An elder ronin samurai arrives at a feudal lord's home and requests an honorable place to commit suicide. But when the ronin inquires about a younger samurai who arrived before him things take an unexpected turn.
Jumpei Niki, a Tokyo based entomologist and educator, is in a poor seaside village collecting specimens of sand insects. As it is late in the day and as he has missed the last bus back to the city, some of the local villagers suggest that he spend the night there, they offering to find him a place to stay. That place is the home of a young woman, whose house is located at the bottom of a sand pit accessible only by ladder. He later learns that the woman's husband and child died in a sandstorm, their undiscovered bodies buried somewhere near the house. The next morning as he tries to leave, he finds that the ladder is gone - he realizing that the ladder he climbed down was a rope ladder which is anchored above the pit - meaning that he is trapped with the young woman as the walls of the pit are sand with no grip. He also realizes that this entrapment was the villagers and the young woman's plan for him to stay there permanently to be her helper in the never-ending task of digging out ...Written by
A Tokyo schoolteacher Niki Jumpei (Eiji Okada) and part time entomologist travels to a remote area in the hope of studying a rare species of beetle, his aim is to find it and have it named after himself. His first morning there he spends collecting specimens in jars from the sand, he is approached by a rather suspicious local, who questions him as to his motives for being there, Niki dispels the locals suspicions that he is some authoritative figure snooping and goes on his way. Resting briefly in an old boat, he ponders humanity's dependence on paper qualifications to prove our credentials to others, passports, driving licences, university certificates, medical certificates etc and what a suspicious world it would be without them. Niki ( incidentally a name we only find out a the end of the film) falls asleep with the hazy sun beating down on him, he is awakened by the same local, who asks him, how he is going to get home, as he has missed his last bus. Somewhat bewildered Niki says he'll have to walk, the local man says he might be able to help and offers to help find him a bed for the night in the nearby village. Niki is led through the treacherous dunes until they come across a large pit, at the bottom of which lives a woman, it is here that Niki will spend the night.
Niki immediately questions the woman, as to why she would live in such a desolate place, in a ramshackle house where the sand is constantly flowing through holes in the roof and he is amazed to find that her nightly Sisyphean task involves filling baskets with sand that has blown into the pit and having it hoisted up by the locals. After feeding him, the woman tells him he doesn't have to help on his first night here, he finds this a curious statement as he is only staying one night? The truth behind the pit is soon revealed as Niki finds that there is no way out of the pit, the rope ladder having been removed by the locals.
Teshigahara is perhaps best known for his surreal and existential works, Woman in the Dunes fits right into this category. The setting of the sand dunes with the blinding sun gives the film an otherworldly dreamlike quality, with continuing rivers of sand also adding to this quality. The revelation that he is being kept captive is also a rather scary and intriguing, the film traces Niki's mixed emotions of anger and aggression, his denial of his captors, his change of heart and the fact he would stop at nothing to get the merest of rewards from them. His transformation is complete as he himself turns into a captor, of the woman that he now shares his life with.
The film is an epic at almost 2 ½ hours, its pace is incredibly slow but strangely it still doesn't feel that long, this viewer being drawn in to the complexities of the film. There's also a very sensual and sexual subtext, with the burning heat and little to do during the day and with the woman's recommendation that they sleep naked because the sand will chaff them, it is inevitable that sexual liaisons will happen and they do, sometimes it rough and ready and they wrestle each other, sometimes its sensuous as they provocatively wash the sand from each other in some very intimate moments.
Woman of the Dunes I have heard is full of subtext and hidden meanings, some are contradictory to the writer and directors visions so its hard to tell exactly on this my first viewing, exactly what they are so I will not even try to do so, I'll just sit back and let the film wash through my mind again and maybe it will all fall into place. The ending is controversial I would say, I can imagine it causes divide amongst those who have seen it, but in the context of the surreal setting and qualities of the film, I think it suits it fine, if nothing else it will get you talking about it, I think it's a film ripe for over analysis, so again I won't.
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