Review: Woman in the Dunes – Suna no onna (1964)

Woman in the Dunes – Suna no onna (1964)

Directed by: Hiroshi Teshigahara | 147 minutes | drama, thriller | Actors: Eiji Okada, Kyôko Kishida, Hiroko Itô, Kôji Mitsui, Sen Yano, Ginzô Sekiguchi

Jumpei Niki (Eiji Okada) is a teacher and amateur entomologist who takes a few days off to search for insects on the Japanese coast. He hopes to discover a new species of beetle in the dunes that will make him famous. Because he missed the last bus home, a villager offers him to stay overnight in a nearby house. The sleeping place offered is located in a ten meter deep pit, and is only accessible via a rope ladder. The only resident is a young widow (Kyōko Kishida), who recently lost her husband and daughter in a sandstorm. When Jumpei makes his descent, the woman is filled with joy. Finally, there is another visitor in the cavern.

The next morning, Jumpei wakes up and wants to leave the house as planned. To his surprise, the ladder has disappeared. He suddenly realizes that he has become a prisoner. The reasons behind this are various. In the first place, he has to help the woman fill bags of sand, which the villagers will then sell on the black market. The village is having a hard time since more and more young people are moving to the big cities. Jumpei therefore needs to boost the production level. Secondly, he is also expected to take the role of the deceased husband. The woman is lonely and Jumpei will have to act as her lover. And the pit, that’s his new home, whether he likes it or not.

Thus begins the masterful ‘Woman in the Dunes’ by director Hiroshi Segawa. It is the second collaboration between Segawa and writer Kōbō Abe, having previously delivered the underrated ‘Pitfall’ (1962). ‘Woman in the Dunes’, based on Abe’s novel of the same name, is their undisputed showpiece. Since its release in 1964, the film has lost none of its original luster.

At first, the plot of ‘Woman in the Dunes’ seems quite simple. We have a certain expectation of our protagonist and cautiously predict how the titular woman will get involved in the story. However, nothing is as simple as it seems at first glance. From the very first minute there is a penetrating feeling of unease in the air. The photography dwells for a long time on remarkable details: countless close-ups of sand grains and insects, while Jumpei makes its way through the dunes like a minuscule organism. We follow him carefully and always at a distance, while the menacing music of Tōru Takemitsu makes its entrance. The musical accompaniment is both engaging and disturbing. It is an introduction to the atmosphere of the film, but above all a harbinger of what is to come.

Together with Jumpei, the viewer undergoes all kinds of emotional transitions while watching ‘Woman in the Dunes’. Jumpei’s first escape attempts are black-comic in nature. He tries again and again to clamber over the meters high sand masses, which then collapse under his weight just as quickly. His total powerlessness, in combination with the eccentric staging, works excellently as laughing material. However, the absurdity of his situation becomes less and less often humorous after a while, after which the seriousness of the situation creeps in. What if he never escapes? Is he doomed to spend the rest of his life in a pit? This is expressed in frustration, which is in contrast to the always positive mentality of the woman. She is shoveling sand all night with an inexhaustible smile. ”I do not get it. Doesn’t this all seem pointless to you? Do you shovel sand to live or do you live to shovel sand?” Jumpei asks her. For the woman, however, this is the most normal way of life that exists. Who is Jumpei, in his current position, to argue with that?

Besides the unparalleled tension and the various visual inventions (sand has never been used so ingeniously in a film), ‘Woman in the Dunes’ above all offers much food for thought. Comparisons can be drawn here with the work of Franz Kafka and Albert Camus, from which both Segawa and Abe have drawn inspiration throughout their careers. In particular Camus’s ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, in which the Greek hero Sisyphus is punished by the gods for pushing a rock up a mountain day after day, can be read as a striking parable. But the economic and cultural development of Japan in the second half of the twentieth century also plays a noticeable role. Jumpei, a former consumer and official, is gradually reduced to a desperate wild man. He does everything he can to return to the comforts of Western society, while he originally tried to escape it because of the aspirations surrounding his hobby. Jumpei – essentially a captive beetle – owes its fate to itself, which can be seen as a direct critique of the burgeoning consumer society.

‘Woman in the Dunes’ is an astute, yet wonderfully ambivalent viewing experience. It is a film about wanting to flee from reality, and a film about accepting one’s position in life. The film sometimes clings to comedy, only to plunge into psychological horror a little later. The fact that you can never quite put your finger on it makes the final result all the more fascinating. ‘Woman in the Dunes’ is a fascinating film that you will not easily forget.

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