Saturday, March 26, 2011

420. Suna no onna/Woman in the Dunes (1964)

Running Time: 123 minutes
Directed By: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Written By: Kobo Abe, from his novel
Main Cast: Eiji Okada, Kyoko Kishida


I happened upon this one on Netflix and thought it looked good, so I scooted it to the top of my queue and got it in the mail yesterday. To make a long story short, my eyes did not deceive me when they said to my brain, "Get that looks good!"

Niki Jumpei (Okada) is an entomologist who is off for a three day weekend, from his job as a school teacher, and decides to spend it in an area that is mostly sand dunes, looking for bugs. While talking to one of the local villagers, he realizes that he has missed the last bus out of the dunes and accepts when the villager offers him a place to stay for the evening. The villager tells him that he is taking him back to the home of a woman, where he'll be able to stay for the night. When arriving at the woman's house, Niki is bewildered to find that she lives at the bottom of a massive sand pit and a rope ladder is needed to get to her front door. Niki, needing a place to stay, climbs down the rope ladder and proceeds to accept the hospitality of the woman (Kishida), as she feeds him clams and boils him water for tea. The next morning, Niki awakes to find the woman asleep and decides to silently slip away. However, Niki soon realizes that the rope ladder has been pulled up and that he has fallen for a trap.


Note the disappearance of the word "possible", as there will be definite spoilage lying ahead.

I have a lot of thoughts on this film, so let me preface it by saying that I'm going to try my best to keep everything as orderly and legible as possible. While, in my opinion, it isn't blatant, I believe there is massive symbolism going on in "Woman in the Dunes" and I have some theories. Before I get into my theories, let me say that I loved this film. For starters, I've always loved movies with a very small cast and this film is basically a two person gig, with the man and the woman (we don't find out Niki's name until the VERY end of the film, so I'll just refer to him as "man"). To me small casts are great, as it gives the opportunity to gifted actors, who have good chemistry, to just cut loose and see what kind of magic they can create. I thought both leads did an outstanding job and I also loved the cinematography - I've never seen sand look so good. Now on to my theories...

1) My first theory deals with the entire film and what it MAY represent. Early on in the film, it seemed to me that Teshigahara was trying to parallel a marriage between man and woman. Now before I continue, let me preface this by saying that I am a HAPPILY married man and in no way am I trying to say that marriage resembles a prison. However, let me point out some of my ideas and maybe you can tell me if you agree or disagree.

Man enters the sandpit willingly, as does man enter marriage willingly. Once inside the sandpit, everything is great for a little while. Man and woman talk about their lives, she makes him some killer clam soup and he gets his "grub on" in grand fashion. Then, the next day man realizes that he is trapped - that he has gotten himself into a situation that he can't get himself out of. He cares for the woman, but he wants his freedom back. He makes some tries to get away, but fails and in the process hurts the woman, as she wants him to stay. Eventually man accepts his fate for a little while and the two work together as a unit to deal with the sand. Now, if my theory is at all correct, then the sand itself has to represent something and in my view the sand represents all of the problems that a married couple can face: paying bills, etc. If the sand represents problems, then in the end man figures out a way to put a positive spin on his problems, by solving his problems and turning them into something useful. I haven't completely thought it out yet, but I think Kobo Abe was definitely hinting around at something like this.

2) My second theory is my attempt at trying to decipher the ending and why Niki goes back to the pit after escaping. The entire film Niki hangs on the idea that SOMEONE will come looking for him and that if they were to only search his apartment they would find bank books and open schedules pointing them to his exact location. No one ever comes, which leads me to believe that Niki wasn't as important as he himself may have thought. Even at one point, the woman asks Niki is he has a wife and he tells her that it is none of her business and in my view, that's a big "NO". If Niki had a wife, then surely he'd have pictures of her that he'd be crying over all the time and surely he'd want to share stories of his wife with the very woman that he was imprisoned with. By saying "None of your business", he's saying "no" and he's also telling me that there is no one on the outside world that cares enough about him to come and look for him. Also, married men don't spend their three day weekends in the sand dunes looking for bugs. So for this theory I'm assuming that he has no wife and really no close friends and besides his teaching job, his life is pretty meaningless.

With that established for this theory, then why does Niki even want to escape. I mean, the guy's trapped in a sandpit with a pretty good looking girl who sleeps naked, can cook and doesn't mind doing her fair share of the work. All joking aside, Niki wants to escape for the same reason a homeless man doesn't want to go to prison, because he doesn't want to be "locked" up, with no choices. But when he's finally given the choice at the end, he realizes that there's nothing out there for him. Maybe he looks at the vast sea, that we're given a close-up of and everything just feels way too BIG for him and so he crawls back into the comfort of the pit that he's gotten used to and decides to make the most of it. Or maybe it's like Brooks in "The Shawshank Redemption". Remember Brooks? The guy who finally got paroled after spending his entire life in prison, only to realize that he couldn't cope on the outside and that everything he knew was now on the inside.

I mean, on the inside of that pit there was Niki and the woman and Niki was the one who was on the verge of figuring out how to turn sand into mass amounts of water. In that very small community Niki was King. You might as well say Niki had a wife in the pit, a son possibly on the way and he was on the verge of a major scientific breakthrough. Everything he needed was provided. Sure he had to shovel sand, but he had to work on the outside is work, no matter where you are, you pretty much have to do it if you want to survive. In the end, Niki was finally able to embrace his surroundings and fully acknowledge that old saying..."take nothing for granted".

In the end, there were still a few aspects of the film that I didn't fully understand. Where did Niki get all of that material to make the rope that lead to his first escape? Why did they have to shovel every night - I mean, other than the fact that otherwise they'd be buried alive? They did mention at one point that the villagers sold the sand, but there wasn't enough emphasis placed on exactly why they had to shovel every single night and you can sure bet if I was trapped in a pit and forced to shovel sand every night, I'd be asking WHY? Those are just nitpicky things though, because that's what I do...nitpick. Bottom line: GREAT MOVIE!

RATING: 9/10 I had seen "12 Angry Men" before, so this steps up as best thing I've seen for the first time, in a long time. Now I'm going to have to buy that "3 Films by Teshigahara" set that Criterion has out...but I'm not complaining.


March 26, 2011 12:47am


  1. I've said this before, but it bears being repeated..

    If ever someone gets at me (or you) for 'list ticking' - watching a film just because some guy who wrote a book told you to, this is the perfect response. I would never have found this film without 'The List', and wow, was I glad I did. I too thought it wonderful, lovely story and fantastic photography.
    Yes, there are plot holes.. what on earth is special about the sand in the hole as opposed to all the other sand.. why do they have to make the woman captive etc etc.. but it isn't a simple nararative film to be taken literaly is it? As you say, full of symobolism for domesticity- pros and cons.
    And it's good knoe someone else who has not only seen this film, but liked it too...

  2. Ray, I 100% agree - I too would have never found this if not for the book and that is exactly why I'm doing this project...for films like this.

  3. Andrew, thanks to you, I've gotten a taste of WOMAN IN THE DUNES, a film I've heard a lot about, but never had the opportunity to see. Your review intrigued me; the film sounds like an intriguing parable for modern life. The themes of loneliness and the need to connect with people no matter how much of a staunch loner one might be, hits home no matter what language you speak. Great review!

  4. Dorian, thanks for swinging by and I appreciate your kind words regarding my review. "Woman in the Dunes" comes with my highest recommendation, as it was exactly what I needed after coming off a bit of a slump in the "1001" book. Feel free to swing by anytime, as I always appreciate your words and your presence on my blog can only be classified as a positive thing.


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