Woman in the Dunes (1964)    3 Stars

“The most provocative picture ever made.”

Woman in the Dunes (1964)

Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara

Cast:  Eiji Okada, Kyôko Kishida, Hiroko Itô

Synopsis: An entomologist searching for insects by the seaside is trapped by local villagers into living with a widow whose life task is digging up sand for them, and eventually develops strong feelings for her.




Junpei (Eiji Okada) is an amateur entomologist on a three day break from Tokyo who wanders the sand dunes in search of insects in the hope of finding an unknown species that will put his name in the text books. In an ironic foreshadowing of what is to come we see Junpei idly toying with his quarry before placing it in a jar for safekeeping until he can pin it to his display board. After missing the last bus out of the desert, Junpei accepts an invitation from local villagers to spend the night in one of their homes. He’s escorted to a house that sits in a deep sand dune, and which can only be accessed by use of a rope ladder. The home is occupied by a young widow (Kyoko Kishida), who fans Junpei as he eats the food she has prepared for him. That night, Junpei awakens to find the woman shovelling sand in the middle of the night. Later still, he watches her as she sleeps, her naked body covered in a fine film of sand, her face covered by a towel.

The following morning, Junpei attempts to leave but discovers that the rope ladder has been removed and that he has been imprisoned by the villagers. His fate is to help the woman to shovel the sand each night to prevent it from swallowing the home and then engulfing the next house in the village. Enraged by his imprisonment, Junpei initially refuses to dig the sand and binds the woman until the villagers set him free. But when they withhold the couple’s food and water rations, Junpei is forced to release her and to give in to their demands. While Junpei continues to plan his escape, he forms a sexual relationship with the woman.

For Woman in the Dune, director Hiroshi Teshigahara succeeded in making the sand that surrounds and threatens to engulf the couple the film’s third character; a creeping, insidious presence, always moving, always threatening, it towers over Junpei and the widow both literally and figuratively. The film’s story, which has its roots in the Greek legend of Sisyphus, who was forced to repeatedly roll a boulder up a mountainside only to see it roll back down before he reached the mountain’s peak, can be read as an allegory for life itself. A trap of our own design, wrought by ennui and pride, against which we futilely rail before ultimately, inevitably, resigning ourselves to our fate. ‘Do you shovel to survive, or survive to shovel?’ Junpei asks the widow at one point, and it is a question each of us could ask of ourselves. His entrapment at first seems horrific, an abuse of his rights and freedom, but was he ever really free? Junpei journeyed to the remote area to escape from Tokyo, no matter how briefly. He ponders the role — and intrusion – of identity cards in modern life, and recalls an argument with a woman which reveals him to be a somewhat shallow character, a fact borne out by his desire to achieve some kind of mortality by finding a previously undiscovered beetle so that his name will appear in a text book.

Based upon the novel by Kobo Abe, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, Woman in the Dunes combines all the elements of a thriller (the attempts at escape made by a hero who is held against his will) with a deeper, existential contemplation of the human condition, identity and conformism. The cinematography by Hiroshi Segawa is truly beautiful (despite most of the film taking place in a deep pit), and is so immersive that you can almost feel the grains of sand clinging to your skin, while Toru Takemitsu’s discordant score provides a suitably ominous backdrop. Woman in the Dunes is often a bleak and despairing movie, but it’s shot through with a sensuousness, beauty and hope that means it is never depressing.

(Reviewed 10th December 2012)