Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Woman in the Dunes which won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is one of the most haunting and beautifully shot parables on the themes of human nature, identity and civilized life. The story is about a man named Junpei Niki who is a teacher and entomologist off on an expedition to collect several insects that inhabit several of the sand dunes in the desert. When he misses his bus to the nearest town, he is then tricked by a villager to be lowered into one of the dunes for shelter for the night. Early the next morning, Niki comes to realize he is now a slave to the villagers and along with a widow who has lived within the dunes for several years now, is forced to dig sand for profit and also to save the house from being buried in the advancing sand storms. Film critic Roger Ebert calls Woman in the Dunes, "The modern version of the myth of Sisyphus, the man condemned by the gods to spend eternity rolling a boulder to the top of a hill, only to see it roll back down." Woman in the Dunes is one of the most beautifully shot films I have ever witnessed and the hypnotic power of its visuals sucks the viewer inside its seductive story. It's abstract tangible shots of textures, sand, insects, skin and water that seeps into the sand to give it shapes and create new forms, gives the dunes a haunting life of its own. The film's themes of isolation, identity adaptions, and psycho-sexual imagery of hostility, forced labor, and bondage are only some of the powerful metaphors within the exterior of the story, in which these two characters every day are forced to work, eat, sleep and have sex; like uncivilized animals. The teacher and the woman are both slaves to the villagers and yet the woman accepts her fate while the teacher struggles and tries his best to escape from it so he can return to normal civilized society.
The film opens with a shot of the vast desert of dust and wind as a amateur Entomologist named Niki Jumpees has his back to the camera climbs up a towering dune in the middle of the desert. Niki is taking pictures of several bugs and insects and in some cases even stores them within small specimen containers, while his main goal is to find a tiger beetle which could get his name in a field guide to the region. While taking pictures a villager approaches him from behind asking him if what he is doing is an inspection. Niki says he collects insects saying, "I specialize in these sand bugs." The villager thought Niki at first was from the prefectural office but Niki reassures him he is only a school teacher.
Niki later takes a rest on top of an abandoned boat on the shore near the sea and lays under the hot sun. While he is resting he is thinking to himself all the critical important papers that a person needs that can either tell a person who they are or can have a person either receive what they want or stop others from obtaining it within the world of civilized society. "The certificates we use to make certain of one another: contracts, licenses, ID cards, permits, deeds, certificates, registrations, carry permits, union cards, testimonials, bills, IOUs, temporary permits, letter of consent, income statements, certificates of custody, even proof of pedigree. Is that all of them? Men and women are slaves to their fear of being cheated. In turn they dream up new certificates to prove their innocence. No one can say where it will end."
Niki suddenly gets awaken from his nap by the same villager as before and is asked what he will be doing now. Niki tells him he will be going back into town tomorrow but the villager informs him that the last bus had left already. The villager says he can ask around and find him a place to stay for the night. The villager leads Niki to a large dune as the villager shouts down below, "hey, you old hag! Whatchya doin? You've got a guest!" A woman responds from below that a ladder is beside the bales. Niki asks the villager if he's sure it's ok and the villager said to not worry and that it's very informal here. "This is quite the adventure" Niki says as he slowly climbs down into the dune using a rope ladder.
After arriving to the bottom of the dune and trying to resist the sand getting into his eye he enters a small hut and a woman welcomes him in. "Thanks for your hospitality," he tells her. She tells him that dinner will be ready soon and when he asks for a bath she tells him to wait until the day after tomorrow. "The day after tomorrow?" he asks her. "I'm afraid not. I only have three days off." Niki tries to remove the sand from his clothes and between his toes as he does the best to make himself comfortable. When dinner is made the woman puts up an umbrella over the dinner table just in case some sand seeps in from above. Niki asks her if the roof is damaged and she says that it's the same with newly thatched roofs. She explains to him that a beam down there can get spongy and rot and when she mentions that the sand is what causes that Niki believes that to be nonsense because sand is naturally dry and doesn't bring in moisture.
The woman tells Niki, "they say if you leave sand on clogs they'll rot in two weeks." Niki starts to laugh saying how ridiculous that is and he just brushes off her comments. After dinner Niki realizes that sand has piled up on top of the umbrella and the woman says, "when it's windy, two feet of sand can pile up in one night." That evening Niki asks her about her family and she says that she lives alone stating, "last year a storm swallowed up my husband and daughter. The sand roared down like a waterfall." Niki tells her how awful that is and when the lamp suddenly goes out she tells him that it's because of the sand.
