‘You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine…’
William Blake, ‘Mock On, Mock On, Rousseau, Voltaire’
A man, seeking to enter the annals of entomological taxonomy, spend his holiday attempting to capture new species of insect in the dunes in a remote coastal community. Looking for a night’s sleep so that he need not interrupt his quest, he finds himself (and so too the viewer) consigned to the depths of a pit where he must help an unnamed woman shovel sand, on the threat of attack by the villagers and, more abstractly, being engulfed by the sand.
Woman of the Dunes, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 film, seems at times to be a cross-pollination between an imported French existentialism with the native Japanese notion of wabi sabi. While the French nouvelle vague had only recently added an airless self-consciousness and gloom to the generic tropes of Hollywood cinema, Japanese art had been committed to dismantling the idea of definitive or permanent art for centuries. The dunes themselves are exemplary of the transient, fragile appreciation of beauty. This concept would have been especially resonant for Teshigahara, whose father put pressure on him to apprentice to become a master ikebana (flower arrangement) practitioner. Rejecting this path to become a filmmaker, there is a sense that the process of shovelling of sand becomes a polluted, morbid version of the flower arranging discipline: controlling nature, contemplating the fragility of beauty.
Far-flung interpretations like these multiply while watching the film, given the valency of sand as a metaphor and its omnipresence and variety of depictions. Through varying montage, shot distance and time of day, the sand can appear by turns lunar, aquatic, sensual, toxic, hallucinogenic; at times it seems to be a granular Rorschach test. Yet the overriding impression, especially given how inescapable the sand is, of the sands of time, of the morbid futile passing of time. The idea of sand as a memento mori haunts the film (‘The sand does not wait for us,’ says the Woman). From one side, the shovelling of the sand becomes a brutally direct metaphor for the irrelevance of all human endeavour: ‘Do we live to shovel, or shovel to live?’ On a more culturally specific level, there is a hint of the monstrous transformation of matter to dust during the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Suddenly struck by the encroaching nature of the sand, Niki terrifies himself, ‘It could swallow a city, a country even.’ Released just three years prior to Woman of the Dunes, Hiroshima Mon Amour more directly approaches this idea in its opening scene. Two bodies writhing, covered in sand, two corpses copulating.
Yet, re-watching the film I was struck by how much these interpretations are a product of the vacuity and duration of the film: one is always trying to find something in the deliberate nothingness that spreads over two hours. There are hints of wider social issues (‘Our young people won’t stay here,’ says the Woman, hinting at the problem of urban migration) but these seem insignificant in the face of a cloying pursuit of the theme of the ennui of life.
The misery of the pit is never mitigated by an understanding of the character’s inner lives, especially the woman herself. This can make the film an arid watch. There are no transformative moments, no real progression in the plot. This is surely intentional, though not rewarding. On the level of parable, we understand Niki Jumpei’s decision to remain in the pit: most people accept the meagreness and irrelevance of their existence because of its familiarity. The ‘Woman’ character is perhaps meant as a metonymic representation of the whole of womanhood (‘People like me are treated very well,’ she naively says). But after nearly two and a half hours, its operation as parable does not serve to mitigate the frustration of the experience. Most pieces of great literature have a very basic, tacitly known core message, but their intimate navigation of the given theme offer it the shine of novelty. By contrast, Woman of the Dunes forces us to acknowledge its moral prima facae rather than allowing us to inhabit the choice Niki makes, the situation that the Woman finds herself in. The consequential arbitrary nature of the film undermines the aesthetic subtlety of the sand. Only rewatching the film was I struck by how successfully it wrings aesthetic sense from its environment, and how flatly it treats the characters themselves. Infinite apologias for this void could be made, but ultimately they prove incapable of surmounting the dissatisfaction that attends so much of actually watching the film.