****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A
starring Eiji Okada, Kyōko Kishida, Kōji Mitsui, Hiroko Itō
screenplay by Kōbō Abe, based on his novel The Woman in the Dunes
directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara
by Walter Chaw The first morning amateur entomologist Niki (Eiji Okada) wakes in a house at the bottom of a hole carved into a sand dune, he finds his lessor--the titular, nameless Woman (Kyoko Kishida)--asleep in the nude, with sand crusted over her body like a thin, granular mantle. Director Hiroshi Teshigahara sweeps over her body with a sculptor's attention. It's intensely erotic, though for all its voyeuristic intention, it's not prurient. No, there's a sense of intimacy in this: it's the attention you give a lover when her skin is near your eye and you love her and desire her: you want to touch her, to taste her, to consume her. There's much talk of "the flesh" in David Cronenberg's The Fly; flesh makes you crazy. The way Teshigahara shoots surfaces in Woman in the Dunes makes you crazy. When they finally make love, Niki and the Woman, each individual grain of sand on Niki's skin stands out like a monument. When the Woman bathes him, rubbing suds between her hands and running them down his legs and back, you can feel her hands play across your own calves, and you can feel him beneath your hands. Not just flesh, but the textures and tides of the dunes over which Niki practices his minor distractions from the day-to-day of whatever it is he does in the city, where he's nothing, accomplishes nothing of note, and will not be missed but for the missing-person's report we see at the end as the film's pithy epilogue. Based on Kōbō Abe's novel of the same name, Woman in the Dunes is in one way the best, most insightful and evocative adaptation of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" there ever was, from Eliot's winsome protagonist looking to escape regret into experience to, literally, these lines about entomology as a metaphor for being seen clearly and judged wanting:
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
Niki does a lot of pinning of his unfortunate insect subjects to a little glass frame he eventually empties out to offer to the Woman--a mute apology for dumping beads from her hand that she's been making into jewellery so they can afford a radio. She thinks a radio will make Niki stop pining for Tokyo. The hollowness of the kind of knowledge a radio could provide casts a light on our culture of absolute connectedness and almost complete spiritual blight. There is nothing for the soul in "news": no community, no tangible bond. It is an illusion of belonging.
More explicitly, Woman in the Dunes is an interpretation of two Albert Camus texts: his The Myth of Sisyphus, of course, but also The Stranger, whose protagonist is a man incapable of acting as society expects, disoriented by the heat and sun and sand into committing an unimaginable act for which he has no explanation. There are rules, but they're obscure and overridden by Nature. It's like the Wallace Stevens poem "An Idea of Order at Key West": You can define borders, but they're temporary and ridiculous. The Stranger has an outburst about absurdity at one point, and absurdity of course is the foundation of Camus's most famous writings. He tackles Sisyphus as a key to unravelling the mystery of absurdity.
The central question is how do you resist suicide once you discover that life is absurd? Camus wonders how best to balance "evidence and lyricism." Teshigahara opens Woman in the Dunes with snatches of official-looking documents and rubber stamps, the unmistakable bustle of a cityscape underscoring this title sequence in place of music. It's "evidence" and an attempt at order that, you know, doesn't mean anything. To escape the hubbub, Niki uses his three-day vacation to travel seaside, exploring the sand surrounding it and putting bugs in the killing jar dangling from his side. It's where Merseault kills an Arab. Finding a rowboat marooned in the expanse, he sits in it and recites the ways that people document the world to make sense of it. He scoffs. Consequently, he misses his bus and accepts the invitation of the villagers to stay with them. Teshigahara will pay off this sequence later when, in a hallucination, Niki imagines himself stranded on an ocean of water rather than an ocean of sand.
The Sisyphus myth is about a man who temporarily traps Death and, for that transgression, is made to push a rock uphill for eternity by day, and to have the rock roll back to the bottom by night. Camus isolates a moment in his toil he calls the "pause": the moment when, after getting the rock to the top, Sisyphus watches it plummet back to the bottom. He suggests that it is this hour of reflection, as Sisyphus returns to the starting point, that he is superior to his task. The idea is that Man transcends his existence when he becomes aware of its futility. He says: "There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn." Camus frames self-awareness and intellectualism as rebellion. It's a defense of sentience as its own reward and justification; whether the result of sentience is sorrow or joy makes no significant difference. William Blake's defense of Milton's Satan is that he has self-knowledge in his action, is indeed the active agency in the world. He pushes the rock, as it were, knowing that it's punishment but that the act of agency, however futile or predestined, is preferable to passive observation. Camus references Dostoevsky's engineer Kirilov of The Possessed, a character who cannot believe in either a meaningful universe or intelligent design, but finds hope in a scientific salvation. Work, for these various philosophical avatars, is the only thing that sets you free. Woman in the Dunes is similarly satanic in its melancholia, its nostalgia, its Romanticist desire to locate Nature as the first testament to the divine in all its brutality and senselessness. It doesn't care about you. The sooner you accept that the Universe owes you nothing, the sooner you transcend. Indeed, intelligence, critical thought unto scorn, is the only thing about us that is potentially divine; possibly graceful. Teshigahara frames his film as an allegory for the absolute holy rebellion of sentient acceptance. If our lives are a day, 23 hours of it are unavoidable toil and 1 hour is surpassing grace. Accept it in time.