Suddenly they hear someone from above yelling to them that they brought the helper tools. "He just said something about a helper," Niki says. "He meant you," the woman says to Niki. The woman gets up and grabs a shovel and leaves the hut. Niki walks outside to see what the woman is doing and is shocked to find her shoving sand and when asked why she says it's easier at night because the sand is moist. The villagers come by once again to lower more supplies to the woman and Niki asks her how long she works and she tells him till morning.
Niki heads to bed and when he wakes up in the early morning he quietly gets dressed to leave without waking the woman. Before he leaves he looks at her and decides to leave some cash for letting him spend the night. When leaving the hut he is shocked to find the rope ladder that he used to climb down in the dune now is no longer there. Niki tries to climb up the mountain but the sand is too soft and it keeps breaking away and sliding from out under him. He walks back into the hut to wake the woman up and asks her if she could get the rope ladder for him. "I'd like to be on my way" he tells her. I can't dawdle."
When he realizes that it was a rope ladder and that it could have only be lowered from above he discovers that this was all a trap. "I'm sorry" she tells him. "but you know...this life's really too hard for a woman alone. The north winds will come soon. There may be sandstorms too." Niki yells, "you're holding me captive? Is this a joke? I'm not some homeless bum. I'm a respected teacher. I'm registered with the city. You'll be in trouble when I'm reported missing. Illegal confinement is a serious offense." The woman tells him that if she falls behind, her hut will get buried and the other houses will follow. Niki is furious and yells, "Fine! let it be! You can't drag me into this! They can all get buried for all I care! Why do you cling to this place? You must be mad! You don't owe those villagers a damn thing. I can't share your sense of self-sacrifice. Let them deal with the sand scientifically, with tree fences or something."
She tells Niki that the villagers calculated that it's much cheaper to get the sand this way. Niki runs outside and frantically tries to dig his way up the mountain with a shovel and then try to climb up with the natural slope of the sand as several of the villagers watch him from above. Suddenly an avalanche of sand comes down and knocks Niki down and covers him. The woman takes him back inside the hut and heals him. Niki wakes up in complete agony and the woman wipes down his back with a wet rag. Niki asks her where his clothes are and she tells him that he shouldn't wear clothes when sleeping because the sand can give him a rash because of the moisture. Niki gets up and quickly grabs the woman and ties her up with several rags. "You reap what you sow" he tells her as he starts packing once again. "Men aren't dogs. You can't put them on a leash."
The villagers lower a pail from above for the sand and Niki grabs the robe and doesn't let it go and threatens the villagers saying, "she's tied up inside! If you want to help her, pull me up!" The villagers start wheeling him up but stop around half way and then let the rope go so Niki collapses to the ground. Back inside the hut with the woman tending to Niki's wounds he says, "They haven't won yet. The battle's just begun. I've got the upper hand. This is actually a good experience. Maybe I'll write about it when I get back." Suddenly the villagers drop down a bottle of champagne and several cartons of cigarettes for Niki and the woman. "How thoughtful giving me booze to celebrate in advance." Niki says sarcastically as he plans another escape.
The woman tells Niki for them to be careful because the rations only come once a week. Niki asked if there were other men before him that were abducted and the woman says last fall there was a postcard salesman and a student who actually is still working in one of the other dunes. Hours pass and Niki eventually decides to untie the woman out of pity since she doesn't seem to be a threat in any way. After two nights of Niki not wanting to shovel or dig Niki finally realizes the danger of not digging and how the two of them could eventually be smothered in. "Make the sand work for you, not against you. Even a monkey could be trained to do this work." Niki says and he suddenly snaps out of frustration for being forced to dig against his will and starts breaking down the hut with a shovel as the woman psychically tries to stop him because he could cause them to be caved in. Niki fights back and holds the woman down on the floor as another avalanche of sand rains down on their hut.
