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Woman in the Dunes (Teshigahara Hiroshi 1964)


Woman in the Dunes
[Suna na Onna]

Genre: Existential Drama

review in one breath

Here is a visually fascinating tale providing commentary on the meaning and meaninglessness of the human condition. The imagery is realistic and tactile throughout, and leads to a sense of amazement at the bizarre trap our main character suddenly finds himself in. This trap becomes a metaphor for the often meaningless social rituals contemporary souls find themselves locked into.

Like many living in bustling cities such as Tokyo, our unnamed protagonist pursues a hobby through which he escapes from his hectic, over-structured life. Hoping that discovery of a new variety of Tiger Beetle might pave the way to a modicum of fame and thereby permanent escape from his tedium, he hunts bug species deep within the dunes along the Japanese sea shore. On this day, having missed the last bus back to the city, the man accepts the town folks' invitation to stay the night at the home of a woman, which incidentally rests at the bottom of a large cavern within the sand. In the dark of night, he descends a sheer cliff of eroding sand by rope ladder and is hospitably welcomed by the rather pretty woman living there. After feeding him and preparing his bed, the woman heads out into the night to shovel sand into large buckets which the town's people haul up the side of the cavern. The man learns that the woman will shovel all night, every night in a race to save her home from being swallowed whole by the sand descending into the cavern. The next morning, as the man prepares for his return to his bug hunting, he finds the woman sleeping, naked and glistening in sand. He lingers on the sight. Once outside and in the daylight the man is struck by the sheer walls of sand surrounding the house, and upon further inspection finds that the rope ladder has been hauled up to the top of the cliff, removing all means of departure. Several desperate attempts to scale the walls of sand prove utterly fruitless and nearly bury him in an amazing (real) avalanche scene.

The man soon learns that he has been intentionally placed in the pit by the town's folk in order to aid the woman in shoveling the sand. When asked why the she does not simply abandon the house in the cavern she explains, "If we get buried, the house next door is in danger". This domino theory of survival among the town's people is reinforced by a strict rationing of food and, most importantly, water, based on whether or not the nightly shoveling is maintained. The man's initial refusal to participate in the meaninglessness of his new situation results in a torturous dehydration amplified by searing sun and ever-encroaching sand. As hours, days, weeks and months pass, the man must increasingly come to terms with the formidable walls of sand, the cruelty of the town's folk, and the seductiveness of the woman. Though significantly more confined, the man finds himself in a new tedium not unlike his earlier life in the city, and seeks to discover avenues of self-fulfillment. In this pursuit, the man finds himself transcending the initial dilemma of the pit and escape, to face the more primal issues of meaning and meaninglessness.

The movie contains several interesting parallels tying the tale together. On his first night in the home, the man finds utterly ridiculous the woman's claim that the moisture of the sand eventually rots everything, and yet it is this very realization which serves as the core of the man's discovery of self-meaning in the end. The man's disgust at the woman's willingness to participate in the shoveling simply to save the next house over is mirrored in the woman's reply as to whether it is unethical to sell sub-standard sand for construction projects in the city, thereby endangering the lives city dwellers. And the man's escape from meaninglessness through a hobby involving discovery reappears in the tale's end as the man establishes his ultimate self-meaning through similar discovery.

This film evokes images and feelings which will linger long after viewing and is definitely worth seeing.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Very interesting commentary on modern life told in terms of the survival of a poor rural Japanese village. No standard violence. Some struggling between the man and woman, and one scene that amounts to a very unsuccessful attack by the man on the woman, thwarted by a well placed knee to the groin! Let's just say this woman sleeps in the nude with guests in the house! Overall not a great deal of nudity, but the seductive/erotic factor is code red! Yowza! The bizarre trap set for the man by the town's folk is so realistic and plausible that you will walk away from this movie with a heartfelt distrust of any skinny tanned Japanese men you happen to meet while hiking in the dunes!

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