Japan’s Modernist Enigma: Woman in the Dunes on Criterion
By Christopher Weedman.
The haunting enigmatism and visual beauty of Woman in the Dunes (1964) has not diminished since its premiere over fifty years ago. Shot on a budget of $100,000 over four months in Tottori City, Tottori-ken, this Japanese art-house classic was released during the wave of modernist filmmaking that simultaneously made its way across national cinemas during the late 1950s and early 1960s, as demonstrated by Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1959) and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1960) in France, Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963) in Italy, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) in Sweden, and Joseph Losey’s Accident (1967) in Britain. While this esteemed filming of Kobo Abe’s 1962 novel by director Hiroshi Teshigahara (adapted for the screen by Abe himself) is today, arguably, lesser-known than these cinematic masterpieces of the European avant-garde, it is no fault of the film, which deserves a place alongside these acknowledged world classics as one of the most visually complex and challenging films that 1960s cinema had to offer.
As film scholar James Quandt acknowledges in his perceptive video essay included on both the Blu-ray and DVD editions of Woman in the Dunes, released last month on August 23rd by the Criterion Collection, the film has sparked a myriad of critical interpretations with its narratively cryptic story of a Tokyo school teacher/amateur entomologist condemned against his will to perpetually help a widow shovel sand out of a dune in the desert. Read as everything from a modern-day reworking of the Greek myth of Sisyphus (the King of Ephyra fated to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill, a plight that also inspired Sean Connery’s endless trek up a manmade hill in Sidney Lumet’s powerful British military prison drama The Hill, 1965) to a parable about the existential state of man in modern Japanese society, Woman in the Dunes was popular with both film critics and college audiences during the 1960s. Not only did the film win the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1964, but also it garnered further attention stateside when it was one of five Japanese films screened at the second New York Film Festival that September. Strong reviews from the typically irascible Bosley Crowther of The New York Times and other critics helped secure the film a booking at Cinema II (Don Rugoff’s art-film mecca on Third Avenue in New York), where it became an unexpected financial success and went onto earn Oscar nominations for “Best Foreign Language Film” and “Best Director.”
Woman in the Dunes opens with a masterful title sequence by Kiyoshi Awazu, an avant-garde graphic designer whose work here, although different in style, parallels the primary objective of the title designs of Saul Bass, who felt that they should contain a “visual phrase that tells you what the picture is all about and evokes the essence of the story” (qtd. in Kael 62). The titles feature an image of a fingerprint with inkan stamps (seals used in lieu of signatures on official documents, which only became utilized by common people, instead of just nobility, during the late nineteenth century) and small traditional Japanese artwork of a man interwoven within the fingerprint’s friction ridges. This sequence subtly suggests the film’s exploration of the conflict between identity (represented by the fingerprint) and society (represented by the traditional artwork) in post-World War II Japan: a culture where the youth from the rural villages were becoming increasingly drawn to the modern lifestyles offered in Westernized urban cities like Tokyo, while facing strong opposition from both their families and fellow villagers to remain at home and maintain cultural traditions.
One man adrift in this cultural divide is the film’s unnamed school teacher and entomologist (Eiji Okada, best-remembered as the architect lover of Emmanuelle Riva in the Rive Gauche masterpiece Hiroshima mon amour), who has come to the rural desert to study its sand bugs. He is searching in vain for an unidentified variation of the tiger beetle, which he hopes to find in order to fulfill his desire of having his name printed in a handbook as its discoverer and, albeit unconsciously, give his mundane life a meager degree of importance. However, from the audience’s first glimpse of the entomologist, there are visual clues that his personal identity (represented in modern society by fingerprint classification, as well as an endless series of passports, certificates, and other forms of legal identification) will give way to a new one. As he is hiking up a sand dune, the well-defined wavy lines of the landscape mirror a fingerprint, which is slowly being eroded away from the trail of footsteps that he is leaving in the sand.
