Woman in the Dunes
|Woman in the Dunes|
Japanese theatrical poster
|Directed by||Hiroshi Teshigahara|
|Screenplay by||Kōbō Abe|
|Based on||The Woman in the Dunes|
by Kōbō Abe
|Music by||Toru Takemitsu|
|Edited by||Fusako Shuzui|
Woman in the Dunes or Woman of the Dunes (砂の女, Suna no Onna, "Sand woman") is a 1964 Japanese New Wave film directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara and starring Eiji Okada and Kyōko Kishida. It received positive critical reviews and was nominated for two Academy Awards. The screenplay for the film was adapted by Kōbō Abe from his 1962 novel.
An amateur entomologist and schoolteacher, Niki Junpei (Eiji Okada), leaves Tokyo and goes on an expedition to study an unclassified species of beetle that are found in a vast sand dune. After a long day of searching under the scorching sun and losing track of time, Junpei misses the last bus ride home to civilization. Fortunately, a village elder (Kōji Mitsui) and some of his fellow local villagers suggest that he stay the night at their village, offering Junpei a place to stay. After some persuasion by the villager, Junpei agrees and is then guided down a rope ladder to a hut at the bottom of a sand dune to stay with a young widow (Kyōko Kishida). Junpei settles into the hut where he will spend the night with this mysterious young widow, who feeds him a nutritious traditional Japanese dinner consisting of broiled fish, rice, and soup. After some short conversation and small talk, Junpei discovers that the woman, a meek and simple lady, lost her husband and daughter in a sandstorm and now lives alone. The child and father's dead body is said to be buried under the sand somewhere near the hut. She is employed by the villagers to dig sand for sale to be used in concrete and to save the house from burial in the advancing sand. After dinner, the woman goes outside to shovel the sand into a bucket, where the villagers reel it in from the top of the dune. Junpei offers to help but she quickly denies, telling him that he is a guest and there is no need for him to help on the first day.
Junpei wakes up with a start the next morning and gets ready to go back to his home in Tokyo. When Junpei tries to leave, he finds that the ladder is gone, quickly realizing that the ladder was a rope ladder which is anchored from the top of the pit. The realizations rush into Junpei's head and it becomes clear to him that he is stuck in this sand pit with this woman and there is no way to escape as the sand that surrounds the hut does not have enough grip to climb up. The villagers expect him to become the woman's husband and to assist her in digging sand. Junpei also realizes that this is the woman's life, where she digs in order to live, since if she doesn't, the rations from the villagers would not be provided and also the sand will eventually swallow her alive. Junpei has been put into a never ending life sentence trap where he will constantly need to dig in order to live.
Junpei becomes the widow's lover, but he still holds on tight to the motivation to one day escape from the dune. One morning, using an improvised grappling hook, he escapes from the sand dune and runs away, with the villagers soon giving chase. Junpei is unfamiliar with the geography of the area and becomes trapped in quicksand. The villagers free him from the quicksand and return him to the hut in the sand dune.
Eventually, Junpei resigns himself to his situation. He requests time to watch the nearby sea, and the villagers offer to grant it if he has sex with the woman while they watch, but she denies and fends him off. Through his persistent effort to trap a crow as a messenger, he discovers a way to draw water from the damp sand at night and becomes absorbed in the task of perfecting the technique, to the point of unhealthy obsession. When it is discovered that the woman is ill from an ectopic pregnancy, the villagers take her to a doctor, leaving the rope ladder when they go. Given the one chance to escape that Junpei has been insisting for a long time, Junpei instead chooses to stay, presumably having found purpose in his water extraction experiments and his life with the woman and baby. The film's final shot is of a police report that shows that Junpei has been missing for seven years.
- Eiji Okada as Niki Junpei, an amateur entomologist and schoolteacher from Tokyo. Okada was cast in various Japanese films in the 1950's, but it was not until he appeared in Alain Resnais's 1959 film about the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima that he gained a worldwide reputation. He has been in over 130 films in his lifetime, best known for his roles in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Woman in the Dunes, and The Boy Detectives Club - The Iron Fiend (1957).
- Kyōko Kishida as the widow in the dunes. Kishida was a Japanese actress, voice actress, and writer of children's books. She was best known for Woman in the Dunes, Ninja, a Band of Assassins (1962), and An Autumn Afternoon (1962). She was a founding member of the theater group Engeki Shudan En (formed in 1975).
Prior to the production of Woman in the Dunes, Hiroshi Teshigahara directed Pitfall (おとし穴, Otoshiana), a.k.a. The Pitfall and Kashi To Kodomo, which was written by Kōbō Abe. Pitfall was Teshigahara's first feature, and the first of his four film collaborations with Abe and Takemitsu.
Woman in the Dunes was shot on location at Tottori Sand Dunes, Tottori Prefecture, Japan. They form the only large dune system in Japan. The dunes were created by sediment deposits carried from the Chūgoku Mountains by the Sendai River into the Sea of Japan.
The roadshow version of Woman in the Dunes was released in Japan on February 15, 1964 where it was distributed by Toho. The general release for Woman in the Dunes in Japan was April 18, 1964; the film was cut to 127 minutes.
The film was released in the United States by Pathe Contemporary Films with English subtitles on September 17, 1964. The film ran at 127 minutes. The film was also featured in the New York Film Festival on September 16, 1964.
The film was also featured in several other film festivals across the world such as the Cannes Film Festival in France, Adelaide Film Festival in Australia, and Clasicos del Cine Japones in Argentina on November 21, 2000.
The Criterion Collection released a DVD box set collecting Woman in the Dunes in its original length along with Teshigahara's Pitfall and The Face of Another in 2007. This release is now out of print. In August 2016, Criterion released the film as a stand-alone Blu-ray with a brand new high definition transfer.
The film has a rating of 100% on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, based on 27 critical reviews with an average rating of 8.5/10. It was one of the ten best films chosen by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.
Roger Ebert inducted Woman in the Dunes into his Great Movies list in 1998. Viewing the work as a retelling of the Sisyphus myth, he wrote, "There has never been sand photography like this (no, not even in "Lawrence of Arabia"), and by anchoring the story so firmly in this tangible physical reality, the cinematographer, Hiroshi Segawa, helps the director pull off the difficult feat of telling a parable as if it is really happening." Strictly Film School describes it as "a spare and haunting allegory for human existence". According to Max Tessier, the main theme of the film is the desire to escape from society.  The film's composer, Toru Takemitsu, was praised. Nathaniel Thompson wrote, "[Takemitsu's] often jarring, experimental music here is almost a character unto itself, insinuating itself into the fabric of the celluloid as imperceptibly as the sand." Ebert also stated that the score "doesn't underline the action but mocks it, with high, plaintive notes, harsh, like a metallic wind."
The film won the Special Jury Prize at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival and, somewhat unusually for an avant-garde film, was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in the same year (losing to Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow). In 1965, Teshigahara was nominated for the Best Director Oscar (losing to Robert Wise for The Sound of Music). In 1967, the film won the Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association.
- List of Japanese submissions for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
- List of submissions to the 37th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film
- The House of Sand
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