Woman in the Dunes | Dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara | Japan (1964)
Screening on Friday, February 8, 2013 | 6:30 PM Eastern
TIFF Pacific Cinematheque
As the credits open this 1964 classic, a quiet whistling wind is interspersed with the eerie instrumentals of a horror movie, that is, a series of percussive clack clacks as well as foreboding horns and the kind of screeching violins that will make your ears squirm. This opening score to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes brilliantly sets the tone of the film, though I wouldn’t necessarily categorize it as a horror movie in the classical sense of the genre.
Based on the novel by Kobo Abe under the same title, Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes tells the story of how a teacher/hobby entomologist Jumpei Niki (played by Eiji Okada) becomes trapped into eking out a sand-digging domestic life with a widow (played by Kyoko Kishida) in a rickety shack at the bottom of a sand dune. No one is forcing this widow to dig out the sand that is threatening to swallow up her home, but if she refuses to work, then her food and water rations will be cut–and if her home collapses, then the next home will collapse, creating a domino effect that will engulf the entire village living on top of the sand dune.
Horror films typically feature an evil force or character, and people tend to die or suffer in some bloody way via zombies, immortal monsters, axes, and other murderous elements. This film is just as frightful as any typical horror movie, but the antagonistic force is more abstract and existential.
Imagine being forced to live out your days perpetually shoveling your home out of the sand because it was the most cost effective way for your village to remain on top of the dune? Imagine also going on vacation to catch some bugs only to end up sand bound to a strange woman in a shack who has simply accepted her lot in life and all she wants in life is a partner to help her with the sand shoveling? I don’t know what is more dreadful: Okada’s character being forced into monotonous pointless labour or Kishida’s character being perfectly content with performing such mindless labour.
The film’s sinister soundtrack, along with these existential questions, make for a terrifying movie watching experience. But there is also immense beauty in the film. I will never forget the gorgeous sequences of Okada’s character traversing an epic desert landscape. We get magnificent imagery of a man marooned on a boat in a sandy desert, rivulets edged into the sand like frozen ocean waves, and shots of sand cracking open, crumbling and sliding into sparkly glittering waterfalls. Then there are all the stunning close-up shots of various insects and even grains of sand. One of my favourite sequences in the film: close-up angles of Okada and Kishida’s sand speckled sweat glistening skin in desperate moments of thirst for water and each other’s bodies–the iconic image being Okada and Kishida rolling around in the sand, rubbing the sand and frustration off their flesh.
If you happen to be in or around Toronto this weekend, I highly recommend that you check out Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes on the big screen at TIFF which is screening this Friday, February 8, 2013, at 6:30 PM Eastern as part of Japanese Divas: Great Actresses of Japanese Cinema. Woman in the Dunes is just one among many classics being featured in TIFF’s retrospective on the great actresses from the golden age of Japanese cinema.
Literary editor for Schema Magazine, Malissa is a second gen Canadian and third gen Sino-Vietnamese. A firm believer in the power of words and yoga, she is known for her unrestrained and infectious laugh. Her guilty pleasures include predictable crime shows, sexy legal dramas, dancing with wild abandon, and ethnic restaurants. She’s also finishing a PhD dissertation on Aboriginal-Chinese relations in Chinese Canadian literature. You can find her on Twitter @loudmouthAsian or on academia.edu.