Niki lets her go and she runs outside after the avalanche. After the avalanche calms down and completely stops, Niki feels guilty for attacking the woman. He follows her outside the hut and he politely asks the woman if she wants him to brush off the sand. While he is about to wipe her down she asks him, "but aren't all the city girls prettier than me?" He tells her that's nonsense and strips her top off to wipe her down and as he is cleaning her off the two of them push their bodies closer to one another. The woman starts to get turned on with Niki's sexual energy and grabs his behind. She then starts to sexually touch his back and body as the two of them give into their sexual desires and temptations and go inside and make love like two wild animals. As they make love you see their bodies touching, squeezing and rubbing against one another mixing in with the wet sand. The sexual act of the two of their bodies against one another makes for an interesting contrast to the slow slide of sand down coming down the mountain outside on the dunes.
The next morning Niki completely breaks down realizing the villagers won't give in and he agrees to finally start digging with the woman. The villagers later lower water for Niki and the woman, and they both start digging all throughout the evening. She tells Niki too slow down because he will tire himself out to early and he asks her, "doesn't all this seem pointless to you? Are you shoveling sand to live or living to shovel sand?" How can you stand to be trapped like this?" The woman tells him she does it because this place is her home. Niki believes that after a week from missing work people will question where he is and will eventually come out here to look for him. The woman then tells him that her husband and child were buried alive down in the dunes which is why she chooses to not fight back and escape because she wants to be with them.
Niki asks her if she ever feels the need to escape so she has the freedom to walk around aimlessly as she wants. She laughs at Niki's comment and says to him, "isn't it exhausting, just walking around aimlessly?" Niki is angry that she is laughing at his comment and says, "even dogs go crazy chained up all day! And were human beings!" She tells him, "But you see if it weren't for the sand, people wouldn't bother about me. Not even you." Days pass and one day Niki finds a Tiger beetle outside the hut which ironically was the main reason he was brought to the desert in the first place. The villagers during the night call out for Niki calling him the widow's husband as a joke. The woman tells them Niki caught a chill and the villagers laugh and say to her, "Or maybe you gave him to much lovin!" During this time Niki is inside making a grappling rope with a scissors and a log and hides it under the sand.
The woman asks Niki if he wants to leave her and she offers to him a radio that she is slowly saving up for the villagers to get for her. She says that with the radio he can finally get to hear about the outside world. He tells her, "I began collecting insects to get away from all that. Compared to that unfathomable way of life, getting my name in a book is at least something tangible." Later that night the two of them drink champagne and Niki has the woman soap and bath him. During the next early morning, Niki quietly gets up while the woman is sleeping and grabs his supplies including the grappling rope he recently made and makes his daring escape. He climbs to the top of the hut and throws the grappling rope on the top of the dune until he gets a snag. Struggling as he climbs up the mountain Niki successfully reaches the top and tries to make a run to a near town before sunrise.
But Niki gets lost in the desert because he doesn't know the geography of the area seeing only endless desert around him. Suddenly he runs into quick sand and he gets completely stuck so Niki has no other choice but to call out for help. The villagers finally arrive and Niki yells out telling them to pull him out with the grappling rope he tosses over to them. One of the villagers says, "you fool, we can't pull you out like some kind of root. We'll dig you out. Grab on to the board." They eventually dig and pull Niki out and later return him back down into the dunes.
Later that day back in the hut the woman offers to make Niki tea as he believes he is an utter failure for getting caught trying to escape. "I didn't know the geography, that's why. But eventually they'll come looking for me: my friends, the union, the school board the PTA. They won't let me die here." The woman offers to wash and soap Niki again that evening. Three months or so pass and one afternoon a crow trap that Niki made seems to be his last hope for escape. He plans to trap a crow and tie a message to its legs asking for help.
The woman believes that the people Niki thinks will be coming for him probably won't because they will think he probably chose to leave his job and move away. She then asks Niki what's in Tokyo waiting for him and if it's really worth it. When the villagers arrive to drop down some rations Niki asks them if they could let him be able to walk around freely up on the surface near the sea for thirty minutes, once a day promising not to escape. One of the villagers says that the village council will discuss his proposition.
