director Hiroshi Teshigahara
Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes has the quality of a parable to it. Though it is set in what would have been contemporary Japan of 1964, it is also set in a timeless placeless place, a fantasy nightmarish hell of endless sand and endless time.
A teacher and amateur entomologist (Eiji Okada) exploring the seaside dunes for beetles and other insects finds himself stranded when he misses the last bus back to the city. Seemingly friendly villagers set him up with a place to stay. Oddly, it’s a house in a hole in the ground where a woman (Kyōko Kishida, our lady of the dunes) lives, digging sand for the villagers and fighting the sand from swallowing her house (it has already claimed her husband and child.)
Like the antlions Okada captures, he too is caught in a sand trap. Because it is a trap, an unending Sisyphean existence, metaphorical yet oddly vague. Teshigahara’s camera lingers on the movement of the sand, the grit and shine of each speck as it clings to Kishida’s throat, or as it cascades in sheets tumbling into the hole. Utterly sensual and sensuous, there is something tender to this trap, but something entirely existential as well.
This was the second of four films that Teshigahara made from the work of Kōbō Abe with Abe’s collaboration. Of the four the only one I’d seen was the also remarkable The Face of Another (1966).
I have a feeling I’ll be contemplating this film for some time to come.