The most provocative picture ever made.
Japanese schoolteacher and entomologist Niki Junpei (Eiji Okada, Lady Snowblood) wanders into the desert to examine the sand dunes and collect insects. He pauses to take a nap, loses track of time and misses the last bus home. A local man offers to give Junpei shelter, and leads him to the home of a woman (Kyoko Kishida, The Human Condition) whose home is located in the middle of a large sand quarry. Junpei spends the evening talking to the woman, and learns that she is a widow: her husband and child were killed by a sandstorm. She spends her days digging sand: partially because the village sells it to be used in concrete, and partially to prevent her home from being buried.
The next morning, Junpei discovers that he’s walked into a trap: the rope ladder he used to descend into the quarry has been removed by the villagers, and climbing out proves a futile endeavor. He interrogates the woman, who has no real answers for him. Until he can find a way out of this mess, Junpei is trapped. Meanwhile, he must find a way to make his living conditions a bit more tolerable.
This is a bizarre scenario, and no real explanations are given for any of the film’s big questions. We don’t know why the villagers decided to trap Junpei, how the village economy works or why somebody decided to build a house in this oh-so-inconvenient spot in the first place. Things are what they are, and Junpei must deal with them.
You may roll your eyes when I say that the film is a metaphor for the daily struggle of life, but part of what makes this particular metaphorical tale so much more effective than many other is that it so perfectly matches the mundanity, mysterious beauty, inexplicable strangeness and overwhelming futility of life so precisely. The situation is both simple and beyond comprehension: the man knows what he must do, but not why he must do it. He must dig sand, but what’s the point? Exactly.
It’s a testament to director Hiroshio Teshigahara’s artistry that the film itself manages to attain precisely the same balance of straightforward simplicity and hypnotic, sometimes maddening elusiveness. It’s a simple fable (based on a novel by Kobo Abe) presented as complex visual poetry; a straightforward narrative presented with arthouse elegance. The sand is such an overwhelming presence – so frequently intruding on every scene, even the most intimate ones – that it eventually begins to feel like the central character. It cannot be ignored or removed… but perhaps it can be managed?
Back to the villagers for a moment: what do they represent, exactly? Are they God, forcing Junpei into some sort of purgatory? Are they the wealthy, creating and guarding a system that allows them to thrive at the expense of the less fortunate? If Junpei gives up on attempting to defeat them and simply decides to focus on the existence he has been handed, is he sacrificing something essential? Or is he merely being practical given the hard truths of his situation? These are tough questions. In one way or another, we all have to confront them.
Woman in the Dunes (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection offers an excellent 1080p/Full Frame transfer. The level of detail is exceptional throughout, and depth is impressive. There are no prominent scratches or flecks present, and the film generally looks quite strong for its age. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is simple but sharp and clean, presenting the dialogue and striking atonal score with clarity. Supplements include the documentary Teshigahara and Abe (spotlighting the relationship between the director and the author), four Teshigahara short films (Hokusai, Ikebana, Tokyo and Ako), a video essay on the film from film scholar James Quandt, a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Audie Bock.
Woman in the Dunes is a mysterious gem. Highly recommended.