The arthouse cinema of the 1960's swept quickly and poetically over the globe, forever changing viewers' understandings of what was acceptable in a filmic narrative. When discussing Japanese art house cinema, perhaps the most prevalent name is that of Hiroshi Teshigahara, given that he released a slew of excellent films, dealing with incredibly complex social commentaries, almost back to back. His work The Woman in the Dunes, is undeniably his most prolific, not only for its brilliant composition, but for the global acclaim it received upon its release. It is a maddening vision of one man's quest to find meaning in a desperate situation that is perfectly shot and just distanced enough with the viewer that the film does not come across as experimental pretension. It is a film that perfectly defines oneiric, without becoming so dreamlike as to make the film impossible. It is some hybrid of magical realism and poetic expressionism that manages to capture the human condition without fault. It is clear that Teshigahara's film is concerned with political ideologies and the reshaping of family values in modern Japan, yet at no point do such commentaries crowd the space of the film. The Woman in the Dunes , along with Persona, rigidly defines the perfect art house experience, and is an enigma of a film, which still manages to seem incredibly personal.
The Woman in the Dunes spans well over two hours in length and covers a lengthy dialogue on one person's very internal experiences, as such I will give a cursory overview of the films plot as to help readers understand the gist of the film. It follows a man, who is purposefully unnamed as to help fulfill the existential elements of the narrative. The man, is a full-time schoolteacher and part-time bug enthusiast who hopes to discover a rare breed of beetle, which will earn him a place in entomology texts. Getting distracted by the scenery the man passes out and awakes to discover that he has missed the last bus out of the dunes he is visiting. After an offer for hospitality from a local, the man agrees to stay the night, only to discover that he must do so in a thatched up house at the bottom of a sand pit. Ignorant to the dangers, the man climbs down to get rest only to discover immediately that his situation is about to turn dire. In the pit resides a woman, who has lived in the village her entire live, however, unlike other villagers she is stuck shoveling sand from the pit in order to survive. If she fails to shovel sand the villager will deny her food, but more importantly she will become consumed by the sand falling into the pit. She informs the man that he is to be her husband and together they will live a life of shoveling sand without question. This information, of course, does not fly for the man and he demands to be let go, because he has family and friends who will look for him. The man, unfortunately, quickly realizes that escape is impossible no matter how elaborate of a plan he makes. After various rebellions, the man realizes a method for trapping water that will help him survive without the help of the villagers and he finds hope in his new situation. He eventually comes to accept his place in the new society, dismissing his old life completely. At this point, the screen shows a missing persons report with the name Jumpei Niki, the male who has been the subject of the entire film. In a cruel twist of irony, Niki has gotten his name placed in a written work, however, it is not necessarily the most ideal of locations.
The Woman in the Dunes is a textbook study of existentialism, a philosophical belief system which posits that life is inherently meaningless, and that anything that individuals attempt to do in their lives is precisely because of their own ill-fated attempts to find purpose. With this in mind, it is clear that Niki is attempting to place meaning into his own life by getting his name in a periodical. To him this is the ultimate victory, because his name will have relevance long after his death, thus giving his life some semblance of eternal relevance. However, upon entering the dune, Niki is forced to realize the arbitrariness of his life up to this point, despite making decisions to advance himself the actions become irrelevant when he is thrown into a completely new world, with different rules and norms. Niki, in a traditional attempt to find meaning, rejects these new rules, because they make no sense. However, as he struggles with his existence and faces the real possibility of death he accepts these new life changes to avoid dying, because once again he foolishly values his life as having something meaningful. The result then is a film that focuses on not one, but two moments of foolish belief in something tangible proving a legitimate source of meaning. The first being Niki's attempt to value his name in the book, the second being a scientific discovery that will have a lasting effect on society. Teshigahari, is nice enough to provide viewers with an example of a person successfully dealing with a meaningless life though the woman in the dunes. She accepts her arbitrary life knowing that to question it will only cause despair; as a result she simply smiles and adapts.
The Woman in the Dunes is a superb piece of artistic filmmaking and a significant piece of Japanese cinema. I would suggest spending a few bucks and grabbing the Teshigahari boxset from Criterion.