Woman in the Dunes ★★★★½

Some lingering thoughts...

After missing the last bus home following a day trip to the seashore, an entomologist – Niki Jumpei - is offered to stay with a young widow in her ramshackle house at the bottom of a vast sandpit. When he tries to leave the next morning, he quickly discovers that the locals have other plans for him by forcing him to stay with a task of shoveling the ever-advancing dunes that threaten to destroy the village. The locals sell sand to construction companies, but because their sand is salty, it does not meet the quality required so the locals have to sell it at a cheaper price - The widow told him that as she continuously scooped and shoveled sand every night because if she stopped, the house would collapse. “Why should we worry about what will happen to others?” Jumpei asked her.

The woman and Jumpei are prisoners of the village and the village is the prisoner, chained around the ankles, of the society’s shabbiness itself. The big eat the small. They live on the edge of life; they are oppressed and belittled by the world on the other side of the dunes. Hiroshi Teshigahara created a tangible slippery texture based on sand, flesh and water and how the three of them become, subsequently, homogenized. Water seeps into the sand, the same grains of sand that touch the flesh. This is Hiroshi’s limbo of humanity in disguise that establishes the monotonous life of a prisoner who is “coerced” to attach himself to this mysterious woman – a symbol of marriage. Their daily routine is simply waking up, eat and drink, shoveling sand, having sex, and sleep. “One could not do without the repetition of life, like the beating of the heart, but it was also true that the beating of the heart was not all there was to life.” Life is a pit of sand, from which there is no escape, only to repeat the same tepid cycle and routine - again and again.

Why did the young widow not try to resist the dictatorship of her fellow villagers? She wanted a radio to follow the news, as an expression of her own desire to get to know the real world, where her “tenant”, Jumpei, came from. Why did she spend so much time shoveling sand in the fear that her house would collapse but not find a way to escape her situation? She did not need freedom, or she did not know what freedom meant, given the context that her husband and child were killed in a sandstorm. Perhaps freedom to her meant nothing. It is futile. A philosophical question comes to mind, “do you shovel to survive, or survive to shovel?” She had no other option, there was no choice, to begin with, and the dunes were all she had left. And as for the man, his only wish was to get out of there. He wanted to climb up, unshackled, from the pit to see the sea. Only later, after he had failed to fulfill his fantasy, he secretly and finally realized that he should just accept his existence here, at the world’s bottom, with his free will crushed along with his soul.

The sand exudes an irresistible attraction in its inanimate eroticism. Sand in the couple’s rice bowls, water pots, clinging on their clothes, hair, nails, and flesh. Sand creates a prison for these two characters and for the viewers like an underground door built to trap us inside, swallow us into the belly of the earth. The woman spends most her time with the sand but the universe never seems to care about her. This somewhat harkens back to The Myth of Sisyphus, a figure who defied the Gods and Death only then to have himself punished by having to do a meaningless task that would last for eternity, which is pushing a rock up a mountain. Upon reaching the top, the rock would roll down again, leaving Sisyphus to start over. The viewers may feel dissatisfied with Woman in the Dunes, claiming that all of it amounts to nothing, but the woman is content and somewhat delighted with the useless suffering because she acknowledges the futility of her work and the certainty her fate would turn out to be.

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s parable about the working class is powerfully yet cryptically emphasized, especially in the illustration of the so-called “willpower” of each individual. A sensual amalgamation of styles, absurdity, ideas and metaphorical themes blanketed by Toru Takematsu’s bone-chilling score feels as though you were being completely engulfed in a trench coat of winter chills. Languorously poetic in the movement of projection of shapes and surface. We, as human, are all cursed figures, stuck inside a hopeless sandpit, like insects in a box, without a chance to escape our fate in these dunes called life.