Later that night Niki snaps on the woman for foolishly trying to save up her rations for a radio, believing it to be pointless in this world they inhabit. Niki tells her, "They don't care about you. I know that much. People only care about themselves. Here we are, ruthlessly exploited yet happily wagging our tails. Before you know it they'll abandon us here." The woman doesn't believe so because all the sand is here and the villagers need them to dig the sand so they can sell it to all the factories in the town. Niki believes she is joking because it is illegal to sell sand like this that is too salty. The woman says, "under the table, at half price," as she explains to him that the high content of the salt makes concrete construction buildings collapse. It is realized that these villagers only care for themselves and a profit, choosing to not worry about people who are unknown to them. Niki says, "Living here is like building a house on water when a boat would make more sense. Such rigid thinking. It has to be a house or nothing at all."
The woman then confesses to Niki on how happy she is with him there with her saying, "I'm so frightened every morning, every night that I go to sleep that I'll wake up alone again. That really frightens me." In the evening one of the villagers shouts out to Niki and asks him if he still wants to see the sea because it's a possibility. Niki comes outside the hut and yells back, "Will you let me? Please. I've learned my lesson." One of the villagers says "Okay, but show us some you-know-what. Both of you come out where everybody can see you" Suddenly several other villagers appear from above watching and laughing as they all want Niki to put on a sex act with him and the woman as some of the villagers even turn on a spotlight and play music for their entertainment. The woman hears this and tells Niki that they are not perverts and he should just ignore the villagers demands but he says to her, "look, we don't have to take it so seriously." Niki is at first reluctant on exploiting himself or the woman but he eventually agrees and he runs into the hut and forcibly tries to grab the woman and pull her outside. The both of them struggle with one another as she tries to resist him and all the villagers are laughing enjoying the show. Niki yells to the woman during the struggle saying, "Who cares? Were living like animals anyways!" She eventually pulls away from him and the two of them pathetically break down and collapse on the ground.
The next morning Niki realizes his crow trap somehow created water and he is shocked and intrigued by this sudden discovery because it hadn't rained in over 3 weeks. He believes it to be a capillary action and if he can perfect the technique, the two of them would never have to worry about water again. In the next several months Niki becomes absorbed in the task of perfecting his technology and slowly finds himself engrossed and preoccupied with this experiment, not worrying as much about him being held prisoner. He begins to adapt to his trapped life and his surroundings. The focus of the film shifts to the way him and the woman cope with the oppressiveness of their situation. During this study Niki starts to learn that the evaporation of the surface is why the ground is drawing up underground moisture thus creating water; which is similar to a giant pump.
Near the conclusion of the film the winter months come by as Niki and the woman struggle to survive the horrific conditions of the winter storms. One day the woman seems to be in extreme pain as she says to herself, "just another day now." Niki sends out a signal for the villagers to check on the woman's health. A few of the villagers decent down into the hut and they discover that the woman is pregnant since October with Niki's child and it may be ectopic. The villagers decide she has to get immediate care and so they wrap her up in a futon, as one of the villagers gives Niki the radio that the woman worked so hard to finally receive. While the villagers are raising the woman out of the dune inside a net, Niki want's to reveal his discovery on the water pump but decides it's not the right time to tell them.
When the villagers leave the dunes by using the rope ladder that was lowered from above they must have forgotten to grab the rope ladder and pull it back up. Niki notices this and he realizes he has an opportunity to finally escape when he pleases. He makes his way up the ladder and reaches the top of the dune now free and looks out into the windy vast desert. And yet for whatever reason he chooses not to run and make an escape attempt this time. He instead walks toward the sea and focuses on the water pump hidden near the dune as he notices a child watching him from behind a mountain. Niki thinks to himself, "there's no need to rush away just yet. I have a return ticket. I'm free to write in my own origin and destination. Besides, I'm bursting with the desire to tell someone about the pump. And who better to tell than these villagers? If not today, maybe tomorrow. I'm sure I'll end up telling somebody. I can think about escaping the day after that."
The last shot is the police report of Niki missing for now for over seven years as he is listed as disappeared.
JAPANESE NEW WAVE
The Japanese New Wave, is the term for a group of Japanese filmmakers emerging from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. The term also refers to their work, in a loose creative movement within Japanese film, from a similar time period.
Unlike the French nouvelle vague, the Japanese movement initially began within the studios, albeit with young, and previously little-known filmmakers. The term was first coined within the studios (and in the media) as a Japanese version of the French New Wave movement. Nonetheless, the Japanese New Wave filmmakers drew from some of the same international influences that inspired their French colleagues, and as the term stuck, the seemingly artificial movement surrounding it began to rapidly develop into a critical and increasingly independent film movement.
