Thoughts on life after the PhD
(Note: I’m spending some time during the inter-semester break catching up on unseen films and unread books & articles, and will be using this space to get some thoughts about them down on paper [not literally on paper, but you know].)
Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Woman in the Dunes is an amazing piece of filmmaking. It’s that rare blend of artistic visuals and compelling narrative that manages not to shortchange either—you’re sucked in by the story, but in the meantime you’re able to appreciate some absolutely stunning images, not to mention remarkable set pieces and visual effects for a film made in the 1960s. It’s an arthouse film that never feels pretentious, a story that’s obviously a parable but with characters and a setting that feel real and immediate.
I remember reading Abe Kōbō’s novel for the first time about ten years ago and being blown away, but also feeling a deep sense of revulsion. This was a novel that did a very, very good job of describing what it was like for two people to be constantly covered in grit—bodies covered in sand and sweat, constantly brushing sand out of their hair, sand falling into their beds and the cracks in the ceiling, brushing it off of their food. It was viscerally real, and as someone who’s always been a bit squeamish about dirt, it stuck with me.
Hiroshi Teshigahara’s film, though, places Kōbō’s story so squarely within the realm of myth and parable that the close-up images of skin covered in sand take on an aesthetic quality. You can still imagine the gritty, unpleasant feeling, but it becomes just another piece of the bizarre world that the characters inhabit.
(Note: If you haven’t seen the film, stop reading and go watch it. Don’t read about it, just watch it—the effect is best if you can just watch the story unfold without knowing what’s coming.)
The film opens with shots of a man (Eiji Okada, star of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour) climbing up and down sand dunes as discordant music plays in the background. He’s a teacher from Tokyo who’s come to the countryside to collect insect specimens. Having missed the last bus back to town, he’s offered a place to stay for the night by some local villagers. He descends by rope ladder to a house surrounded on all sides by walls of shifting sand. In the house is a woman (Kyōko Kishida) who serves him dinner and speaks cryptically about why he’s there—he corrects her when she mentions what he’ll do “the day after tomorrow,” saying that he’ll be gone in the morning. As night falls she goes outside to shovel sand into buckets which are then hoisted up above by the villagers.
In the morning the man discovers that the rope ladder is gone. Initially confused, he asks the woman to send for the villagers, but it soon becomes clear that they’ve trapped him: he must help the woman shovel sand so that her house—and the entire village—isn’t swallowed by the dunes.
The story’s logic doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t supposed to—of course endlessly digging sand that will only continue to bury the village is a Sisyphean task. Of course the villagers should just abandon their slowly disappearing homes and move somewhere else. But the woman’s reasons for remaining—and ultimately, the man’s reasons for not trying to escape—are heartbreakingly logical.
Akira Lippit’s “Atomic Light: Shadow Optics” points out some fascinating details about The Woman in the Dunes’ atom bomb-related imagery (the film is set in an utterly desolate landscape, and at one point there’s a close-up of the protagonist’s watch, which is stopped at 8:15, the moment that the bomb exploded). Though we are given clues that the story takes place in the modern world—the man mentions a bus and says he is from Tokyo—the bleached and barren visuals give the sense of being nowhere, or miles away from anything resembling civilization.
The film’s combination of surreal imagery and sound serves as a fascinating backdrop to the story, but it also IS the story—when images of the woman’s nude body are layered over images of shifting waves of sand, we start to realize that there’s very little that separates the woman from the dunes. (Akira Lippit points out that the film’s title, “suna no onna,” could also be translated as “the sand woman.”)The famous opening sequence, which shows a mess of fingerprints and inkan stamps layered over the opening credits as ominous music accompanies shots of the man climbing sand dunes, drives home the disconnect between the man’s pitiful claims—“I’m registered with the city office!”—and the indifference of the landscape.
The performances are incredible. Kyōko Kishida embodies her role so completely that you half wonder if the director simply happened upon her in her cottage and started filming. Her large eyes have a perpetually haunted look, even when she’s putting on a cheerful front. And yet at times she IS cheerful—she has accepted her situation so completely that she seems content.
Nearly fifty years after it was filmed, The Woman in the Dunes remains a potent allegory—for our slavish devotion to the status quo, for the ephemeral nature of human existence, for the pointlessness of tasks that seem incredibly significant. What sets it apart, though, is the very real story at its center, of two human beings caught up in forces beyond their control. The philosophical questions that the film explores are powerful, its images stunning, but at its heart it’s the narrative—the characters, the brilliant performances by the actors, and their painful existences—that makes it memorable.
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