One of the 1960s’ great international art-house sensations, Woman in the Dunes was for many the grand unveiling of the surreal, idiosyncratic world of Hiroshi Teshigahara. Eiji Okada plays an amateur entomologist who has left Tokyo to study an unclassified species of beetle found in a vast desert. When he misses his bus back to civilization, he is persuaded to spend the night with a young widow (Kyoko Kishida) in her hut at the bottom of a sand dune. What results is one of cinema’s most unnerving and palpably erotic battles of the sexes, as well as a nightmarish depiction of the Sisyphean struggle of everyday life—an achievement that garnered Teshigahara an Academy Award nomination for best director.
‘Woman in the Dunes’ is a 1964 Japanese film from celebrated avant garde director Teshigahara Hiroshi. Adapted from a novel by Kobo Abe with a jarring musical score from Toru Takemitsu, ‘Woman in the Dunes’ was crafted to be a stirring, mythic, cinematic event created to propel the “Japanese New Wave” film movement. Unlike anything from Kurosawa or Ozu, Teshigahara’s film catered to the arthouse rather than the movie house. ‘Woman in the Dunes’ is my favorite type of film in that the artistic sensibilities are lovingly displayed while simultaneously laying on subtext after subtext. It’s a brilliant film that deserves multiple viewings and will no doubt cause an argument or two over what this film is truly “about.”
Our film opens on sand dunes eroding softly from the wind. An amateur entomologist is hiking the desolate landscape in search of insects for his school. He wanders too far and after a quick nap misses his bus back to civilization. Locals inform him that he can stay the night in their village. Lowered by ladder off a sandy cliff he reaches a rustic home at the bottom of a sand pit. He is met by an excited woman who instantly welcomes him into the sandy abode. That night the teacher learns her husband and child were killed by a sand dune collapse. She leaves late in the night to shovel sand into buckets only for them to be lifted to the surface by the villagers. Confused, the teacher quickly realizes she is forced by the villagers to keep digging every night. It’s revealed that if the woman’s house is buried by the collapsing dune a domino effect would allow the entire village to be swallowed up by the sand.
The next morning when the teacher attempts to leave the dune the ladder is missing and the villagers don’t respond to his cries for help. “Shit! It was a trap!” he yells out realizing he’s been captured by the villagers. He rationalizes that his school will retrace his steps or that a rescue party will surely be on their way to save him. From the first meeting of the teacher and the woman it’s clear they’ll butt heads. The woman’s knowledge and experience is derived from nature while the teacher’s knowledge is from books and his urban life. This juxtaposition serves as a metaphor for our teacher’s dilemma: no matter how much he struggles to devise a way out of the pit, the sand always wins. As the time passes sexual tensions arise in the sandy rustic cabin. After seeing the woman glistening with sweat and speckled with sand he succumbs to her feminine wiles. With no clear reasoning for his capture or imprisonment, the teacher begins plotting an escape plan.
‘Woman in the Dunes’ is a tough film to pin down thematically because it poses many existential questions about survival, conformity, and identity. This is best illustrated with our main characters remaining nameless for the film. Their sense of identity and self is eroded away slowly not unlike the dunes in the film. The teacher begins a transformation in captivity that mirrors not only the insects he studies but also the struggles as a modern man. At the beginning of the film he rails against the role of identity in modern life. “Men and women are slaves to their fear of being cheated” he says about passports, certificates, and licenses which we use to identify ourselves constantly. It isn’t long before he is reduced from a modern man to an inhuman specimen meant for the enjoyment of the villagers looking down from above.
The cinematography is what really elevates this film for me. The constant interplay with shadow and light is hypnotic. Teshigahara portrays the encroaching sand as if it were rivers and pools in constant motion. Combined with the erratic musical scoring these images of creeping sand take on an otherworldly quality. I never knew that I could feel dread while watching sand pour over a cliff! Conveying the suspense, sexual tension, and psychological desperation using these shots made this film an engrossing experience for me. The intense close-ups of the insects the teacher finds are shown in such detail that you’d think David Attenborough should be narrating the footage. The detailed emphasis on sweat and sand covering human bodies adds to the sexual tension in ways that awkward dialogue could not. It’s this breathtaking imagery that builds upon the weird layers of this film keeping the viewer questioning everything.
Needless to say, the power of symbolism isn’t lost on this film! The experience of watching it is couched in your involvement with the storytelling. Each sustained shot requires you to search the frame and build upon the information Teshigahara provides. I really loved watching this movie if you can’t tell! ‘Woman in the Dunes’ is an impressive film with deep thematic layers and striking cinematography which challenges the viewer to look inward for the answers it never provides. So tell me, “Are you shoveling sand to live, or living to shovel sand?”
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
‘Woman in the Dunes’ arrives on Region A Blu-ray thanks to The Criterion Collection. The movie is pressed onto a BD50 disc housed in a transparent Criterion Blu-ray case with a film booklet. Disc opens to the Main Menu with the static image from the cover art along with the film’s jarring score playing underneath.
‘Woman in the Dunes’ comes with a 1080p HD transfer presented in the film’s original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. It should come as no surprise that the image on this Blu-ray is downright stunning. Criterion’s efforts to clean and restore this film even after previous DVD versions has provided us with an image transfer like no other. Individual grains of sand are easily discernable from one another. Fine detail on the insects burrowing into the dunes is clear as day! Contrast levels are solid throughout the feature with deep blacks and bright whites. Fine film grain is present without detracting from the film’s detailed images.
Criterion has supplied ‘Woman in the Dunes’ with an LPCM Japanese audio track and English subtitles. Dialogue comes through crystal clear even if the recorded volumes are a bit soft for my taste. Takemitsu’s haunting score not only complements the film but also the limited range of a mono track.
Film Booklet: A thick Criterion booklet with essays by film scholar Audie Bock and an interview with Teshigahara from 1978.
Video Essay (HD) (29:22) A video essay with film historian James Quandt from 2007.
Teshigahara and Abe: A Collaboration (HD) (34:53) Recorded for the Criterion Collection in 2006, this documentary details the relationship between director Hiroshi Teshigahara and writer Kobo Abe. Featuring interviews and archival photos this documentary also explores Japanese film history and its rebirth in the early 60’s with directors like Teshigahara.
Four Short Films:
Hokusai (1953) (HD) (22:55)
Ikebana (1956) (HD) (32:28)
Tokyo 1958 (1958) (HD) (24:00)
Ako (1965) (HD) (28:41)
Trailer (HD) (3:03)
Teshigahara’s landmark film ‘Woman in the Dunes’ is a cinematic rorschach test. The isolated setting, haunting score, and simple narrative invites the audience feel the sand between their toes as they struggle to understand the film’s messages. With a stunning A/V presentation rendering all previous versions obsolete and a host of enlightening extras The Criterion Criterion has assembled a brilliant Blu-ray package for ‘Woman in the Dunes’. Highly recommended.