Woman in the Dunes: a compelling excursion into the absurd

Updated: Feb 16, 2019


Woman in the Dunes (Japan, 1964) dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara screenplay by Kōbō Abe (247 mins)

Trailer NW Film Center Japanese Currents series, April 2018

The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe tr. by E. Dale Saunders Vintage International 241 pp., 1991 (orig. pub. in Japan, 1962)

Woman in the Dunes was part of my introduction to foreign film when I began wandering into the campus theater during my freshman and sophomore years in college. Films by the likes of Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Godard, and Kurosawa were as much my education as classes on European Intellectual History 1789–1914, English Romanticism, the Presocratic philosophers, Plato, Kant, existentialism, and the sociology class where research for a term paper about the Beat Generation led to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, the Surrealists, and much else.

Woman in the Dunes did not make the immediate impression that The Seventh Seal and La Dolce Vita did. My recollection of that first viewing is about the same as that related by a woman at the Whitsell Auditorium where it played last month. While waiting for the film to start I overhead her telling a friend that she saw it before but all she remembered was a lot of sand. Along with the sand I had a hazy image of a man standing alone on the desolate dunes and a sense of time that was nothing like what is found in American movies. It was long, the pace was slow, not much happened. I suppose I remembered just enough to be intrigued when the film appeared on the NW Film Center calendar for the Japanese Currents series in April.

What did I think of Woman in the Dunes when I saw it again with forty-five years of experience as an amateur cineaste under my belt? It may go too far to say I was mesmerized, but not by a lot. I have now watched it a third time via youtube and read Kōbō Abe's novel on which the film is based. I knew nothing about Abe before doing a little research for this article. Very little research, I should add, an obituary and a Britannica entry. He turns out to be an intriguing character about whom I would like to learn more.

Abe (1924–1993) was born in Tokyo but spent most of his childhood and youth in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, where his father taught at the medical college in Mukden (now Shenyang), before returning to Tokyo when he was seventeen. He studied at Tokyo Medical School, dropped out, and toward the end of the war worked as a street vendor. In 1948 he graduated in medicine on the condition that he never practice. That was okay because by then his interests lay elsewhere.

He took up writing poems and short stories, and later novels and plays. A book of poems was published at his own expense in 1947. The next year saw more poems printed in a magazine and publication of his first novel. Recognition came quickly. He was awarded the Post War Literature Prize in 1950, and in 1951 his first collection of short stories received critical acclaim and won the Akutagawa Prize, which is awarded semiannually for the best work of fiction by a promising new Japanese writer and is considered one of Japan's most prestigious literary awards. He formed a theater company in 1973 and served as its director while writing one or two plays a year for production.

Abe became a member of a Surrealist group of writers and hung out with the avant-garde crowd, where he met director Hiroshi Teshigahara. Sometime after the war Abe joined the Communist Party but was disillusioned by a visit to Eastern Europe in 1956. His literary affinities and interests also made him suspect as a comrade. In 1962 he was expelled from the party for "Trotskyite deviation," a fate he had in common with Albert Camus.

The Woman in the Dunes was well received by critics when it was published in 1962. Abe wrote the screenplay for Teshigahara's 1964 film, which was awarded a Special Jury prize at Cannes and got Teshigahara an Oscar nomination for best director.

The film follows the novel quite closely as far as narrative sequence goes. However, the two differ in certain respects that for me make the film more compelling. Both are stark and spare, but the film is more so, the starkness emphasized by the photography in black and white. Much of the novel is taken up with interior monologue that gives the reader a way into the thoughts of the protagonist and his reactions to the strange situation in which he finds himself. The greater insight into what is going on deflects from the sense of absurdity and eeriness that is a source of the film's power. Less is explained in the film, more left for the viewer to infer from gesture, facial expression and posture, the camera's extended close-ups and still shots. Time and again the film's soundtrack has the music of a psychological thriller convey an ominous sense that something terrible is about to happen when all we get are the whistling of the wind and sand sliding down the sides of the pit where the man is trapped.

