Woman in the Dunes (1964)
August 31, 2015 8:01 AM - Subscribe

An entomologist and educator visiting a poor seaside village misses the last bus back to Tokyo, and some of the local villagers offer him a place to stay: the home of a young woman, whose house is located at the bottom of a sand pit accessible only by ladder. (Available to stream commercial-free to Hulu subscribers here, and to rent from iTunes and Amazon.)

Part of the Criterion on Hulu film club. If you're not a Hulu subscriber, we discuss a second film each week that's free to non-subscribers. More info here.
posted by Ian A.T. (10 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Watched the first 45 minutes of this through my fingers. "Please don't turn into Audition, please don't turn into Audition..."
posted by Ian A.T. at 8:02 AM on August 31, 2015

This is the only foreign art film I've ever gotten my mother to sit through, and she still brings it up roughly once a month. A brilliant film, and surprisingly accessible to those who don't normally watch this sort of thing.
posted by One Second Before Awakening at 9:03 AM on August 31, 2015

The original novel by Kobo Abe is fantastic too. I mean, just look at this sentence: "The morning, pressing its face, like the belly of a snail, against the windowpane, was laughing at him."
posted by One Second Before Awakening at 9:04 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

The soundtrack by Toru Takemitsu nailed this one for me. So creepy.
posted by hoodrich at 9:08 AM on August 31, 2015

Ok, so I've mentioned this movie when we were discussing The Naked Island and it's without a doubt one of my favorite movies of all time.

I'll try to explain why and give some thoughts on the movie:

Starting from where the description above leaves off, it quickly dawns on the man that his stay might not have been for a single night but he’s forced to stay indefinitely. After being aggressively reluctant towards his new forced-upon commitment of shoveling sand, he eventually caves in and helps the woman to remove the sand from the ever filling pit. The work they are fulfilling feels like a reframing on the myth of Sisyphus, and while the woman attends to her duties like it was meaningful work, the man, the (self-styled) scholar, sees this as an unworthy plight that doesn’t utilize his true strengths. In this, for him seemingly pointless task, lies the central question of Woman in the Dunes, poignantly brought forward by the man during one of those shoveling sessions by asking, “Are you shoveling sand to live or are you living to shovel sand?”.

At which point I asked myself, what am I?
Sure, the setup of Dunes seems a bit ridiculous (another reason to applaud the people behind the scenes that made it work so nicely) and may be only roughly comparable to the real-life jobs we attend to, but provided they too are stricken by repetitive tasks, little pay-off for oneself in terms of meaning, let alone self-fulfillment, or maybe aren’t even benefiting to a community of people, it's not inconceivable to feel like you yourself are trapped in a pit shoveling sand day after day. A feeling made literal in this book/movie.

At least that's how I felt when I first watched this movie. It felt to me like a spiritual ancestor of Groundhog Day, another favorite of mine.

However, I felt the ending in Dunes was a bit more closer to life. This odd decision of "I can always still escape tomorrow." feels like both, accepting and defeated, to me.

Plus, there's a whole lot of other things that make this movie beautiful:
+ the cinematography is gorgeous, especially how the cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa staged/shot the sand. I've read this comparison somewhere that in this movie the sand feels alive and flows like water.
+ Or you know, semen. As cut into the love scene of the two lead characters.
+ The aforementioned soundtrack by Toru Takemitsu is so wonderfully eerie. I love it.

Anyway, thanks for the pick!
I will do my best to join in more often.
posted by bigendian at 11:48 AM on August 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

Love it. Saw it maybe 30 years ago and it has always stayed with me . Total trigger seeing it posted here. Probably my first exposure to Japanese surrealism.
posted by unliteral at 5:51 AM on September 1, 2015

The thing I liked most about this is how, even though it's obviously allegorical, it works as a story first. The setup might be a bit fanciful, but nothing "breaks the rules" of the film-world just to make the allegory hit home harder.

(In contrast, imagine if this were a European film from the same time period and all the laughable, dated, overbearing metaphors it would employ to get the same point across. Like in the last scene all the villagers would be dressed like bankers and reading the Financial Times and Niki would discover he'd been on a soundstage the whole time, etc.)

I'm not one of those viewers who decides that a character is an idiot and an asshole if they don't do everything perfectly, but having said that, it was really interesting how determined Teshigahara (and Abe) were to make Niki unsympathetic. I was pretty understanding of his behavior, considering everything he'd been through, but man I almost lost it when he knocked the beads out of his companion's hands. She just wants a radio, you prick, let her have it. She lives in a hole in the fucking ground, for Christ's sake.

For me, Kyōko Kishida was the real star of the film, with her heartbreaking and moving performance. I usually watch these films a couple times, but this one will be hard to revisit for a while. She starred in Teshigahara's followup as well: The Face Of Another, which is also based on an Abe book (and is also on Hulu).

In fact, the only thing I wanted from the ending of the film was some sort of indication that her character was okay, that she was living with him again and that he'd come back to the pit out of concern or even affection for her. I understand why there's no hint of it there—the metaphor is stronger if the implication is that he came back to the hole because he'd made himself forget his former life—but I guess I'm just a big softie.
posted by Ian A.T. at 12:01 PM on September 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

As a man, I always felt that this film was about commitment and its attendant fears. A sort of zen-like refocusing being one way, maybe the best way, maybe the only way, to be at peace with life.
posted by Chitownfats at 9:49 AM on September 3, 2015

The movie lost me a little when The Man couldn't escape. The Tottori dunes just aren't that big. Though they were somewhat bigger 50 years ago than in the photo from that site. Now the prefecture is fighting a losing battle to save them. Especially since more than a million people come to see them every year.

It lost me again during the scene where the villagers tell The Man he can have parole if he'll have sex with The Woman for their amusement. That certainly puts the tourist information website for Tottori prefecture in a different light. I wonder if Japanese people make jokes about it the way Amerians do about Deliverance and North Georgia?

Still, it's a hell of a picture. I completely understand the comparisons with The Naked Island. Sisyphean is a word that could be used to describe either movie. Plus all the great photography. Not only of the sand, but shots like The Man staring down into the water and the scene above him slowly resolving.

In any event, I appreciate this one getting picked. Thanks for suggesting it, bigendian.

P.S. I write "The Man" rather than Jumpei Niki because for most of the movie, much like the book as David Mitchel points out in his "Rereading" review for The Guardian from 2006, we don't actually have a name for him.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:59 AM on September 4, 2015

Holy mackerel, that was gorgeous. I am ashamed to admit that this has been in my queue for a while, but I'd been passing it up because, like a doofus, I was assuming it was going to be some thing about a sexy siren lady leading men to their doom or something. It wasn't that at all, though. In fact, it was so much the opposite that if I didn't know better, I might have thought it was made by a woman.

I did not expect her to be such a sympathetic character, and I could not have predicted how beautifully crafted and evocative it was. Every single shot was composed so perfectly, it moved so fluidly from micro- to macro- perspectives and back again, and the contrast between the slow, uncomfortable, oppressive days and the I guess industry of the nighttime just plonked me right into the middle of the story.

It's definitely one of those movies that's going to be knocking around in my head for a while.

Thanks, bigendian. I am really glad I watched this.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:15 AM on September 4, 2015

« Older Avatar: The Last Airbender: Th...   |  Movie: A Field in England... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments