Much lauded on its release in 1964, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes, adapted by Kôbô Abe from his own novel, has certainly stood the test of time. A pared-down allegorical reflection on the human condition set in an oppressive, limitless sand and sea landscape, it is also an intense, gripping drama that keeps you hooked until the deeply troubling end.
Jumpei Nika, an amateur entomologist, spends a day roaming about a beach in search of insects but misses the last bus back to his hotel. The local villagers offer to put him up and take him to a young widow’s house built at the bottom of a sandpit that can only be accessed by a rope ladder. The next day, when Jumpei wants to leave, the ladder is gone. The widow explains that the villagers ensnare visitors to help shovelling the sand that constantly threatens to engulf their village. Jumpei, horrified, makes desperate attempts to escape but all in vain. As the sand infiltrates every nook of the house and every part of their bodies, the erotic tension mounts, leading to extraordinarily sensual scenes.
The brilliantly inventive direction turns the stark, minimal set-up into a powerful metaphor for human life. The numerous close-ups blur the boundaries between human and natural realms and suggest intricate parallels between the destinies of men and insects. Jumpei, the bug-catcher, is caught like the insect trapped in the lamp while the widow, herself a prisoner in her sand hole, snares him in her den like the spider seen hiding in the shadow. The ferocious vision of mankind culminates in a chilling scene where masked villagers jeer at the helpless couple down in the pit, like some cruel divinities. A striking, thought-provoking, beautifully shot piece of film-making, this is an absolute must-see.