An ordinary man, a schoolteacher and insect collector (Abe collected insects as a schoolboy), takes a few days off to journey to a remote region in Japan, a desolate expanse of dunes that recede back from the sea, hoping to find a previously undiscovered variety of beetle so that his name will appear in the illustrated encyclopedias of entomology and thereby be preserved for posterity. The landscape is like nothing I ever associated with Japan. James Kirkup writes in Abe's obituary that there is such a place, describing the setting as "a mysterious remote hamlet buried deep in the sand—a haunted dream landscape such as really exists in the 'singing dunes' of Tottori."

After missing the last bus back to town the man is shanghaied by villagers on the pretext of finding him lodging for the night at a house in the village. The book has an account of the man passing through a strange little village on his way to the dunes, whereas the film opens in the midst of things, with the man deep in the dunes, nothing but sand and the bugs he snags for his collection, neither house nor village in sight, no sign of a road where he might have caught a bus.

The villagers appear out of nowhere and take him to a pit at the bottom of which is a ramshackle house that can be accessed only by a rope ladder. A villager refers to the occupant of the house as "old hag" when he yells down that they have brought her a helper. Not an old hag at all, the young woman who lives there accepts the man's sudden appearance without question, feeds him, and rolls out a futon where he can sleep. The man is puzzled by the villager's mention of a helper when no one else seems to be around and again later when the woman tells him he cannot take a bath until the day after tomorrow when the next water delivery comes.

The man awakens during the night to find the woman hard at work filling buckets with sand that the villagers hoist up and haul away. The sand is constantly blown down onto the house and other houses in the village. She must shovel it away each night or her house will be buried, and if that happens, the next house will be buried, and soon the entire village will be doomed. What next house? I imagined the man wondering as I watched the film. The work is done at night because the sand is more moist then and easier to work with. Later the man will learn that the sand, whose salt content is too high for it to be legally mixed with concrete, is sold under the table at half price to unscrupulous businesses in town. It seems this is the basis of the town's economy and survival. No attempt is made to explain how this method of dealing with the problem makes sense economically or in any other way. The man is rattled by the strangeness of it all, but he reassures himself that this is only temporary because he will be leaving first thing in the morning.

When morning comes the man finds the woman asleep, lying in the room naked except for a towel wrapped around her head to keep off the sand that seeps through the ceiling, one hand covering her private area and her body covered with a thin, glistening film of sand. Her pose conveys a suggestive, edgy sensuality that is more explicit in the book, where the man was aroused almost from the instant he found himself alone with the woman the night before. He is made uneasy by it and does not act, but he gives it some thought. The woman is more opaque. Is there invitation in her gaze before she lowers her eyes and looks away? That morning he dresses quietly so as not to disturb her, leaves money on a counter to pay for her hospitality, and steps out to discover that the rope ladder has been pulled up. There is no way out.

At first he puts the disappearance of the ladder down to a misunderstanding or mistake. In the film this is communicated through snatches of conversation with the woman and mutterings to himself. The book lays it out:

The entire nightmare could not be happening. It was too outlandish. Was it permissible to snare, exactly like a mouse or an insect, a man who had his certificate of medical insurance, someone who had paid his taxes, who was employed, and whose family records were in order? He could not believe it. Perhaps there was some mistake; it was bound to be a mistake. There was nothing to do but assume that it was a mistake.

He continues to express confidence that he will be rescued even after it becomes clear there has been no mistake and the villagers have no intention to heed his warning that there will be big trouble when his abduction comes to light. After all, he is a respected teacher, registered with the city. His friends, the union, the PTA, someone will realize he is missing and come looking.

No one comes. Grim reality sinks in. Still he resists, tying up the woman and refusing to work, whereupon the villagers cut off the weekly supply of rations, water, cigarettes, and a bottle of rotgut saké. Days and weeks pass. Attempts to escape prove futile. He falls into the routine of shoveling sand at night and develops other mundane routines to pass the time during the day.