After he misses the last bus to travel back to Tokyo, the entomologist is escorted by the local villagers to the hut of a young widow (Kyōko Kishida, an actress and children’s book author, who starred memorably as a dissatisfied housewife embarking on a lesbian affair with an art model, played by Ayako Wakao, in Yasuzô Masumura’s groundbreaking Manji, 1964) located at the bottom of a large sand dune. The only means of accessing the hut is a rope ladder, which the entomologist insists is “quite an adventure” to climb down due to its primitiveness. At first believing that he will only be spending the night, the entomologist discovers the next morning that the rope is gone. He later realizes that it was a trap orchestrated by the villagers to force the pair into marriage.
The woman has maintained a solitary existence since her husband and child perished in a sandstorm. “This life is really too hard for a woman alone,” she admits to the entomologist, who cannot understand her motivation to “cling to this place.” The widow lives a monotonous life shoveling the excess sand around her home each day. Not only does she have to shovel the sand to keep it from accumulating and swallowing her alive, but also the villagers need it to sell to urban contractors to maintain their traditional way of life. The widow’s existence centers around the group identity of her community, but she is revealed to be almost as self-absorbed as her “honored guest.” While the entomologist is interested only in his personal need for self-promotion (as indicated by his desire to have his name published in a scientific book), she exhibits no guilt over selling sand with a high-salt content that she knows is dangerous for concrete construction. Her desire to help her village survive economically and maintain cultural tradition outweighs any concern for those living in the city who may be killed from the use of these shoddy materials.
The film offers only a modicum of sympathy for the entomologist, whose insensitivity is displayed at the beginning of the narrative in a brief sequence foregrounding his subsequent fate. Teshigahara and cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa frame the entomologist’s fingers in an extreme close-up shot as he studies a small insect, which attempts to gain its freedom, yet keeps finding itself sliding backward and getting swallowed up by the sand. While witnessing the futility of the insect’s plight, the entomologist pokes at it and laughs callously. His inability to show any ounce of compassion to another creature is further displayed when he dispassionately watches another insect try to climb out of the sealed test tube that he put it into. These moments provide bitter irony to the film’s later dramatic scenes of the entomologist hopelessly attempting to climb out of the sand dune, which, despite his best efforts to escape, will forever serve as his prison.
Woman in the Dunes was previously released by Criterion as part of an out-of-print, four-disc DVD set from 2007. The prior DVD release resurrected the striking chiaroscuro cinematography of Segawa from the murky oblivion of the 1991 VHS edition from the Connoisseur Video Collection, as well as featured two of Teshigahara’s other feature-length collaborations with Abe: Pitfall (1962) and The Face of Another (1966). The high-definition digital transfer of Woman in the Dunes for this new standalone Blu-ray and DVD release is quite stunning and helps illustrate Teshigahara’s mastery over every frame. Most visually impressive are the penetrating close-ups of the granules of sand and perspiration on the bodies of the entomologist and the widow, which are reminiscent of specimens under a high-power microscope (recalling the type of scientific inquiry performed by an entomologist) and emphasize the interconnection of both individuals with their landscape. Furthermore, this visual imagery highlights the sexual tension between the man and woman, which becomes increasingly sensual as the film progresses. This is seen clearly in the silhouetted images of Kishida’s nude body, which are evocative of the film’s long shots of the desert landscape. Both are alluring and mysterious to the entomologist, who finds himself slowly enveloped by them.
Nevertheless, excitement over the new Blu-ray and DVD are somewhat tempered by Criterion’s decision not to include Pitfall and The Face of Another like they did previously, as well as not including any additional bonus features. The latest editions carry over most of the bonus features from the previous box-set (minus James Quandt’s video essays on Pitfall and The Face of Another), including four of the director’s early short films: Hokusai (1953), Ikebana (1956), Tokyo 1958 (1958), and Ako (1965). In terms of critiquing postwar Japanese society (one of Teshigahara’s primary artistic concerns), the most fascinating of these films is Tokyo 1958 with its panorama of modern Tokyo with its class disparity, high suicide rate, overcrowding, pollution, and Western commercialism encroaching on Eastern traditions, as seen in a brief scene of a Japanese teenager singing the rock ‘n’ roll hit “Don’t Be Cruel” in the style of Elvis Presley. This idea is further foregrounded by the experimental shift from a Japanese narrator to an English-speaking narrator (reminiscent of those used in newsreels by Movietone News in the United States), which highlights that Western influence on Japanese society continued to linger following the end of the Allied occupation of Japan in 1951.
