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Woman in the Dunes

(Hiroshi Teshigahara, Japan, 1964): Using sand as the operative metaphor for the instability of identity and futility of escape, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes blends a modernist cinematic sensibility with a near noir account of fate and desire at the bottom of a big hole. At the time it was released, it was hailed for its singular vision and stunning mastery of form — not to mention daringly frank eroticism — and time has revealed it as a key work in the shifting of the Japanese cinema from the formal classicism of Ozu and western-friendly spectacles of Kurosawa to the tradition-busting postwar blowback of the so-called Japanese New Wave. The hole stumbled into by the movie’s smug and hapless unnamed protagonist (Eiji Okada, the lover in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour), a bug-collecting city schoolteacher who accepts lodging in a woman’s dune-enclosed home when he misses his bus, is utterly and desperately inescapable, as sheared from past, present and future as it is logic and reason. It might be a dream were it not for the fact the sand tends to stick to the skin and scratch the eyes, and even nightmares grant the eventual release of waking up. At the end of this ordeal, it would seem the schoolteacher has decided not to climb out after all. He has nowhere to go and nothing to take there.

A painter, sculptor, calligrapher and practitioner of the traditional art of floral arrangement, whose father had founded one of the 20th century’s most revered but innovative schools of ikebana (the art of floral arrangement), Teshigahara was no stranger to avant-garde techniques and free-form allusiveness by the time he turned to filmmaking. Collaborating with the novelist Kobo Abe and avant-garde composer Toru Takemitsu, Teshigahara worked to create entirely unprecedented — for Japanese movies especially — experiences of subjective immersion and dreamlike disorientation. Flaunting the otherwise sturdy foundation of Japanese cinema on modes of ‘objective’ narrative convention, Teshigahara’s movies were never intended to be taken literally. As Woman in the Dunes indicated with such graphic metaphorical potency, no foundations were solid or traditions impervious. By 1964, Teshigahara’s Japan was in a state of terminal flux and adrift in the gales of recent history. Everything once thought permanent was turning to dust.

As the introductory titles, consisting of identity stamps, passports and documents of citizenship, make plain, Woman in the Dunes is a response to johatsu, the missing persons phenomenon that initially swept Japan in the 1960s and continues to this day, when an estimated 100,000 people vanish annually. Despite the film’s indisputable aura of mystery and dreamlike impressionism, there is nothing supernatural about it, and the connection between the teacher’s plight — once in the hole, he will likely never emerge, becoming one of the disappeared — and the johatsu phenomenon is suggestive of the general cultural and existential circumstances which most likely accounted for thousands of people opting simply to drop out of society rather than face the seismic upheavals of a country virtually cut adrift from its past following the humiliating defeat of war and subsequent proliferation of western cultural and economic priorities. The teacher, with his clinical fascination with insects, apparent alienation from both his wife and colleagues — none of whom come looking for him, and perhaps aren’t even aware of his absence — and Sisyphean struggle to climb his way out of the pit (like one of the bugs he laughs at on the beach), is not only a man without a name, he’s nobody. A vacuum just waiting to be filled and forgotten.

Primarily a two-hander that pits the man against the woman (Kyoto Kishada) in a game of strenuously passive-aggressive dominance and submission, Teshigahara’s film plays as both an especially elementary form of erotic thriller — the woman, seen from the man’s delirious point of view, is at one point viewed as a kind of twinkling object of desire, sand mingling with sweat over her supine body, coated in a second skin of irresistible earthiness. (Among the movie’s more impressive feats: mixing sex and sand as erotic cocktail.) His will to resist is as doomed as Walter Neff’s in Double Indemnity or Jeff Bailey’s Out of the Past, and the inevitable consummation, still qualifying as one of the pungently erotic and suggestively edited sex scenes in all cinema, is the clincher: the fucking in the sand is surrender to the void.

Not, so far as I’ve read, often mentioned in the same breath as film noir, Woman in the Dunes seems nevertheless to have both its’ narrative spiral and hard-boiled fatalism in its bloodstream, from the depiction of the hapless wandering protagonist lured to oblivion by his own weakness — and clinched by that sandy-hot femme fatale — to the suggestion of a kind of universal state of cruel self-interest. The man’s fascination in insects seems solely motivated by a desire to make a name for himself in etymology books, and the woman ultimately reveals not only a purely practical scheme to get some help around the house, but freely admits the endless labour involved shovelling sand into buckets — hoisted upward by the pitiless villagers — is being used in urban construction projects likely to collapse due to all that salt in the material. The villagers themselves, who connived to plunge the man in this hole in the first place — and may have done so countless times before — are already a gallery of leering pitiless thugs before they don the grotesque masks worn in the ritual designed for a public rape. To a drumbeat that may mark the ultimate distillation of composer Toru Takemitsu’s sparsely unnerving minimalist score — echoed, to near equal effect, by Howard Shore’s chilling metallic soundscape for David Cronenberg’s Crash — the villagers compel the man to ravish the woman so they may call him her husband and seal the new slave’s contract. It’s a terrifying sequence, and its atmosphere of ritualized sadistic voyeurism has reverberated through decades of horror movies involving enforced sex rituals, burning bales of straw and pagan sacrifices. And its payoff, which comes not long after when the woman is removed from the pit and taken to have a baby, is only bleaker: left alone with an unattended rope left behind, the man climbs out of the hole, gazes at the world’s end landscape around him, and climbs back down. He will stay. His ‘wife’ and his baby will come back, and there will be a family for the digging. (Criterion)