Celebrated Japanese avant-garde filmmaker, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 film Woman in the Dunes is available in it’s entirety on youtube. With its psycho-sexual undercurrent from the beginning, the film presents a seamless unity between reality and metaphor in terms of its subject, style, and concept. Suna no Onna‘s literal translation– “Sand Lady” registers much more as chiller flick than the saccharinized, elevated translation– Woman in the Dunes. A gorgeously styled psychological thriller impregnated with metaphor and visual dynamism, it is also deeply concerned with the modernist (dare I pin it contemporary?) theme of both private and interpersonal terrors associated with domestic partnership leading to psychological malaise and hysteria. (Think-Possession, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, A Woman Under the Influence–tons) There’s a rich tradition of this theme–cross pollinating amongst genres, and registering as different gradients on various spectra. I digress.
The basic plot of the film: An amateur traveling Etymologist voyages to a remote desert to study a rare specimen of beetle and misses his bus back to Tokyo. He is directed to a hut at the bottom of a sand dune, where a young widow feeds him, as sand leaks down from the roof like rain. The woman must shovel the sand daily, or she and her hut will be swallowed by the sand’s relentless assault. When the visitor wakes the following day, his ladder to freedom has been removed, and he is henceforth stranded with the widow, and condemned to endless sand shoveling for survival. Indeed, the sand is a metaphor for the circumstantial contingencies in life from the get-go, functioning as a character in it’s own right. It Provides a haptic quality within the visual structure of the film, a centrifugal force within the narrative of the film; while functioning to fuse reality and metaphor together– a large part of the film’s success in rendering its meta narratives so psychologically palpable. An intense reading of the film’s symbology requires a lot of unpacking, and is beyond the scope of this post–but see for yourself.