One distinction in the French movement was its roots with the journal Cahiers du cinéma; as many future filmmakers began their careers as critics and cinema deconstructionists, it would become apparent that new kinds of film theory (most prominently, auteur theory) were emerging with them.
The Japanese movement developed at roughly the same time (with several important 1950s precursor films), but arose as more of a movement devoted to questioning, analyzing, critiquing and (at times) upsetting social conventions.
Directors initially associated with the Japanese New Wave included Hiroshi Teshigahara, Nagisa Oshima, Yoshishige Yoshida, Sh?hei Imamura, K? Nakahira and Seijun Suzuki. Working separately, they explored a number of ideas previously not often seen in more traditional Japanese cinema: social outcasts as protagonists (including criminals or delinquents), uninhibited sexuality, changing roles of women in society, racism and the position of ethnic minorities in Japan, and the critique of (or deconstruction of) social structures and assumptions.
The names Hiroshi Teshigahara, Kobo Abe, and Toru Takemitsu loom large among Japanese intellectuals of the late twentieth century. Each in his own right was an artist of peculiar genius, each resisting easy classification in conventional categories: Teshigahara as filmmaker, designer, flower artist, potter, calligrapher; Takemitsu as composer, poet, musical theorist, philosopher; and Abe as novelist, playwright, director, theater innovator. Individually, they transformed every area of artistic endeavor they turned to, and they are among the small handful of Japanese writers and artists who have had a significant, lasting impact on international culture.
In the mid-1960s, these three artists came together in a series of extraordinary film collaborations that shocked their more conventional countrymen and instantly won enthusiastic response abroad. Through work intended principally for Japanese audiences, the three struck a chord that harmonized unexpectedly, but perfectly, with the sensibilities and existentialist instincts of the international avant-garde. Their four films—Pitfall (1962), Woman in the Dunes (1964), The Face of Another (1966), and Man Without a Map (1968)—set Japan center stage in the intellectual discourse of a world seeking answers to questions about identity, human existence, and the alienation of modern man in urban society. The first three of those landmark films are collected in this box set.
Although Teshigahara, as director, was responsible for organizing and unifying these collaborations, it is otherwise difficult to distinguish absolutely the separate contributions of each of the three artists. To say that Abe wrote the screenplays, Takemitsu composed the musical scores, and Teshigahara provided the imagery is too simplistic. Each of the three challenged, provoked, and enhanced the work of the others. They’d all known and admired each other since the late 1950s. Teshigahara had asked Takemitsu to produce concerts of contemporary music at Sogetsu, his family’s avant-garde art center, in Tokyo, and in 1959, Takemitsu had produced a superb musical score for Teshigahara’s debut film, José Torres, about a Puerto Rican boxer in New York City. Even before Abe’s Woman in the Dunes first appeared, in 1962, as a best-selling novel, both Teshigahara and Takemitsu had recognized its potential as a film and begun planning the unique aesthetic that might sustain the transfer from printed page to screen. Abe had worked earlier with Takemitsu on radio dramas and seen how the composer’s soundscapes brought unexpected emotional depth to his words. When they all finally came together on Pitfall, Teshigahara’s innate tendencies toward overexpression were quickly reined in by the austerity of Abe’s vision and the sere understatement of Takemitsu’s sounds. Each artist involved himself deeply in the work of the others, and none of them hesitated to criticize or reshape the work of the others in order to strengthen it or give it deeper meaning.
“He gave me much more than just music,” Teshigahara reminisced about Takemitsu, shortly after the death, in 1996, of the composer who provided the music for every one of his feature films. “He gave me ideas and energy and a kind of trust that never failed. He was always more than a composer. He involved himself so thoroughly in every aspect of a film—script, casting, location shooting, editing, and total sound design—that a willing director can rely totally on his instincts.” Much the same was said by and about each member of this triangular collaboration. Both Abe and Takemitsu had strong visual instincts, as revealed in their private sketches and designs, and they were not hesitant to advise Teshigahara on the look of the films. (Abe later went on to devise unique theatrical works that abandoned language and verbal communication, relying entirely on movement, visual stage patterns, and soundscapes.)
