The phrase vast stretches of sand doesn’t even begin to describe it. There are waves trickling down, making it all look like a limitless ocean of sand, there are enormous mountains of sand, which, while the sand is shifting, look like avalanches. We see sand falling down with great force, like a waterfall. The sand is not so much a part of their life, it pretty much is their life. It is the only all-pervading reality that engulfs them, is on their bodies, and in the water they drink. And between all this, when the woman asks “Are the girls prettier in Tokyo?“, and keeps demanding that they get a radio, so it would take their mind off things, and they’d be able to get the weather report, you cannot help but laugh at the sheer absurdity of it all.
This frightening absurdity lies at the heart of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes, an adaptation of Kobo Abe‘s novel of the same name (he also wrote the screenplay), and the single finest cinematic realisation of Albert Camus‘ The Myth of Sisyphus, a parable about a man condemned by the gods to endlessly rolling a huge boulder up a mountain top, after which it would fall down again. And huge sand pits seem a most perfect way of visually recreating a Sisyphus-like state of existence. You can climb the most formidable mountain, but how do you climb a mountain of sand? Or how do you swim in an ocean of sand? You can never cling on to it, but neither can you get it off your skin. And so on. It is one of the movie’s many triumphs that it evokes Sisyphus’ eternal predicament by engaging the eyes, ears, mind and heart, but perhaps most astonishingly, the skin. I’ve yet to see a movie that has such a rich tangible effect, generating an eroticism you can virtually feel. We see the delicately beautiful Kyoko Kishida, disheveled hair and all, including close ups of her skin covered in sweat and sand, and find her, because (and not in spite) of this, bestowed with a unique, electrifying sexuality.
Kyoko Koshida plays a widow, living alone in a sandpit, in a village full of sand dunes. Her’s is a strange situation, one involving digging sand everyday for two reasons: so her house won’t be consumed by the sand, and so the sand can be sold by the villagers. “Do you rake sand to live, or do you live to rake sand?“, the man (Eiji Okada) asks, who has been trapped by the villagers in the house, to lend the woman a helping hand in her daily chore. The man is an entomologist who had initially come there to study sand insects. It was here that I noted a similarity with Imamura, a strange fascination with insects, their desperate struggle for survival, in equal parts noble and pathetic, perhaps hinting at similar traits in their human subjects. In any case, while the man does point out the pointless nature of her daily existence to the woman, he soon enough descends into a similarly pointless loop himself: constantly trying to escape the sand pit. These frequent efforts, all of which fail in one way or the other, culminate in a cruel, yet hypnotic sequence, observed by mysterious masked figures, and much elevated by Toru Takemitsu’s harsh percussive score. And in a superb ironic twist, it is his most ridiculous escape attempt, trying to trap a crow, to tie a message to it’s legs, that ultimately and unexpectedly becomes his salvation. Perhaps it is Teshigahara’s own, idiosyncratic way of highlighting how fate often conspires in unexpected ways.
Woman in the Dunes is genuinely profound, in a way few films are. No doubt owing much to Camus, and to Kobo Abe’s wonderful novel, Teshigahara crafts that rarest of cinematic commodities: a film with visceral immediacy, and an immaculate, thoroughly original look, that is effortlessly chanelled towards hinting at a much higher, and much deeper truth. It achieves a transcendental majesty because it doesn’t want to just tell a story, but present a honest and compelling view of the human condition, using a truly unique cinematic language. It is a harsh, poetic reflection of reality, yet completely free from the shackles of realism, unraveling more as an endless sensual nightmare. Thematically rich and deep, but without a hint of verbosity or heavy-handedness. Apart from Abe and Takemitsu, the spellbinding cinematography of Hiroshi Segawa deserves plaudits for this. Along with Teshigahara, he does not merely bring sand to life, but lends it a haunting presence, making the protagonists’ daily struggle for survival seem more like some kind of an erotic ritual.
Unsurprisingly, the two lead performances are key to Woman in the Dunes, as it relies less on plot, and almost completely on a situation, an absurd, nightmarish one at that, and how the characters deal with it. Kyoko Koshida is magnificent as the woman who has accepted her fate, and lends the character an air of innocence and calm determination, a jarring contrast to the man. She is also particularly striking, when evoking the steadily rising physical attraction she feels for the man. Eiji Okada is extraordinary, and in many ways he plays the person most of us are, in some way or the other. He says he turned to insects so he could at least get his name in a book on insects, and it’s that modest ambition, along with a desire to “get away from the city”, that brings him to this godforsaken place. Till about 3/4ths of the movie, he brilliantly suggests a man who simply cannot believe his rotten luck, and the soul-crushing desperation that such a realization brings. Equally impressive is his transformation into the person who begins to accept the situation, eventually even becoming one with it. “Why don’t you make the sand work to your advantage, rather than against it?“, he is seen asking earlier in the movie. Whether he has found the answer, or realized the futility of the question we do not know, but he emerges out of his initial ordeal seeming almost heroic, a Sisyphus, with the sand-pit his Rock, and this leads to the somewhat surprising, yet thoroughly satisfying denouement. Rather than delve into the details/spoilers of that, it seems more apt to quote the final passage from the Myth of Sisyphus that strongly resonates while you mull over the conclusion.
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.