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Woman in the Dunes
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Woman in the Dunes

The struggle between the sexes has fueled everything from romantic comedies to epic tragedies, but rarely has it found a more raw and primal expression than Woman in the Dunes (Sunna no onna), a 1964 adaptation of the novel by Kôbô Abe. A medical student turned novelist, Abe made a point of adapting his novels into screenplays himself beginning with 1962's offbeat crime film, The Pitfall. That film also marked his first collaboration with director Hiroshi Teshigahara, a documentarian making his feature film debut. Their second film together, Woman in the Dunes, proved to be a major international breakthrough even after over 20 minutes were cut for most international territories. Winning the Jury Special Prize at Cannes in 1964 and scoring two Academy Award(R) nominations for Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film, it was a marked change of pace for audiences accustomed to more traditional Japanese films like Kurosawa's swordplay classics or Ozu's domestic dramas.

The spare plot involves the harrowing, protracted experience of entomologist and teacher Niki Jumpei (Eiji Okada of Hiroshima Mon Amour, 1959), whose studies involving a new breed of insect in a small village cause him to miss the last bus out of town. For overnight shelters, the villagers offer him the home of an unnamed woman (Manji's [1964] Kyoko Kishida) who lives in a sand hut accessible only via a rope ladder. Soon he realizes he's trapped with her and, despite his initial protestations, must work to shovel sand out of their home day after day to stay alive.

Critics and audiences have spent years deciphering the allegories of Woman in the Dunes, whose seemingly linear plotline can be approached from any number of political and sociological stances. In his essay on the film, Audie Bock posited it as "a story about identity, but it is a very Japanese and peculiarly Kobo Abe-esque approach to the subject, where the identity sought is not only that of the individual in personal relationships but, at the same time, that of the group/family/village in opposition to the greater society." What is indisputable is the film's visual power thanks to cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa (another Teshigahara regular) with the endlessly flowing, menacing, but life-giving sand functioning even more importantly than the characters onscreen. Along with the same year's Kwaidan (which also features a score by this film's composer, Tôru Takemitsu), it also paved the way for greater Western acceptance for more unusual, macabre Japanese fare, as only faintly eerie offerings like Ugetsu (1953) had previously broken through to mainstream acceptance around the world. Speaking of Takemitsu, his often jarring, experimental music here is almost a character unto itself, insinuating itself into the fabric of the celluloid as imperceptibly as the sand. Peter Grilli noted its particular effectiveness in the scene in which Niki is forced to couple with his companion for the villagers' voyeuristic pleasure, which "uses the hypnotic drumming of the villagers' Onigoroshi-daiko (demon-killing drums) to create a sound sequence that is as terrifying as it is dehumanizing... Deafening in its aural force and overpowering in its ritualistic, barbaric monotony, it is the sound of the drums that reduces everyone - the characters and onlookers in the film, as well as the spectators in the theater audience - to a common bestiality."

The notion of linking femininity to insect behavior was certainly nothing new by the time Woman in the Dunes came around; most obviously, American programmers like Roger Corman's The Wasp Woman (1959) and The Spider Woman (1944) made the connection explicit by literally turning their distaff villainesses into literal fusions of predatory insect behavior and human cunning. Aside from the more obvious symbolic approach of Teshigahara, it's important to note here that the film expands its focus to draw parallels between entire communities of human beings and insects. The male hero is no passive victim lured into a deadly relationship with a praying mantis or black widow; instead, like the insects he studies, he must scramble and dig at the sand for survival and learn to acclimate to the demands of his new surroundings to survive - and even find pleasure in his daily routines.

The partnership between Teshigahara and Abe proved so successful that a third feature (following a 1965 short together, White Morning), was quickly put into production. This film, the complex and disturbing science-fiction offering The Face of Another (1966), was once again adapted by Abe from his source novel and featured a Takemitsu score along with both leads from the prior film. Despite its abundance of pulp elements which could have been easily exploited internationally, this third film was rarely seen outside of Japan for decades and has only found a comparable critical reputation to its predecessors in recent years thanks to more widespread availability on video. The same unfortunately can't be said of the three men's fourth and final collaboration, 1968's identity-bending thriller The Man without a Map, which even today remains extremely obscure.

Both in its native country and abroad, Woman in the Dunes has remained steadily popular and has influenced several other films throughout the years, mainly in the horror genre even if Teshigahara's film defies that simple classification. Among these are Yasuzo Masumura's Blind Beast from 1969 (in which an environment once again bends two people to its own twisted demands) and Lars von Trier's Antichrist from 2009, which uses nature as the controlling force for a harrowing battle of the sexes. However, the more elliptical and ultimately challenging questions of Teshigahara's film make it resistant to any mere imitation; it is still wholly unique and the pinnacle of three brilliant talents at the height of their craft.

Producer: Kiichi Ichikawa, Tadashi Ono
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Screenplay: Kôbô Abe (novel and screenplay)
Cinematography: Hiroshi Segawa
Music: Tôru Takemitsu
Film Editing: Fusako Shuzui
Cast: Eiji Okada (Entomologist Niki Jumpei), Kyôko Kishida (Woman), Hiroko Ito (Entomologist's wife), Kôji Mitsui, Sen Yano, Ginzô Sekiguchi, Kiyohiko Ichiha, Hideo Kanze, Hiroyuki Nishimoto, Tamotsu Tamura.
BW-123m.

by Nathaniel Thompson

Sources:
Bock, Audie. "Woman in the Dunes: Shifting Sands." Essay in Criterion's Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara, 2007.

Grilli, Peter. "The Spectral Landscape of Teshigahara, Abe, and Takemistu." Online essay, July 2007.

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