Abe, born in 1924, was the oldest of the trio and in a sense initiated the collaborations by first penning the texts on which the films were based. Pitfall, the earliest of the films, emerged from sketches for stories that were still percolating in the writer’s mind. Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another were both based on best-selling novels of the same names, which were transformed into films almost immediately after the books were published. Teshigahara was three years younger than Abe, and Takemitsu, born in 1930, was the youngest of the three. Teshigahara was perhaps the most “Japanese” in heritage and upbringing. He was the son of Sofu Teshigahara, a painter, sculptor, calligrapher, and the creator of the highly innovative Sogetsu flower school. Born into a family of considerable wealth and influence, which traced its antecedents back to the aristocracy of medieval Japan, Hiroshi Teshigahara was a highly educated intellectual whose artistic instincts might be called hereditary, albeit honed by the devastating turmoil of World War II.
Abe and Takemitsu came from very different backgrounds than Teshigahara, and the two of them shared the experience of being reared outside Japan, in the vast wilderness of Manchuria, during the 1930s period of Japanese colonization. Like other Japanese writers and artists born or raised in China or Manchuria during that era, Takemitsu and Abe exhibited a kind of freedom and self-confidence that was not shared by Japanese who grew up in the much tighter, socially constrained circumstances of the Japanese Islands. In Manchuria, one could gaze out over vast terrain, with almost nothing blocking a view of the distant horizon—something that was virtually impossible in the densely populated and mountainous geography of Japan. The magnitude of that Manchurian landscape seemed to set them free.
As young adults, both Abe and Takemitsu had been sent back to Japan to be educated, but the frontier life had spoiled them for conventional schooling. Both were bored in school and followed paths of self-education far different from what their parents had envisioned. Abe was pressured by his physician father to enter medical school at Tokyo University, but he failed his examinations and boldly told his professors that he had no intention of ever practicing medicine. Though he chose to pursue literature as a career instead, his medical studies did seem to have an influence on his writing, which is informed by a kind of scientific precision and an analytical quality in which ideas are operated on with the sharpness of a surgeon’s scalpel. Takemitsu, who was supposed to follow in the footsteps of his businessman father, was ill during the war years and the immediate postwar period and could not attend school. Tubercular and lying for years in sickbeds, he read voraciously and listened constantly to radio broadcasts of all types of music. He was intensely inspired by American jazz, broadcast by the U.S. occupation forces in postwar Japan; self-taught in musical composition, he always claimed that his only real teacher was Duke Ellington.
Japan in the late 1940s and early 1950s was a harsh terrain, still devastated by nuclear holocaust and by the fire bombings that had reduced most Japanese cities to ashes. The world in which Abe, Teshigahara, and Takemitsu came of age as expressive artists was not one for which they had been prepared by their forebears or by any social legacy. The values of prewar Japan had been utterly discredited by their nation’s defeat, the society emasculated by foreign occupiers for the first time in Japanese history. The so-called democracy that was being layered onto the Japanese body politic by temporary American rulers seemed ill fitted to a culture that had never valued individualism or freedom of expression. They wandered forth into a strange new world that had no identity of its own and was distorted by poverty and foreign occupation. Everywhere were symptoms of an existential dilemma on a vast national scale. In retrospect, it seems hardly surprising that the compelling themes of Japanese artists of the day were those of alienation, the search for identity, and the struggle for survival in a wasted landscape—or that their styles and languages of expression should have been so austere, desiccated, and severe.
The three films in this collection pose essential questions but provide few answers. Who am I? Why does one live? What is the nature of this thing called society that surrounds me? Where am I going? What is the value of my work? My relationships? My existence? These are the issues that the protagonists of these films grapple with, and they struggle alone, without a benevolent deity or a comprehending society available to provide solutions. How is the viewer of these films to respond to such characters, in such situations? Are they real, we ask ourselves, or are they mere devices in a larger allegorical universe? Are they flesh and blood or ghosts from another time and place? In the opening sequence of The Face of Another, the protagonist is introduced through an X-ray image of his face, speaking in a recognizable language but utterly detached from reality and asking questions that cannot be answered. His identity is further called into question when we realize that his bandaged visage is not his own face but that of another person, grafted onto his head. Who then is he? Is he the man whose face was burned from his body, or is he the personality of the new face, or is he some grotesque amalgam of the two?