Like the earlier Criterion box-set, this release of The Woman in the Dunes also boasts an insightful interview with Teshigahara from 1978, which was first published in French in Max Tessier’s book Le cinéma japonais au présent: 1959-1984. In addition to discussing his collaboration with Abe and his greater stylistic preoccupation with images than dialogue (a stance that he admits was antithetical to progressive artists and intellectuals in Japan during the postwar era), Teshigahara speaks of his disenchantment with the increasing difficulty of getting his films financed and distributed in the 1970s. This notion, although not significantly explored by the interviewees in Criterion’s 2007 documentary Teshigahara and Abe (included in this new edition), must have been a contributing factor in the director’s subsequent decision to bow to familial pressure and succeed his esteemed father, Sofu Teshigahara, as the head of the Sōgetsu School of Ikebana flower arrangement. He would later return to feature filmmaking with Rikyu in 1989.
Audie Bock’s lucid essay “Woman in the Dunes: Shifting Sands” is again included. Bock discusses the relationship between the director’s visual concern with shapes and surfaces to his work in both pottery and floral arrangement. More interestingly, she contextualizes the narrative’s conflict between personal and group identity by contextualizing it against the modern cultural phenomenon of johatsu (Japanese men and women dropping out of society and vanishing without a trace), which was chronicled in the 1967 documentary A Man Vanishes by director Shohei Imamura. Léna Mauger and Stéphane Remael’s 2016 book The Vanished: The “Evaporated People” of Japan in Stories and Photographs (published by Skyhorse Publishing) cites that almost 100,000 people vanish annually. With this startling statistic in mind, significant irony is given to the belief of Woman in the Dunes’ entomologist, who, either out of naiveté or self-delusion, keeps hoping that his educational colleagues back in Tokyo will come looking for him. Obviously, the sheer number of vanished people would make this impossible.
Aside from the minor misgivings previously mentioned, Criterion’s standalone release of Woman in the Dunes is well worth purchasing, particularly by cinephiles who either missed out on owning the original box-set (now fetching as much as $350 on Amazon.com), or who desire a Blu-ray upgrade of this modernist masterpiece. Devotees of Teshigahara and Abe can only hope that standalone releases of Pitfall and The Face of Another (thankfully, still available to stream on Hulu.com) will follow from the company in the near future.
Christopher Weedman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses in Film Studies. His scholarship has appeared in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Senses of Cinema, and the edited anthology Fifty Hollywood Directors (Routledge, 2015). His interview and career retrospective of British actress Anne Heywood (the Golden Globe-nominated star of the controversial 1967 film The Fox) will appear in a forthcoming issue of Cinema Retro.
Balio, Tino (2010), The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens, 1946-1973, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 264-266.
Crowther, Bosley (1964), “Adaptation of Japanese Novel Is Engrossing: Two-Character Movie at Lincoln Center,” Review of Woman in the Dunes (1964), dir. by Hiroshi Teshigahara, New York Times 17 Sep., pp. 52.
“Five Japanese Features to Be Shown at Festival” (1964), New York Times 25 Aug., pp. 29.
Kael, Pauline (1962), Review of One, Two, Three (1961), dir. by Billy Wilder, Film Quarterly 15.3, pp. 62-65.
Mauger, Léna, and Stéphane Remael (2016), The Vanished: The “Evaporated People” of Japan in Stories and Photographs, New York: Skyhorse Publishing.
“Movie from Japan at Cinema Two Today” (1964), New York Times 26 Oct., pp. 42.
Tessier, Max (1984), Le cinéma japonais au present: 1959-1984, Paris: Pierre Lherminier.