Niki is offered lodging in a house at the bottom of a pit dug into dune. Teshigahara confesses that it's an impossible--an absurd--setting. They could never achieve a better than 30% grade in any of the walls before they'd fall in on themselves. The Woman spends all night digging out and attaching buckets of sand to ropes lowered down by the villagers. She tells Niki that if she doesn't fight entropy, the pit will collapse, killing them. More importantly, if her pit collapses, the next pit will also collapse. It takes on the allegory of Kafka's "Before the Law": There are many pits; this is the one for Niki. The Woman tells Niki he can't take a bath that night. Perhaps "the day after tomorrow." Niki laughs because he only has three days off. He'll be back at work by then. The Woman doesn't say anything. For Teshigahara, the situation is opportunity for his visual sensibility. Look at how carefully the little house is arranged. During their first dinner together, Niki tells the Woman how stupid she is with all of her beliefs about the intentionality of the sand that infects every part of her life. (I thought more than once of Errol Morris's Vernon, Florida and the man who believed the sand in his jar...grew.) It's not scientific, Niki scolds with a laugh. Later, he tips an umbrella the Woman hangs above his head as if to test his certainty, and a rain of sand cascades off it. He's also wrong about leaving in two days. When he wakes in the morning to the Woman's nakedness, he discovers that the rope ladder that delivered him has been raised and so he's stuck. He fights this. He abuses the Woman. He ties her up, and one day and one night later, he takes out her gag and she begs for water. The horror of his sudden captivity wars in the viewer with the horror of his reaction to it. (I want to spend the length of another essay talking about the performances here, but all I'm really qualified to offer is that every moment that passes between the central couple is as laden and mysterious as every real interaction between lovers, friends, prisoners.) And all the while, the sand creeps in.
The allegorical power of Woman in the Dunes is almost unparalleled in the medium. Teshigahara frames Niki's first attempts to escape as a direct visual parallel to an ant lion Niki has captured: mute, senseless struggle against inexorable tides. He takes long diversions to consider the way the dunes shift, covering footprints not long after warping them into ellipses and grotesqueries. Then they're gone. The Woman has lost her husband and daughter to the sand, she tells Niki. She won't leave the pit because they're buried there. Niki offers to help her unearth them. She doesn't answer. It's a stupid thing to say. Niki does get out of the pit, only to end up crying for help when he's caught in quicksand. "Pull me out," he cries. The villagers laugh. They can't pull him out, they say. They can dig him out, though. These are distinctions that matter in the dunes. Niki schemes. He's a man of reason. His co-workers will come looking for him. When three months pass without a whisper from his past life, Niki builds a crow-trap from a bucket and a newspaper. He'll attach a note to the crow's foot, he reasons. He opens the trap one day to find that the capillary action of moisture, combined with evaporation at the surface, has turned it into a pump. The trap is full of water. He becomes obsessed. He starts a journal. He can't wait to tell the villagers of his invention. This will save them the toil of having to bear water to the Woman. He has accepted his moment. It's Sophocles's line for Oedipus when the worst has happened and he has this moment where the proverbial rock is rolling down the hill. The King says that for all the ordeals, he can only "conclude that all is well." There is the suggestion in both myths, Oedipus the King and Woman in the Dunes, that the only toil is ignorance of the self; and the only freedom is knowledge of the self.
