Across an immense sandscape, a man (Eiji Okada) walks alone. His progress is slow, but he’s in no particular hurry. A schoolteacher and amateur entomologist, Jumpei Niki has come to the dunes in search of insects and in order to get away from his life in Tokyo for a few days. After a while, he lies down in a half-buried rowboat, where he envisions a woman (Hiroko Itô) while musing to himself about all of the documents that people use to make certain of one another: “Men and women are slaves to their fear of being cheated. In turn they dream up new certificates to prove their innocence. No one can say where it will end. They seem endless. You criticized me for arguing too much. But the facts speak for themselves.”
His thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of several men from the nearby village, one of whom (Kôji Mitsui) he had met earlier. This man informs him that the last bus has already left, then offers to help him find lodgings for the night at one of the local houses. “You’d do that?” says Jumpei. “I’m very grateful. I won’t be rushed in the morning, and I’d love to stay in a real home. Thank you.” The villagers escort him to a pit, at the bottom of which is a ramshackle building accessible only by rope ladder. “This is quite an adventure,” Jumpei remarks as he starts to descend.
Upon reaching the ground, he meets the owner of the house (Kyôko Kishida), a woman of thirty or so, although the villagers had called her “old hag” when they announced Jumpei’s arrival. (It should be noted that Jumpei is the sole character whose name is revealed, and that doesn’t happen until the end. Fortunately, the film has a very limited cast.) He thanks her for her hospitality, but as the night goes on, he becomes increasingly critical of her strange way of life, especially when he learns that she has to spend every night shoveling sand in order to prevent the house from being buried. Furthermore, she keeps saying odd things, like when he offers to help her shovel and she replies, “No, not on the first day.” The following morning, it all makes terrible, terrible sense: the rope ladder is gone, and despite Jumpei’s desperate efforts to ascend the steep walls of the pit, the sand simply collapses beneath his feet. He’s caught in the villagers’ trap.
The 1964 film Woman in the Dunes, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara and based on Kôbô Abe’s novel of the same name, is a tale about two people and their relationships with each other, with their environment and with life itself. Although the woman is a willing participant in the conspiracy to capture Jumpei, she doesn’t come across as a schemer or a conniver like the other villagers. In many ways, she’s as much a victim as he is, or nearly so. It’s clear that she has no experience of the world beyond the dunes, and although she’s quite curious about what goes on out there — her dearest dream is to own a radio — she seems fundamentally resigned to the monotonous existence that she’s always known. She has excuses: the remains of her husband and daughter, victims of a sandstorm, are there; if she stops shoveling, her house will be buried, and the one next door will follow. An appalled Jumpei tries to reason with her: “Why do you cling to this place? You must be mad! Look, you don’t owe those villagers a damn thing. I can’t share your sense of self-sacrifice. Let them deal with the sand scientifically, with tree fences or something.” Smiling, the woman replies, “They calculated that it’s much cheaper this way.”
Because the woman is so docile, the villagers readily exploit her. For them, shoveling the sand isn’t just a means of self-preservation; it’s also a source of revenue, as they sell it to factories in town. “Are you joking?” Jumpei asks the woman. “It’s illegal to use sand this salty.” “Under the table, at half price,” she explains. When he says that that’s “hardly a bargain when a dam or building collapses,” her answer sounds like something she’s heard so many times that she’s convinced herself of its truth: “That’s other people’s business.” Her earlier comments about “real local spirit” and “love of our birthplace” have a similar whiff of brainwashing about them. Moreover, the villagers treat her with open contempt, as the “old hag” nickname indicates, so it’s no surprise that she has low self-esteem. “But aren’t all the city girls prettier than me?” she asks when Jumpei offers to wipe the sand off of her skin, and later she tells him that she can’t imagine a life for herself away from the dunes: “But you see, if it weren’t for the sand, no one would bother about me. Isn’t that right? Not even you.” Jumpei’s presence serves a practical purpose, making her work easier and allowing her to receive weekly rations (which are only delivered to households with men), but it also relieves her loneliness and extreme isolation.
In sharp contrast to the woman, Jumpei fights back in every way he can, putting his reason and ingenuity to use. Even before he realizes that he’s been trapped, he argues with the woman about whether sand can make things rot, as she claims. “Nonsense,” he says. “Sand is naturally dry.” He takes pride in his knowledge, describing himself as “something of a scholar,” yet no matter what he tries, his escape attempts fail, thwarted by the self-serving villagers and the indifferent natural world. Nature — not just insects, but the sand itself — drew him to the dunes in the first place. There’s a certain logic, a certain meaning to it that his existence in Tokyo lacks. “I began collecting insects to get away from all that,” he tells the woman. “Compared to that unfathomable way of life, getting my name in a book is at least something tangible.” His goal is to find a new variant of the tiger beetle and thereby get his name printed in a field guide — interesting in light of his rant against all of the documentation that modern living entails. In spite of his distaste for “that unfathomable way of life,” he’s confident that his absence will be noticed, that someone will come looking for him before long. “I’m a respected teacher. I’m registered with the city,” he says, but that means precious little to the woman and the villagers, and absolutely nothing to the sand.
Ubiquitous, relentless, crumbling or flowing like a waterfall, the sand is so prominent that it might be called the third central character. The film is full of both long shots of the dunes, emphasizing their vastness and power, and extreme close-ups of the grains that coat Jumpei and the woman’s sweaty skin. “Make the sand work for you, not against you,” he tells her, yet try as he might, he can’t do that himself. In an act of passive resistance, he refuses to shovel or allow the woman to shovel until the villagers let him go, causing the sand to accumulate to such a degree that he starts to lose his grip on sanity. “If it wanted to, the sand could swallow up cities, even entire countries,” he says. “Did you know that? A Roman town called Sabrata, and that one in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, both completely buried under particles an eighth of a millimeter wide. You can’t fight it! It’s hopeless!” He’s not much better off than the insects he collects — worse off, maybe, because he’s fully aware of his situation.
Still, he doesn’t give up on the idea that he’ll be saved, either by other people or through his own efforts. His scientific curiosity is what led him to the dunes and into the villagers’ trap in the first place, but it also gives him confidence, shaky though it may be, that he can find a way to defeat them. As he puts it, “Even if it’s only a lie, it helps to have hope that tomorrow things will change.”
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