When I read that Criterion Collection was releasing a new Blu-Ray edition of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 film Woman in the Dunes, I tracked down and read the 1962 novel by Kōbō Abe on which it is based. I thought I might write about the Criterion release, and I knew that if I did, I’d want to comment on the ways the screen version differs (or not) from the page version. I’d seen the film many years earlier, but had never read the novel, although I’d read some of Abe’s other books.
As it turns out, there’s not a whole lot to say in comparing and contrasting book to film here. Abe wrote the screenplay based on his own novel, and Teshigahara was extremely faithful to the written version of the story in adapting it for the big screen. The two men were close associates at the time. They were leading members of a circle of forward-thinking Japanese artists, and Teshigahara made three other movies from Abe’s books. This film is a true collaboration between the two men, rather than a case of a movie director taking an author’s novel and completely reshaping it through his or her own vision.
What can be said about the alteration of the story in its cinematic portrayal, though, and this is so much of what makes the movie memorable, is that Teshigahara used his considerable gift for visual artistry to take Abe’s very dense ideas and find ways to convey them through striking optical presentations. The avant-garde film is shot in a mesmerizing way, with several unexpected and stunning angles and illusory visual captures. It was nominated for two Oscars (Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director) and won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and the Grand Prix from the Belgian Film Critics Association.
The story of Woman in the Dunes is one that has given literary and film scholars a lot of room to construct various theories as to its meaning. A surreal tale that puts me in mind of Kafka’s novels The Trial and The Castle, it concerns a male schoolteacher from Tokyo who has a hobby of studying insects. On vacation from work, he visits a poor, remote seaside village, believing he will spot and capture some unusual bugs in the abundant sand there. He hopes he will make a find that will get his name in an entomology field guide.
The teacher encounters a resident of the village, and this man encourages the teacher to put up for the night in the hut of a local woman who lives alone. It's too late to catch a bus away from the area before morning, and there are no more formal accommodations for visitors in the humble area.
The teacher accepts this unlikely yet seemingly kindly offer, not knowing he is being put in a trap. The hut in which the woman resides is, like the others around it, way down below the group of surrounding massive sand dunes. So much sand falls into the huts that, to keep the peculiar abodes habitable, the people living in them have to shovel the sand for hours a day. They send it up to workers in the village, via buckets and rope ladders, and these people sell the sand to outsiders who periodically come and collect the stuff. In payment for their work in collecting the sand, the hut residents are given rations of water, food, and other necessities and wants. That’s how the odd community functions.
Now, the teacher is about to become a member of its system, as he is made prisoner in the woman’s hut. There is no way to get out of one of the huts once you go in, unless you have a ladder and/or the aid of the people up on the surface above the huts, and none of the villagers plan to give this man a ladder or any help in leaving. They want him to live with the woman (a widow whose husband and daughter were buried in a sandstorm some years before) and help her in her Sisyphus-like work with the unrelenting sand, permanently.
So what was Abe really after in telling this agonizing story that Teshigahara so skillfully adapted for the film? In one of the extras in the Criterion edition of the movie—a video essay by film scholar James Quandt—we hear some of the different theories espoused by those who have studied the novel and/or film and sought to define the tale’s intentions and messages. Is it mostly about identity, what really makes a person who they are and what happens to them if the facets that comprise their being are stripped away? The schoolteacher/lay entomologist, in becoming a captive in the sand hut, has lost everything that used to define who he was. So what’s really left of his being now?
Or, is it that the sand is meant to represent all of nature, or society at large, and the hut residents’ unending struggles in coping with it are illustrations of humanity’s ultimately futile efforts to contend with outer forces that are bigger than any of us? Did Abe want to say something about the uneasy relationships between city denizens and village dwellers? The schoolteacher and the poor woman who becomes his hut-mate are often in conflict with each other—his studied, cold ways rubbing wrong against her more primal, simple-minded yet world-wise mode of thinking and living.
Or, is the main thrust of the story about an individual’s need to forgo personal motivations in making contributions to the society to which he or she belongs? This important factor of Japanese life is a matter intelligently elaborated on by scholar Audie Bock in her essay that’s inside the Criterion booklet. In the story of Woman in the Dunes, if any of the hut residents stops shoveling the sand for a long period, the whole set of huts will collapse. So, by doing the shoveling, you are protecting not only your own home, but those of your neighbors. And, this big city resident, who has come to this place in hopes of achieving individual recognition for his work in studying insects, is now forced to give up that and any other personal aims and just shovel the sand and accept whatever little pleasures and comforts he is allowed to have in this faraway, timeless society.
Another particularly Japanese subject to consider when attempting to deconstruct Woman in the Dunes, again touched on by Bock in her essay, is that of disappearance—the impulse some have to vanish in a country where identities and whereabouts are so closely catalogued by authorities.
In the interview with Teshigarha, originally done for a book on Japanese cinema and reprinted in the Criterion booklet, the director says of Woman in the Dunes, “The sand represents for me the society in which we live. Usually, sand and dunes are a placid, romantic landscape, which may appear to us as somewhat fantastic. But in my film, I tried to highlight the other aspect of sand, that which blocks, which interferes with human activity, because this material also has a harmful side…”
So, there you have it, from the director’s own words. Personally, I find the story to be teasingly elusive in its intentions. In the novel, Abe, as a fiction writer should do, masterfully stands back and simply tells the story plainly and lets the reader make of it what he or he wishes. Similarly, in the film, Teshigahara shows us the pictures that illustrate the tale and allows those images and the story itself to have the kind of room that makes the film, like the book, the dense, meditative, puzzling tale that it is.
For me, the theme of individual identity and freedoms conflicting with societal pressures is the most prominent of those involved. Like Kafka’s The Trial, it’s the story of an individual who is forced into a ridiculous yet overpowering and independence-stripping situation by powers that are bizarre but stronger than him.
Teshigahara (1927-2001) led an interesting life. He was the heir of a prominent Japanese school of flower arranging. For a time after his father’s death, he fought his destiny and did not take on the leadership of the institution, instead making his films. But, what he had learned about the possibilities of the transcendental beauty of visual arrangements was something he clearly put to use in his movie making, as evidenced by some of the breathtaking sets in Woman in the Dunes. Later in his life, Teshigahara gave up filmmaking in favor of assuming the leadership of the flower arrangement school, although he did come full circle and make a few more movies in later years.
Teshigahara’s collaborative relationship with Abe is explored in a documentary that accompanies the Criterion release of Woman in the Dunes, with the movie’s set designer and producer interviewed in this featurette, along with various film authorities. Another bonus feature on the Blu-Ray is a set of four short films done by Teshigahara—nothing remarkable in those, really, but certainly they will be of interest to anyone particularly interested in the director’s career in film-making.
Whatever you make of the meaning(s) behind Woman in the Dunes, it’s a captivating film that engages a viewer’s imagination, philosophical outlook, and visual sensibilities. Keeping a movie interesting when it mostly just shows two characters and a bunch of sand was not an easy thing to pull off, but Abe’s thought-provoking story—channeled through Teshigahara’s keen visual artistry and aided by superb acting from Jumpei Niki (the schoolteacher) and especially Kyoko Kishida (the woman), as well as sublime soundtrack music by Toru Takemitsu—makes this a film that will arrest your attention while you watch it and stick in your brain for a long time after.
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Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and reviews and articles of/on books, music, and film. His work has appeared in 25+ publications since 2008. His pieces on crime fiction have also been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, The Life Sentence, Stark House Press, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina.