‘What a terrible place to live,’ muses amateur entomologist Niki Jumpei (Eiji Okada) as he scours a remote desert region for signs of a blister beetle. The protagonist of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s mesmerising masterpiece Woman of the Dunes is a Tokyo-based teacher whose aspirations to become a published academic have led him to take three days of leave in order to visit the sand dunes by the sea in search of the rare bug. After missing the last bus of the day due to falling asleep under the sun, he is offered a bed for the night by one of the residents of the nearby villagers, and rationalises that, by accepting the invitation, he will be able to make an early start on his specimen hunting when he arises the following morning. Although the ‘house’ to which he is taken proves to be a rather unconventional place of lodging as it is located in a deep sand pit and is only accessible by a rope ladder, Niki’s host (Kyôko Kishida) - the young widow of the title - makes sure that he is comfortable and well fed. However, this unusual situation becomes an unanticipated nightmare for the urbanite when he awakes to find that the rope ladder has been removed and that he has been trapped in the pit by the villagers. It transpires that the widow of the house lost her husband and daughter in a sand-slide, and that the villagers have tricked Niki into becoming his replacement; Niki’s daily task is to dig the sand, thereby preventing further sand-slides and enabling the villagers to sell the natural resource to big city developers for construction purposes. Niki’s initial approach to his predicament is to mastermind an escape attempt, but he gradually becomes conditioned to his life in the pit and accepts his share of communal responsibility, while entering into a sexual relationship with the widow.
The community of sand-dwellers who conspire to trap Niki into a life of hard labour initially give him, and the equally unsuspecting audience, the impression that they are a simple bunch of villagers, but it soon becomes apparent that this is a society that bands together to ensure economic and environmental survival. When the teacher first encounters one of the villagers, the local asks him if he works for the government, with Niki replying that he is an academic; the villager then wanders off, safe in the knowledge that the next reluctant recruit is a relatively insignificant employee of the public school system and that his sudden disappearance is unlikely to lead to a search party. The villagers trick Niki with kindness, appealing to his enthusiasm for academic tourism; the teacher likes the idea of spending a night in such a village, considers climbing down a rope ladder to be ‘quite an adventure’ and insists that ‘local food is best’ when tucking into a hearty meal of shellfish broth and bream. As much as Niki is keen to ingratiate himself in the widow’s home, he also shows signs of having a big city ego when expecting his host to re-fill his rice bowl, then laughing at her comments that the surrounding sand is so damp that it can cause clogs to ‘rot within a month’. This self-assurance soon turns into desperate panic when he realises that the locals have the upper hand and Niki’s sense of self-worth is undermined when he discovers that this society does not need his education-based skill set, complaining that ‘a monkey could learn such work’ while shovelling sand. Escape attempts prove futile as, even when Niki ties up the widow and threatens her life, the villagers are less concerned about the safety of a member of their community than they are about the premature loss of a potentially productive worker.
Niki has become an unwilling member of what can be considered a secret society in that it hides in plain sight; the villagers maintain a necessary relationship with the modern world by selling their sand to building companies, but the pit in which Niki is imprisoned is closely guarded, while the area is unlikely to attract more conventional tourists. Teshigahara only shows Niki’s experiences, but the exchanges between the teacher and the widow reveal that the survival of this community is based on captivity; she explains that young people will not stay in the village, ‘because they get more money in the big cities’ and reveals that there are actually multiple pits where other captives are forced to perform the same interminable task. Niki throws around legal terms like ‘illegal confinement’, but this is a community where every household must pitch in to keep the sliding sand at bay, so his protestations do not carry any clout with the villagers who know that he will eventually adapt. On his first night in the pit, Niki asks the widow, ‘Are you shovelling to survive, or surviving to shovel?’ The answer is probably a combination of the two; practicality and routine are the main virtues of this society in that it fights against, yet also deeply respects the surrounding elements, practising what the widow refers to as ‘Love for one’s native place’. Indeed, sand is everywhere to the extent that meals are eaten with an umbrella overhead in order to keep the food clean and Niki’s statement, ‘the sand could swallow up cities, even countries’, acknowledges its power. Members of this society are valued according to their usefulness, and when Niki almost becomes a victim of the environment - sinking in quicksand when trying to escape - he is rescued by the villagers, but only so that they can immediately get him back to work.
All of this suggests that Woman of the Dunes can be read as a critique of closed communities, but Niki’s captivity within this secret society is actually meant to represent man’s struggle with modern social restraints. Woman of the Dunes was written by Kôbô Abe, based on his existential novel, and like the subsequent collaborations between the novelist and Teshigahara - The Face of Another (1966) and The Man without a Map (1968) - deals with freedom and identity in an economically resurgent Japanese society that was forcing men into required roles in order to maintain stability. The society in Woman of the Dunes assigns their captive such a task and puts him to work for the greater good, causing Niki to lose his sense of self as he struggles to escape. Niki ultimately comes to question what ‘freedom’ means in relation to the modern world and accepts that unlimited freedom is not achievable but that, within the parameters of social restraints, some measure of freedom and personal satisfaction is still possible. Rather than fight against his predicament, Niki choses to find fulfilment within it, and discovers a method of extracting water from the sand, while settling into his domestic arrangement with the widow, who becomes his partner. By becoming a productive member of the community, Niki is even able to achieve his ambition of getting his name in print, albeit on a missing person report rather than in an encyclopaedia. When an opportunity to escape the village eventually presents itself, Niki voluntarily extends his stay, with his decision to remain in the dune suggesting that he has decided that it is not such a ‘terrible place to live’ after all. This speaks volumes about the manner in which man becomes accustomed to his environment, but the final frames of Woman of the Dunes also serve to summarise Abe’s thoughts about Japanese society in 1964.