Woman in the Dunes ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp
I read the Japanese novel (in English translation, of course) Woman in the Dunes by Kôbô Abe in 1992, but had never seen the 1964 movie version of the novel until it was shown on “TCM Imports” on Sunday night. It’s a simple story with two principal characters and a handful of “villagers” that we never see for more than a minute or two at a time.
A young, child-like Japanese woman, whose name we never know, lives in a crude wooden shack at the bottom of a ravine from which there is no escape. It’s a barren, isolated place. Sand is all we ever see and the sand moves all the time (from wind and gravity), like a creepy, sinister entity, down into the ravine in which the woman lives. She must shovel the sand day and night to keep from being buried in it. (We learn after a while that her husband and daughter are both buried there.) She hoists the sand up to the villagers who sell it to be used in bricks or building materials. In return, they send her a scant amount of food and water. While most people would believe that the perpetual shoveling of sand is just another version of hell, the Japanese woman thinks of it as her life and the ravine as her home. She states at one point, “Nobody would even bother with me if it wasn’t for the sand.” She thinks it’s what she deserves.
A young man from Tokyo named Niki Jumpei is a teacher and entomologist. He is looking for a certain specimen of sand beetle and if he can find one that hasn’t been classified yet, he’ll get his name in the journals. When he misses the last bus home in the evening, he asks a villager if there is someplace nearby where he might stay for the night. The villager leads him to the ravine where the young woman lives. A rope ladder hangs there which he might easily climb down. The woman feeds him and he spends the night there. In the morning he prepares to leave but discovers that the rope ladder that he used to climb down into the ravine is gone. He is trapped in much the same way that he traps his insect specimens.
Niki Jumpei spends a lot of time calculating how he might get out of the ravine and go home, but the young woman is cheerful and unmoved. He begins to help her with the shoveling and she prepares his food. He tells himself that when he doesn’t return, the people at home will come looking for him. He tries everything he can think of to get out of the ravine, but nothing works. The one time he does get out, he loses his way, gets caught in quicksand, and the villagers find him and lower him back into the ravine.
In time, Niki Jumpei and the young woman are drawn to each other in a sexual way, as nature dictates when two heterosexual people of opposing genders are thrown together. She bathes him as he stands in the middle of the floor naked. She asks him how she compares with the girls in Tokyo. Does he have a wife? She is clearly delighted at his being there and horrified at the thought that he might get away.
For such a simple, stark story, there is a considerable amount of tension in Woman in the Dunes, accompanied by eerie (though appropriate) Japanese music and the perpetual effects of the sand closing in. What’s going to happen? Will Niki Jumpei kill the young woman? Will he be able to escape? Will he escape and take her with him? Will she finally relent and get the villagers to let him go? There are any number of possible outcomes and the way the story finally ends is something we didn’t see coming.
The “director’s cut” of Woman in the Dunes is almost two-and-a-half hours long. In Japanese with English subtitles, it’s not for everybody, of course, but it’s accessible and memorable for those willing to spend the time. Foreign movies, like grand opera, are an acquired taste. Some people will resist both as a matter of principle. It’s hard for some of us to overcome our hillbilly origins.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp