leave the rope ladder in place and the man is able to climb out of the pit. He walks down the dunes and looks out at the sea. Then he returns to the pit. The audience can assume that he remains with the woman and their new-born child. In an internal voice he rationalises that he will finish his water collecting device: he can leave at another time.

The film depends to a great deal on the relationship between the man and the woman: to a lesser degree on that with the other villagers. The film plays with the classic distinction between city and countryside, though we never see the city, we only hear the characters refer to it. Initially the man’s attitude is one of superiority. He assumes that the villagers are simple and naïve. This is his undoing when he first meets them because he fails to realise their real purpose. Once in the sand pit with the woman he treats her with a certain contempt. She explains to him that the sand attracts water and this rots the woodwork of the house. He dismisses this as a ignorant misunderstanding on her part. Later in the film, when he realises that she is right, he is able to develop his water collection. She also has a assumed reverence for the city, mentioning Tokyo several times as a place of superior facilities and attractions. When not working at shifting sand she carefully threads sand grains into necklaces which she will sell in order to make money to buy a radio.

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The man’s situation, imprisoned in this pit, is paralleled by his activity as an etymologist. He carefully collects specimens at the start of the film placing them in his receptacle and later pinning them out in his collector boxes. At times the camera carefully contrasts the insects in their boxes with the man in the box like structure of the wooden house. In a key moment in the relationship the man empties his collection, throwing it on the fire, so that the woman can use the frames for her jewellery.

There is notable erotic charge to their relationship. At the beginning of the film the man sits alone in a ruined boat on the beach. He remembers a woman and her figure and voice are superimposed on the shot. She chides him for the failing in their relationship.

“you criticised me … I argued too much.”

One critic suggests that she is/was his wife, though this is not apparent in the English sub-titled version. When the man is them imprisoned in the pit with the woman he takes her for granted. The first night of captivity sees her sleeping semi-naked in the hut, and the drifting sand moulds her figure. But this apparently does not affect him. Then later, when his emotions are charged by his frustrations, sake and a violent shake from sand falls, he impetuously grabs and embraces her. She responds and we witness a fairly violent bout of love making. We can presume that this sexual relations, once started, continues. And in the latter stages of the film the woman is pregnant.

The plot of the film is linear and recognisable though also unconventional. However, it is carefully encased in an overall film whose style is unconventional, ambiguous and extremely reflective. So at the opening we see of close-ups of insects accompanied by natural sounds. This sets up the theme of entrapment which is central to the story. These shot intersperse with the simple shots of the credits which are adorned with official-looking stamps. Throughout the film sequences of the characters interaction are intercut with shots of sand and sand dunes. These shorts empathise the material texture of the sand and also form abstract patterns. So at times the shifting sand resembles the movement of water, a central motif in the film. At other times the folds of the dunes resemble part of the human body, part of the erotic theme in the film.

The cinematography by Segawa Hiroshi brings out aspects of this. It is shot in crisp black and white film, with high contrast and in the Academy Ratio. The shots tend to deep focus, so we are aware of both the foreground and background. There are a great many long shots which emphasise the placement of the character in the environment. And Segawa also uses the occasional high angle shot which feeds into a sense of omniscience and relates to the theme of containment. There are many extreme close-ups, both of the characters but also of the sand which becomes a character in the story. Takemitsu Toro’s electronic score adds to both the moment of intensity and to the abstract quality of the film. So the music is occasional, but notable when the relationship becomes emotional. Alongside this there are non-melodic chords accompanying the shots of the sand and the dunes.

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The ambiguities in the plot leave questions about the villagers and the woman. Is the rope ladder being left an omission or have the savvy villagers figured that the man will no longer attempt to leave. And the woman’s pregnancy is unexplained. it may be the man’s. However what detail there is about dates queries this. At the end of the film we learn that the man went missing in August. At one point the woman comments he has been there three months. When the pregnancy occurs the woman states that the signs started in October: we already know from comments that December is coming when the wind stirs up the sand. So either there has been an ellipsis of getting on for 12 months or the man is not the father? In the latter case is this also part of the villagers’ manipulations?

A further theme emerges at the end of the film. In the opening, when the man wanders alone on the beach he, at one point, muses on the different certificate and identity forms required in modern life. This relates back the official stamps that decorate the opening credits. Then at the close of the film a voice over accompanies shots of an official form, informing us that Junpei Niki went missing in 1956 and that in 1963, after a gap of seven years, he was legally termed a missing person. It is left to viewer to decide if this is a flight from the demands of modern urban living or a celebration of re-alignment with nature. I would suggest that both themes relate to a sense of freedom. The musings on certification suggest that Junpei feels trapped in his ordinary urban life and work. When he is imprisoned he is trapped in a different way. However by the film’s end he has chosen to stay and work in the pit. The complication is the nature of his new community, which seems to have its own containment and manipulations. Meanwhile the officialdom of his previous existence has removed his chains by deeming him absent, presumed dead. One critic suggested that the film’s story is “is 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.” There is an element of truth here, But Junpei moves beyond this in his choice at the climax of the film.

Teshigahara had studied painting [like Mizoguchi] and made some short documentaries. However, as with other directors identified as a Japanese New Wave, he moved to less conventional films. His preceding film, also scripted by Abe Kōbō, included elements of the kwaidan eiga [ghost film]. There is a ghost-like quality to Woman of the Dunes. It is clearly not a realist film, and works like an allegory. But given the narration is set -up by the male character and the impersonal voice that ends the film it could be an imagined story.

 

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