Japanese cinema as a whole often at times appears to pursue the more strange and unusual qualities that such a visual art-form can deliver onto the world stage. The works of Kurosawa, Kitano, Fukasaku and even Miyazaki have all indulged with one production or another into this world of the surreal, creating what can candidly be described as horrifying, nightmarish imagery with the potential to haunt viewers for years to come. What Hiroshi Teshigahara’s feature “Woman in the Dunes” does differently is in how it unrelentingly sets the narrative inside such a nightmare for its entirety, thus creating one of the most memorable cinematic exports the country has ever produced.
Dunes follows the story of academic professor Jumpei who, during an expedition into Japan’s sand dunes fulfilling his passion for collecting insects, gets lost in a sand storm and is greeted by a group of local villagers. They take him to a house built in a sand quarry, accessible only by a rope ladder where he spends the night to shelter from the wind. Upon awakening however he realizes the ladder is now missing and is informed that he must help a young widow who resides in the house dig the constantly rising sand that surrounds them. After a failed escape attempt Jumpei is informed that if he wants to keep receiving water from the villagers he must continue to dig the sand for them to sell and not harm the house’s occupant. Over time he begins to develop feelings for his fellow unnamed prisoner and struggles as his desire to escape grows along with his passion for his fellow inmate.
For a film that confines ninety percent of its narrative within one location Dunes can certainly feel exceptionally existential at times. The arc that our protagonist Jumpei undergoes is as reflective as it is dramatic, twisting a man who would be considered an ordinary and productive member of Japanese society into a relative monster who we as an audience must learn to love. The relationship shared with the mystery widow is at first abusive and exploitative, manipulating her sense of loss and innocence into deception as he attempts to escape his newly imposed hell. The gradual breakdown of his hope in finding a way to escape becomes a feeling one cannot help but sympathize with upon viewing such a situation. One that although is uncommon could certainly occur in the real world. The real show stealer in the film however lies with the dynamic shared between Jumpei and the woman. Both characters are seemingly locked forever in an endless struggle to both tolerate each others company whilst despising what they originally stood for. Jumpei resents her for symbolizing his plight, the woman resents him for reminding her of her late-husband. And yet both manage to put their misconceptions about each other to one side and eventually fall in love, albeit under less desirable circumstances.
Woman in the Dunes is certainly not easy viewing if one has a low tolerance for the discomfort of watching a character slowly slip into madness. Jumpei’s predicament can make one feel ill at the thought of being placed within such a situation, especially one as sinister as writer Kobo Abe has devised. As a love story it is a taught, psychological breakdown of two lost souls, struggling for survival and finding the best in each other due to circumstance. However Dunes artistry goes beyond the conventional genres of love story or mild horror-drama. A streak of the avant-garde lies within its subtext, perhaps best drawn out when Jumpei discusses his passion for insects with his lover. These stylistic approaches may make such a film inaccessible for some but for those who stay with Jumpei during his Inferno-esque spiraling journey the rewards are well worth the wait.