(Woman in the Dunes)
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Production: Teshigahara Production; black and white, 35mm; running time: 127 minutes, some versions are 115 minutes; length: 4,021 meters. Released 1963.
Producers: Kiichi Ichikawa and Tadashi Ohno; screenplay: Kobo Abe, from a novel by Kobo Abe; photography: Hiroshi Segawa; editor: Masako Shuzui; art directors: Totetsu Hirakawa and Masao Yamazaki; music: Toru Takemitsu.
Cast: Eiji Okada ( Jumpei Niki ); Kyoko Kishida ( Widow ); Koji Mitsui; Sen Yano; Hiroko Ito.
Award: Cannes Film Festival, Special Jury Prize, 1964.
Abe, Kobo, Woman in the Dunes , New York, 1966.
Mellen, Joan, Voices from the Japanese Cinema , New York, 1975.
Tessier, Max, editor, Le Cinéma japonais au présent 1959–1979 , Paris, 1980.
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Hiroshi Teshigahara, born in 1927 in Tokyo, is a graduate of the Tokyo Art Institute. The formal beauty of Woman in the Dunes reflects this artistic background. In 1961 he organized his own production company and produced his first feature film, Pitfall , which established him as an avant-garde director. Based on a novel by Kobo Abe, one of Japan's most respected novelists, Pitfall is a documentary fantasy, according to Teshigahara. Woman in the Dunes , also based on an Abe novel and scripted by him, was Teshigahara's second feature. The film received much attention outside of Japan. It was awarded the Special Jury Award at Cannes in 1964 and was nominated for an Academy Award.
The story of Woman in the Dunes is simple. While on a scientific exploration in the dessert, Jumpei Niki, an entomologist from Tokyo, misses the last bus back to the city. He is given accommodation for the night at the home of a widow at the bottom of a sand pit. Next morning when he is prepared to leave, he discovers that the rope ladder, which is the only means of exit, has been removed by the villagers up above who intend to keep him in the sand pit. The remainder of the film involves Niki's struggle for freedom, his evolving relationships with the widow, and his final resolution concerning his destiny.
As in other films with similar plot situations (Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit and Luis Buñuel's Exterminating Angel ), Woman in the Dunes is an allegory. Basically the film deals with man's confrontation with life and the nature of freedom. Coming out of the tradition of Oriental philosophy, the film is more affirmative than either of the works by Sartre or Buñuel.
Although Niki is representative of all men in general and modern man in particular, he also serves as a specific representative of Japan who has adopted the ways of the Occident. The conflict between Eastern and Western traditions is a recurrent theme in modern Japanese literature. Niki is not only dressed in modern European clothing, but he is infused with the spirit of the West. The opening scenes reveal his obsession with material possessions, with documents and schedules, with the value of a scientific approach to life, and with ambitious desires to get ahead—all antithetical to the notions found in traditional Japanese philosophy and religion. Devoid of any human involvement, Niki exists in a spiritual wasteland as dry and arid as the desert of the opening scenes.
Although we are never shown the city, modern man's environment, Teshigahara skillfully evokes its presence. The opening credits are accompanied by the sounds and noises of the city while images of official stamp marks and fingerprints, an everpresent factor in modern life, are seen on the screen.
Niki's examination of the sand and insects through his magnifying glass typify his distance from an emotional involvement with life itself. He is little more than a microscopic organism, living out his existence as one of the millions who inhabit cities like Tokyo. Yet his arrogance belies his understanding of the true nature of his existence.
During the long months which Niki spends in the sand pit, he moves from rebellion against his fate, to accommodation, and ultimately to active affirmation. His progress can be gauged by what he gives up—his flask, his camera, his watch, his insect collection, his western clothing, and finally his desire to leave. His gains are emotional involvement, social commitment, and spiritual freedom— for true freedom is an internal state not determined by physical limitations. In order to move forward, it was necessary for Niki to have first taken several steps backward—backward to a more primitive state of existence, backward to the values of an earlier era. In order to reach salvation, he has had to return to nature, to find a means to live in harmony with nature, and lastly to accept his position in the true order of the universe.
Niki's acceptance of life in the sand pit is not to be seen as resignation, but rather as a form of enlightenment. Dennis Giles explains in his article on the influence of Taoist philosophy on Woman in the Dunes how the film demonstrates Niki's acceptance of the Tao:
The Tao can be called the path of least resistance. To be in harmony with, not in rebellion against, the fundamental laws of the universe is the first step on the road to Tao. Tao, like water, takes the low-ground. Water has become, perhaps, the most popular taoist symbol. The symbolic value of water is also one of the most striking elements in Woman in the Dunes . . . . Only by remaining passive, receptive, and yielding can the Tao assert itself in the mind.
Giles further points out that "the yielding nature of water is a feminine characteristic, and concave surfaces are also female in nature. Thus the valley, the pit, and the Tao are all feminine."
Teshigahara's camera style is perfectly suited to the allegorical nature of the film. His propensity for close-ups reflects his documentary interests and serves to distance the viewer from the characters and to allow the audience to objectively contemplate the universal meanings implicit in the story. At the same time Teshigahara creates images of rare abstract beauty which reflect the serenity and harmony implied by the Tao.