In Pitfall, the “hero” is continually in flight from some unknown pursuers—or is he fleeing a crime, or the memory of his own misdeeds? We’re never sure. In Woman in the Dunes, an archetypal man and woman labor together at the bottom of a sand dune, continually digging sand, supposedly in order to protect some unseen village nearby. What is the society for which they sacrifice themselves? And why do they obey its dictates? When they attempt to resist their “fate,” they quickly realize that escape is impossible. Are these people Japanese or somehow universal? Is the environment of their lives any recognizable place? Or is it the tortured mental landscape of Sartre or Kafka or Camus? And where, ultimately, does the viewer stand in relationship to these spectral figures?
Abe, Teshigahara, and Takemitsu were in total accord in their vision for Woman in the Dunes. While making the film, Teshigahara frequently commented that the film had three main characters, not two: the man, the woman, and the sand. Decades after completing the film, he repeated: “The sand has its own identity . . . And without Toru’s help, we never would have been able to realize this fully.” Takemitsu’s music for Woman in the Dunes relies almost totally on a string ensemble, first recorded and subsequently rearranged and distorted electronically for desired sound effects. The sounds, alternately shrill, harsh, and menacing, form a perfect soundscape for the austere allegory of Abe’s narrative. But this “composed” music is only part of Takemitsu’s unique contribution to the film. The weird environment is the dominating quality of the film, and, recognizing this, Takemitsu gives life to the sand through sound. It is there at all times, even when a scene seems completely silent. The soft, barely audible sizzle or hiss or patter of sand—dripping, shifting, and constantly in motion—inhabits every moment of the film, as it does every moment of the protagonists’ terrifying existence. And it is through the subconscious quality of sound that the woman’s persistent reply to the man’s fearful questions—“It is the sand”—develops its total, all-enveloping meaning.
Similarly, in the scene where the man is forced to rape the woman for the sadistic pleasure of the onlooking villagers, Takemitsu uses the hypnotic drumming of the villagers’ Onigoroshi-daiko (demon-killing drums) to create a sound sequence that is as terrifying as it is dehumanizing. The drums, visually appropriate to the festive environment of the scene, take on a character far more important than their narrative identity. Deafening in its aural force and overpowering in its ritualistic, barbaric monotony, it is the sound of the drums that reduces everyone—the characters and onlookers in the film, as well as the spectators in the theater audience—to a common bestiality.
The music for Pitfall, although produced out of the straitened circumstances of an extremely tight budget, is no less innovative or harmonious. For some passages, Takemitsu’s score calls for only a single musician, playing a “prepared piano,” which produces sounds like none ever heard before in film music. The result corresponds perfectly with the film’s picture of severe hardship and deprivation in Japan’s impoverished coal-mining society. Similarly, in The Face of Another, Takemitsu’s incisive electronic music accords well with the icy visuals (the light in many shots is captured through glass or refracted in mirrors and cold reflective surfaces) of Teshigahara’s aesthetic scheme for this film about lost or artificial identity.
Viewing these three Japanese film masterpieces together, it is clear that they spring from an ideal collaboration of three extraordinary creative artists working collectively almost as if they were a single body and mind. Has the existential dilemma so pervasive in world literature of the twentieth century ever found more compelling expression than in these films by Hiroshi Teshigahara, Kobo Abe, and Toru Takemitsu?
Hiroshi Teshigahara, Kobo Abe and Takemitsu were huge among Japanese intellectuals and each of them brought upon a different talent to the film Woman in the Dunes. Before being a director Teshigahara was once a flower artist, potter and calligrapher. Teshigahara brings so much to the story especially from his work as a potter as he portrays beautiful pottery like visuals of the insects, skin textures, rough shapes, surfaces and geometric constructions of sculptural beauty. Hiroshi Teshigahara once stated about Woman in the Dunes, that the film had three main characters, not two: the man, the woman, and the sand. "The sand has its own identity. And without Torus's help, we never would have been able to realize this fully."
Takemitsu's music in the film relies more on a string assemble that was distorted electronically for desired sound effects. The sounds are very harsh, and shrill and add a powerful and haunting vibe to several scenes of the film including Niki first realizing the rope ladder has been pulled back up and when he is found lost and wandering in the middle of the desert with the glazing sun slowly rising up in the early morning. Interestingly enough, the scene in which Niki is forced to have sex with the woman for the entertaining viewing of several of the villagers, you can hear a music sequence of drums and distorted strings of the villagers parading around in masks like they are putting on a Japanese puppet show. The story of Woman in the Dunes was based on a novel and playwright by Kobo Abe which was later slightly shifted and adapted by Teshigahara and Takemitsu.
