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The Woman in the Dunes is a Japanese film that was adapted by a novel of the same name. It is directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara. This film showcases Hiroshi’s unique Avant Garde style, by including many extreme close ups to deliver a message. [2] [6]

This film is actually a minimalist visual meditation of life and also centering themes around alienation, modernity and identity. In the first shot, Jumpei is seen trapping an insect for study under the scrutiny of his lens. In that shot, Hiroshi establishes visually the premise of the entire film, that there are different levels of existence and that the man’s level is not the superior and ultimate one since he is also trapped in the world. [5]

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The shots of Jumpei in the desert at the start with its overwhelming visual brightness give the impression that the character is trapped in this one dimension. He is part of a system but feels lost in it. Jumpei’s first dialogue shows how he feels about the constriction imposed by society, he also complains about the need to get certificates to proceed. This shows that he is trapped already, even before he physically is.

With the lack of long shots of the inside of the house and sharp contrast of the lighting, it enhances the feeling of entrapment. The firs dialogue between both characters reveals their characters. The man is presented as a person who bases his understanding of reality on scientific principles. He is self-assured and appears to be in control of situations while the widow is calm and submissive.[8]

It is never revealed how the woman ended up in the pit but she certainly accepted her fate and would rather stay than escape. The sand is practically her life, the man also asks the woman ‘Are you shoveling to survive or surviving to shovel?’ [1] The sand leaking into the house also acts as a symbol, conveying the passage of time. Through the reactions to his imprisonment, Jumpei asks the widow about the men that were there before him and how they reacted to the same situation. This shows the man’s need for historical perspective and it is now clear that the man represents humanity.

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When Jumpei realizes that there is nothing he can do to get out, he submits to his primitive instincts by making love to the woman. However, this is not an act of love or tenderness but a desperate embrace of two bodies lost in their own universe of solitude. [8]

Hiroshi frequently inserts abstracted close-ups, panning across the skin of the two characters, exploring the textures of skin with the sand clinging to it. This shows nothing more than an organic movement. The scene where we see them making love gets harder to see visually as the caresses grow in intensity. The parts of their body are the only thing we can see in the frame as an extreme close up. We do not distinguish one body from another, they are completely fused visually. [5]

In the later part of the film, it shows Jumpei struggling with his identity. Firstly, he talks about catching an insect in order to have it named after him, believing that his name will be immortalized in the books and that his identity will be secure and also decided to take advantage of his situation by writing about it. [5]

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Jumpei’s attempt to get out of the dune can also be seen as him struggling to find the answer which lies at the top of the dune, just like the Greek myth Sisyphus. But the widow on the other hand, seems to know the answer from the beginning that their daily existence is the only order they can give to the uncertainty of life. She lives each day as it comes, giving full meaning to her mundane actions avoiding the search for answers that will never be answered. [8]

At the end of the movie, it is revealed that the widow is pregnant and in a rush for the villagers to get her to the hospital, they left a rope ladder for Jumpei to escape. However, he decides to stay as now he has found a sense of belonging, and also having an impact on his surroundings on his discovery of the pump. With this, he has changed the terms of the deal. One cannot escape the pit, but one can make it a better pit. And using the trap as a metaphor, instead of shoveling sand and biding time, those are all simply just distractions to pass the time of life. [5]

So the final message for the film is an affirmation of life, also questioning existential questions such as love, freedom and the meaning of life. So, are you shoveling to survive or surviving to shovel?

Similar to his other works like Pitfall (1962) and The Face of Another (1966), comes the question on what kind of bonds with the group does an individual find positive and meaningful as opposed to feeling constricted and demeaning? These issues, so strong in the mid-1960s for Hiroshi as well as other filmmakers, who faced the new phenomenon in postindustrial Japan of ordinary people going missing, seemingly without provocation or foul play and never to be seen again still remains relevant up till today. In a nation that was unified only a police state and with such high pressure where marriages are consummated after through detective-agency investigation on their background, the impulse to drop out remains extremely powerful. [7]

Critics consider this film to be one of the cinema’s supreme achievements and Chicago Reader Top critic Don Druker said ‘A bizarre film, distinguished not so much by Kobo Abe’s rather obvious screenplay as by Teshigahara’s arresting visual style of extreme depth of focus, immaculate detail, and graceful eroticism.’ [4] [9] This film has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is definitely one to catch.

References

1. Ebert, R. 1998. Woman in the Dunes Movie Review (1964) | Roger Ebert. [online] Available at: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-woman-in-the-dunes-1964 [Accessed: 17 Jun 2013].

2. Harper, D. 2003. Senses of Cinema – Hiroshi Teshigahara. [online] Available at: http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/great-directors/teshigahara/ [Accessed: 17 Jun 2013].

3. IMDb. 1990. Woman of the Dunes (1964) – Plot Summary. [online] Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058625/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ov_pl [Accessed: 17 Jun 2013].

4. Rottentomatoes.com. n.d.. Suna no Onna (Woman in the Dunes). [online] Available at: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/woman_in_the_dunes/ [Accessed: 18 Jun 2013].

5. Seul-le-cinema.blogspot.sg. 2009. Only the Cinema: Woman in the Dunes. [online] Available at: http://seul-le-cinema.blogspot.sg/2009/03/woman-in-dunes.html [Accessed: 17 Jun 2013].

6. Sogetsu.or.jp. n.d.. TeshigaharaHiroshi.com – Profile. [online] Available at: http://www.sogetsu.or.jp/teshigaharahiroshi.com/english/profile/ [Accessed: 17 Jun 2013].

7. The Criterion Collection. 1979. Woman in the Dunes: Shifting Sands. [online] Available at: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/593-woman-in-the-dunes-shifting-sands [Accessed: 18 Jun 2013].

8. Cinefiles.typepad.com. 2011. ALLEGORICAL MEANING “wOMAN IN THE dUNES” – CineFiles. [online] Available at: http://cinefiles.typepad.com/blog/2011/03/allegorical-meaning-woman-in-the-dunes.html [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].

9. Chicago Reader. 2000. Woman in the Dunes. [online] Available at: http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/woman-in-the-dunes/Film?oid=1062465 [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].

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