Woman in the Dunes is a classic Japanese film from 1964 that explores themes of society, alienation and human nature from a very offbeat point of view. It has become a film who’s images and meanings are hard to shake even today, a couple of weeks after watching it. A man from one of the most populous cities in the world is kidnapped and placed in a deep hole in the sand, big enough to hold a house and a woman looking for a new husband. He spends the rest of the movie trying to escape, and yet does he really want to go back? What is he going back for or to? Is the world of the big city just as confining as this pit in the beach? These are just a couple of the easier questions that are asked in this engrossing movie. Quite a different movie than I had expected. For some reason, I thought I was getting a murder mystery, with the woman in the dunes being a body that was discovered!
Niki Jumpei is a government worker who tracks down bugs on the beach as a hobby. He gets stranded after he misses the last train back one day and gets offered a place to stay for the night. He accepts and is led through the growing darkness to a very deep, wide, pit in the beach, where there is a small two room shack at the bottom. He thinks it all very quaint, although the climb down the 20’ walls is a bit challenging in the dark. He finds a widow living there, who feeds him and then heads out for a night’s worth of work, shoveling sand of all things.
A couple of mysterious comments from the woman confuse him, but it becomes a little clearer in the morning when he tries to leave and finds the rope ladder has been pulled up and he can’t get out. The woman explains the town in the sand needs shovelers to keep the sand from collapsing the walls of all the other houses in the sand. And obviously, good men are hard to find here! He tries to rebel, refusing to work, but they cut off food and water and he finally cracks and begins to contribute.
He doesn’t stop trying to escape, though, and finally manages to rig a rope with a hook. He has a big night with the woman, ensuring her sound sleep. Using the rope, he clambers out and makes a run for it. Soon he is being chased and eventually gets caught and tossed back in. It’s at this point he begins to see the effect his leaving had on the woman and he really begins to think about his life and what goes on around him.
Just writing up the synopsis above makes me want to see the movie again. The cinematography was brilliant, with all kinds of great shots, from the expected far away shots of a man climbing the dunes, to ultra-closeups of, of course, sand. And water, an important adjuct to sand in the plot. It isn’t nearly as artsy fartsy as the description may sound and you really are tied up in the man, his growing relationship with the woman, and with his increasing uneasiness with society, which reflect her feelings as well. When she first asks him why he is in such a hurry to get back to the city, he thinks her insane to accept life in a hole in the ground. But you can see his growing understanding of her point of view as the movie goes on.
The print is well done, although there are no extras really on this DVD. The director has a real short list of credits, although I guess he was pretty influential in Japanese cinema. I really enjoyed this movie and look forward to watching it again.