The Woman in the Dunes

The Woman in the Dunes is a 1964 film directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, with a screenplay by Kōbō Abe, based on his own novel. Junpei Niki (Eiji Okada) is an amateur entomologist who is collecting insects in dunes near the sea. He misses his bus back to town, so he asks some people from a nearby village if there is a place where he can spend the night. They take him to a pit with a house at the bottom of it. They tell him the woman who lives there (Kyoko Kishida) will put him up for the night. Junpei doesn’t find anything strange or suspicious about this. He climbs down a rope ladder into the pit. He learns that the woman (we’re never told her name) digs sand, which is then hauled up with a rope. The villagers sell the sand. The next morning, he finds that the villagers have pulled up the ladder. They want him to remain in the pit and dig sand with the woman. He refuses to dig and demands that they let him go. The villagers withhold water from him for several days until he finally gives in.

Junpei and the woman develop a sexual relationship. (I can’t really call it a romance, especially since he never asks her what her name is.) Junpei escapes from the pit, but he gets stuck in quicksand and the villagers capture him. Months go by and Junpei becomes resigned to his situation. One day he asks the villagers if he can be allowed to leave the pit for a half hour at a time, so he can look at the sea. They tell him they will let him do it on one condition: that he and the woman have sex in front of them. The woman is revolted by this idea. Junpei, however, is so debased at this point that he tries to rape her – but he is unable to go through with it.

Later Junpei discovers a way to draw water from the sand. He feels immensely pleased with himself. The discovery gives him a sense of self-respect in his humiliating situation. One day, the woman becomes ill. Junpei displays genuine concern for her. He persuades the villagers to take her to a doctor. They lift her out of the pit with a rope. When they are done with this, they forget to pull up the rope ladder. Junpei climbs out of the pit. He walks along the beach for a while, and then he climbs back into the pit. He gazes admiringly at his water trap. He tells himself that he will one day tell the villagers about this discovery, then he will escape. The film ends with a shot of a police bulletin saying that Junpei has been missing for seven years.

The message of this film is that we don’t try to free ourselves because we take consolation in petty achievements. I think there is some truth in this idea. An office worker prides himself on getting the corner office, instead of trying to get rid of the capitalist system that exploits him.

This film is beautifully done. There are many shots of shifting sand. I never before realized that sand can move in surprisingly complex and interesting ways. The sex scenes are subtly erotic and tastefully done.

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