The relationship between the man and woman moves along after its strange fashion. They never introduce themselves. She addresses him as "Mister"; he sticks with "you." The book has an almost hallucinatory sex scene with confusing talk about condoms, of which he does not have one. It was not clear to me exactly what happened or even if they went through with it on that occasion. While the film shows tenderness and a sweet eroticism when they bathe one another and wash away the sand, in a sense though the erotic is just another aspect of existence, like eating, sleeping, and shoveling sand. The man cannot understand why the woman accepts her lot. She explains that this is her home. Her husband and daughter were buried here when they were caught outside in a sandstorm the previous summer. To her mind it is settled, nothing more need be said or thought.

Toward the end there is a weird, incantatory, kabuki-like scene when the villagers respond to the man's request to be freed for a short time each day to walk about and see the sea. They tell him that his wish will be granted if he and the woman come out where everyone can see and show them some "you-know-what…you know, with your old lady." The woman dismisses this as ridiculous and tells the man to ignore them. The man is torn. An infinite desperation weighs against dignity and decency. At the top of pit stand the leering villagers, women as well as men, wearing goggles and masks, holding flashlights and flares, beating drums. In the end the villagers are deprived of their show. They walk away disappointed with the man on his knees bent over in pain and the woman on the ground sobbing, both still fully clothed.

What are Teshigahara and Abe up to with the coarse demands of the villagers and the attempted rape? Can the man be said to responsible for his action? Or has he been driven so far into madness as to be absolved of responsibility? And what of the woman? She accepts her condition, submitting to the ways and traditions of the village, patiently enduring the man's run of emotions and moods, by turns despondent, angry, lashing out verbally. Yet here she resists forcefully and, in the end, effectively.

An improbable scheme to trap a crow, tie a note to its leg, and set it free in hope that someone will capture the crow, read the note, and learn of his plight, leads to the chance discovery of a way to draw water out from the moistness of the sand. The man is fascinated. He takes measurements and enters notes and drawings in his weekly journal. Abe demonstrates his own scientific background and interests as he explains the mechanics of the process, how evaporation at the surface draws up underground moisture so that the dune acts as a pump, and in disquisitions on the nature of sand scattered throughout the book and film, always in greater detail in the book.

Of course one thinks of Kafka, Beckett, Camus and the myth of Sisyphus as they shovel away the relentless sand that will always be replaced over the next day as more sand is blown into the pit. The man asks the woman if she is shoveling sand to live or living to shovel sand. There is no answer. It would not be quite right to say that the man comes to accept his fate and find meaning in the work. It is just how things are and what must be done.

The disjunction between the traditional sensibility represented by the woman and the modern sensibility of the man is highlighted by his fascination with his pump discovery and elation when he successfully fine-tunes its set-up, to which the woman is indifferent. She has her own project, beadwork that it seems can be sold to raise money for a radio. There is intimacy of a sort, but its limits are delineated by the gulf between the woman's stoic, or maybe we should say Taoist, acceptance of the way things are and the man's alienation and rebellion.

I have run on further than anticipated and still I fear I fail to convey the film's remarkable impact. It is quite an experience. After the film, while waiting at the bus stop, I ran into photographer James Honzik, an old acquaintance from poetry open mics at Mojo's Coffee Den, the Blue Monk, and other scenes. He too had just seen the film and was ecstatic, perhaps even more so than I. It is no easy or small thing to render absurdity compelling, to make it something more than merely weird and convention defying. Teshigahara and Abe pull it off. References

  • Ronald Bergan, Hiroshi Teshigahara, The Guardian, April 25, 2001. Bergan calls Woman in the Dunes an erotic masterpiece. He mentions that Teshigahara's other film adaptions of Abe's novels did not fare as well. The Face of Another sounds intriguing, a tale "about a scientist whose face was disfigured during an industrial explosion. Subsequently, he hides behind a handsome mask and, in this disguise, he seduces his wife and then accuses her of adultery."

  • Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, Abe Kōbō: Japanese Author. The Britannica entry notes that Abe Kōbō is the pseudonym of Abe Kimifusa.

  • James Kirkup, Obituary: Kōbō Abe, The Independent, January 23, 1993

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David Matthews

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