Teshigahara directed another film called The Face of Another which tells the story about a man whose face was scarred in a laboratory fire. The doctor makes him a lifelike mask that eventually starts to change the man's personality and character. Many of these themes have many similarities to the themes of identity and loss of oppression of the individual vs society which are also brought up in Woman in the Dunes. The teacher Niki for instance never seemed to accept society which is why he enjoys going away on these isolated expeditions. He even gives himself a long monologue on his dislike on people's relations with one another and how society labels others through ID cards, certificates, registrations, ect; and can identify a person or can even prove their innocence or guilt through paperwork. He seemed to already have a somewhat opposition to civilized society and in many ways was a perfect candidate to be sent within the dunes to work the rest of his life without an identity.
In many ways when accepting the villagers proposition of spending the night in the dunes is the first real step for Niki's new identity and happiness. The villagers don't even know how to identity the character of Niki and several times in the film they call him by several different names like 'teacher', 'captor', 'helper' and even 'husband' in relations to the woman he is forced to stay with. Within the story Niki's character was already much a mystery and we don't get to know very much of him. It's unsure if he was married (even though the woman asks and he purposely does not answer), had children or was even close to family, friends or colleagues. He doesn't seem to truly enjoy his job as a teacher and the only thing he seems to feel strongly about is his work and his passion and motivation to discover or create something.
By the end of the film, Niki has finally found a goal or motivation to work at which is the scientific knowledge of the water pump. It's hard to understand why he cares so much for something that seems to be so minor, and yet the context of his world is also much smaller than ares and so his achievements and the things that make him satisfied will seem much more greater and important to him then to anyone else. The themes of identity are similar to why we never get the identity of the woman's name and she is only known to us as 'woman.' We know that she once had a husband and son who unfortunately was killed in a tragic sandstorm which is why she chooses to stay in her hut and work for the villagers, because she is at least around the spirit of her dead family. And yet with the arrival of Niki, she eventually falls in love with him or at least feels that she now needs him. When the two of them have sex it is like two animals of the opposite sex finally giving into their sexual and animistic needs and their sexual union becomes understandable from a human stand point. Humans need sex like they need shelter and food and when stripped from all their civilized attributes, sex becomes much more essential and natural. This woman does not care about who Niki once was but only who he is now. The natural instincts of human intimacy become important to her and as cruelly as Niki seems to treat her; she still realizes she needs him as much as he realizes he needs her. Woman in the Dunes is one of the greatest films that explores the internal struggles of identity and the instincts of human nature vs civilized behavior. Near the end of the film Niki seems to have adapted to this new lifestyle no matter how unglamorous it seems to be. He seems to finally have found a true identity and a family with the woman and his upcoming child (if the child gets through the labor successfully.) This film also explores the issues of the civilized human being and how we rely on paperwork, technology, complete freedom, and strict rules and customs which can also reflect on how others can view you when out in society. Niki no longer has to worry about that and is able to live naturally without being labeled as a 'teacher' or 'entomologist' being completely happy in what his identity is now; even if it can't be given a label. Even though he was stripped from all his bare necessities that we as a civilized society take much of it for granted, he eventually learned to adapt to what he had and make use to it in the best of his abilities. When stripping down what Homo sapiens really need to survive, we only need food, shelter, sex, and a purpose to keep living to want to be around for another day. When Niki asked the woman if she ever felt the need to just be free and walk aimlessly around she didn't see the purpose for that. In some ways Niki lived his whole life walking aimlessly and being in the dunes, continuing his sand digging to survive and being with a partner was all he or any human being really needs to be content. Even though we humans can get almost everything we ask for, many of us still feel empty, walking aimlessly without a purpose or goal. Now that Niki has a family, and a new project to really get involved in he is probably more satisfied with the life that was given to him then the person who has all the money and freedoms in the world; but is absent of an identity or a purpose. When the end credits finally give away Niki's full name on his police report listing him as a missing person, we now know more about him then any piece of paper that shows all his credentials could ever tell us.