Hiroshi Teshigahara’s highly acclaimed, Oscar-nominated 1964 “Woman in the Dunes” remains a masterpiece, a timeless contemplation of life’s essential mystery and a triumph of bold, innovative style. In adapting his own novel for the screen, the late Kobo Abe provided Teshigahara with a metaphor for the human condition endlessly rich in implications.
In the film’s first few moments, the camera picks up a handsome man, Jumpei Niki (the late Eiji Okada), in his late 30s. He’s complaining of all the “certification"--cards of identity--demanded of modern life and of the paranoia that cripples human relationships. A teacher, most likely of science, he is off to a region of vast sand dunes for a three-day vacation to pursue his passion as an amateur entomologist. So carried away is he in collecting specimens that he misses the last bus of the day back to town. Not to worry, assures a friendly villager, one of the locals will be glad to put him up for the night.
The next thing he knows, Jumpei has descended by rope ladder into a very deep sand pit. Nestled at the bottom in a primitive hut is an attractive woman (Kyoko Kishida) who prepares him a tasty meal, leaving him with a somewhat smug sense of well-being. The next morning, he discovers he’s walked right smack into a trap, for there’s no way for him to leave except that rope ladder. The villagers have no intention of rescuing him.
It seems that the woman’s hut is one of a series along the dunes. All night long, their occupants shovel sand that prevents the never-seen village from being inundated and at the same time provides a source of income for the community, which sells the sand secretly for half-price because it is actually too salty to be safe for concrete used in construction. In return for their labors, the shovelers receive food and water. In truth they are slaves, and the woman, having lost her husband and child to a sandstorm, needs another man to lessen her burden.
This constant routine of shoveling has the impact of the myth of Sisyphus. “Are we shoveling to survive or surviving to shovel?” the man, aghast at his fate, asks. It’s a question lost on the woman, who not only has accepted her lot in life but figures that outside the sand pit she’d have to wonder how she could support herself. She allows, in a moment typical of the film’s dark humor, “Well, it isn’t as exciting as Tokyo.”
Teshigahara suggests powerfully that freedom is an illusion and that we have to create our own meaning in life, which occurs for the man when he discovers a fresh water well and starts studying it passionately as a phenomenon of capillary action. Beyond that, “Woman in the Dunes” is an outrageous erotic tale, drenched in amusing Freudian symbolism and steamy sensuality, which is the source of the film’s enduring fame. All that undulating sand, all that sexy writhing in the sand. Since Teshigahara is a master filmmaker, and Abe a master storyteller, the film manages to blend the philosophical and the erotic as a way of evoking a sense of life’s ultimate absurdity.
Teshigahara had a lot of help in his selfless actors and in his inspired cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa, whose stunning high-contrast black-and-white images are as crucial as the spare, eerie score composed by the late Toru Takemitsu, one of the greatest composers in world cinema. “Woman in the Dunes” recalls a subsequent Japanese masterpiece, Shohei Imamura’s “Kuragejima: Legends From a Southern Island,” in the haunting way it depicts an ancient way of life so near yet so apart from modern life.
When “Woman in the Dunes” concludes its run Tuesday, it will be followed by Teshigahara’s 1985 “Antonio Gaudi,” a stunning 72-minute homage to the Catalan architect whose buildings--Art Nouveau carried to glorious extremes--are every bit as undulating as those sand dunes. Gaudi blurred the line between architecture and sculpture and, drawing on motifs from ancient regional structures, created an amazing array of sumptuously decorated fairy tale buildings that remain the glory of Barcelona and the surrounding area.
“Antonio Gaudi” screens Wednesday and Thursday, then moves to Saturday and Sunday noon screenings.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: some nudity, passionate love-making, much sexual symbolism.
‘Woman in the Dunes’
Eiji Okada: Jumpei Niki, the Man
Kyoko Kishida: The Woman
A Milestone release of a Teshigahara production. Director Hiroshi Teshigahara. Producers Kiichi Ichikawa and Tadashi Ohno. Screenplay by Kobo Abe, based on his novel. Cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa. Editor Fusako Shyzui. Music Toru Takemitsu. Art directors Touretsu Hirakawa and Masao Yamazaki. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.