Suna no onna
Review by Rich Watts
Posted on 03 April 2005
Source 35mm print
Reviews: The Face of Another
Woman of the Dunes, the Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara’s second film, can be seen as: an existentialist tale, a cautionary allegory for capitalism and its effects on workers and a love story tinged with a sense of resignation. Should Kafka, Camus and Sartre have compiled their considerable talents to make a film, Teshigahara’s masterpiece may very well have been the film they produced; not only does the film present a crushing, suffocating metaphor of the human condition but also retains a subtle hope for the plight of the individual in an apparently meaningless existence.
The premise is certainly disconcerting: a young entomologist Junpei Niki is captured by villagers and made to live in an inescapable sand pit with the woman of the title. In order to survive, he must dig the sand that constantly threatens to subsume the pit—the sand he digs eventually hoisted away by the villagers to sell to towns far away. Despite many attempts to escape, Niki eventually resigns himself to the repetitive demands of survival and the unnamed woman with which he shares the pit, accepting his unfortunate lot and finding interest in the small experiments he develops whilst life continues in the outside world.
Asked by the stranded man of his new companion, the central question of Woman of the Dunes is the following: “Are you digging sand to live or living to dig sand?” Cast into this desperate situation, Niki — whose work as an entomologist he hoped would secure him a renown long beyond his lifetime — is struggling to come to terms with circumstances tantamount to death. For Niki, the film is a journey: after all, his fate at the hands of the villagers is determined by falling asleep in a stranded boat, thus launching his voyage into the unknown. During this journey, Niki tempers his ambitions from escape and immortality to a small, simple water experiment and a calm resignation: once he is ensconced in his tomb, Niki realises and accepts that which his life is to become—the repetition and routine of digging the sand in exchange for provisions from the elders of the town. It is suggested, though, that being trapped in a nameless desert performing a seemingly useless function is not so different from being chained to the repetition of work in the city of Tokyo — a world the woman assumes to be more appealing — delivering a message that is anathema to many a modern audience in view of the endless rat race and the desire to “get ahead.”
The question Niki eventually comes to terms with then — if life seems to be a meaningless repetition of dull routines, then what is the point to it — is the existentialist basis that supports the suggestion that Kafka et al could very well have made this film.
Filmed in black and white, the sand of Woman of the Dunes is unrelenting: so oppressive and eternal as to symbolically prescribe Niki’s place in the grand scheme of things. Here we have a house literally built on sand. Interestingly, there are also several references to the watering effect that sand can have. Combined with Niki’s reservoir experiment this leads to a curious paradox: the very substance that holds Niki and the woman prisoner is that which can give them life. This paradox represents the juxtaposition of living and dying. Certainly, the sand — or death, if you prefer — is inescapable, finding its way into every nook and cranny, seemingly reaching beyond the screen and into the comfort of the cinema—Hiroshi Segawa’s photography making the viewer feel like they have sand between their toes, desperate for a sip of the water Niki finds so desirable.
In truth, there is hope amongst the dunes; if there weren’t, man probably wouldn’t have made it this far. As director Teshigahara himself commented: “Once man recognises life as merely a repetition of meaningless actions, like digging at a sand dune, it can sometimes be surprisingly interesting.” Certainly, for Niki through his water experiment, life has become interesting despite, or perhaps in spite of the circumstances. Teshigahara nods towards an answer — insofar as there is one — to the question of life, suggesting that it lies not in what we contribute to the surrounding world but to the people around us. It is said that people look for companions in life so that there is someone who can pay testament to their existence: no one wants to die alone and forgotten. Thus Niki, having found the woman of the dunes, can throw away his intimations of immortality because he has found a person on whom he exerts influence and from whom he feels warmth; ultimately the woman is someone who, when he dies, will remember him and therefore be able to confirm his existence. As such, the questions Niki has concerning the point of his existence are eventually superseded by those of the dependence of our hero and heroine on each other in order to survive.
Living, existing, surviving: it is a curious and compelling triangle, and though the abstraction of Woman of the Dunes is one nobody could call familiar, it is a triangle whose balance any audience member can observe in their own life. Far from being an abstract lesson in existentialism, Woman of the Dunes is a cautionary, redemptive take on life whose message remains relevant and contemporary 40 years after its theatrical release.