Consider that prior to his epiphany, the Woman is taken away with an ectopic pregnancy that will likely kill her. She's diagnosed by the village's animal doctor. Not even that--he smells her middle and declares his diagnosis. The villagers wrap her in a mat and put her on a board they rip from a shelf outside the front door, the better to hoist her out like livestock. Niki helps by turning on the radio that's finally arrived and asks if she wants it. Wild-eyed, she shakes her head. It's for him. What a stupid thing to say. What a useless sop to offer. Earlier, Niki takes the bugs he's collected on his trip and throws them on a fire he's started in the middle of the floor. It's meaningful for the symbolic casting off of his previous life but we remember, too, that Niki's ambition in that pursuit was to locate a certain beetle that, properly catalogued, would mean an entry in his honour in some obscure taxonomy volume. He knows it's his only chance at any kind of eternity. He stumbles upon the beetle somewhere along the way. "Look" he says, "the tiger beetle!" Then puts it in the fire, I guess; Teshigahara doesn't make too much of it. This is a statement about temporariness and the particular human arrogance that there's anything like forever. He shows us pictures of sand, ridged and lined like a Zen garden, but in constant flux like the surface of the ocean. You can give names to things, but that's a form of madness. Like building a home at the bottom of a pit of sand in a strange stand against entropy. You can capture and kill things, but you don't ever own anything you don't give back eventually. Everything is in constant flux. I am aware when I watch Woman in the Dunes that it is an intimation of immortality, but that it will fade and die as everyone involved has faded and died, or will. Niki stops fighting this. His hour of Grace begins once he accepts this. Upon reflection, he concludes that at the end of it all, all is well. It's what he has. It's all any of us do.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Criterion Collection brings Woman in the Dunes to Blu-ray at last in a beautiful 1.33:1, 1080p transfer sourced from a fine-grain master positive. Detail and crispness impress: Check out the first dream montage, a series of multiple dissolves, and marvel at how the picture maintains clarity in the overlap, some optical artifacts notwithstanding. Texture is exemplary, with a tactile quality indicating every wave of sand and every furtive glimpse of the human form. There's a supple dynamic range to the chiaroscuro images that makes them not just stark but deep, even elegant, especially when sun filters through with a softness that conveys heat, miraculously without any digital peaking. The audio, presented in LPCM centre-channel mono, is on the quiet side. Its best moments are its reproductions of Toru Takemitsu's harsh, alien score, one of the headwaters for Mica Levi's extraordinary work of late. There's also some light noise under the dialogue scenes, but there aren't many of those.
Returning from the Criterion DVD, James Quandt offers a typically-academic "Visual Essay" (29 mins., SD) on Woman in the Dunes that's occasionally combative to popular criticism of it--he decries the read that the film stands in for the "plight of man"--without really addressing how an existential read is at odds with Camus (who is, after all, essentially an existentialist). Quandt hits his stride when talking about the film in conjunction with Teshigahara's body of work and the picture's relationship to Tao. Next he should have drawn together Tao with Camus; it's almost there. Maybe it was in the other two "essays" he produced for the now out-of-print Criterion box set "Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara." It's fine.
"Teshigahara and Abe" (35 mins., SD) delves into the three-film collaboration between the titular director and novelist, respectively. Donald Richie, as he is so often, proves to be the definitive voice, offering a nice portrait of Teshigahara as a flower arranger (his birthright, oddly enough, his father having established the Sogetsu School of Ikebana in 1927, the year Teshigahara was born). There's good analysis here, too, of how the writer's sensibilities and philosophies aligned so closely with Teshigahara's that they were able to marry two mediums that are notoriously difficult to marry. While I haven't read the book upon which Woman in the Dunes is based, I would speculate that whatever its fidelity to the source, the magic happens in the understanding of global intentionality. It hears the music, in other words--it doesn't just know the notes. This featurette has spurred me to redress my gaps regarding Abe.
Four Teshigahara shorts are made available for the first time in HD. Start with Hokusai (**/****, 22 mins., 1953), a biography of woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai that gives a broad outline of the Edo period in which he worked, overlaying the artist's work and some quick shots of how woodcuts are achieved. It's a rough piece and clearly an early one, though it does find its footing in its second half with close appreciations of the work itself. In a lot of ways, Hokusai reminds of the sort of folksy documentaries Disney used to make about their own animators' artistic process, as it use similar transitions and narration.
Ikebana (***½/****, 32 mins., 1956) tackles the family business, as it were. Teshigahara explores the practice and function of the very specific form of flower arrangement described by the title. Beginning much like Hokusai, as a straightforward documentary, Ikebana moves on to discuss the philosophy and art of flower arrangement as something that expresses cosmological concerns of eternity, abstract representation, even absurdism. It's a treatise on method and obsessive technique, the ritualized transformation of the self through the arrangement of objects. Teshigahara's transition into film, and his eventual return to ikebana, is clarified herein as a journey of discovering the most ephemeral form to express eternity. I made a connection before between the director and William Blake--it's something made more explicit by his choices first to document an etcher (Blake was one, too), then to address Nature, and finally to embrace, if not succumb to, the paradox that doing must be the first commandment. Ikebana tells more than it thinks it does as it segues into modernism and abstraction. Form from chaos; it reminds of the Andy Goldsworthy documentary that came out a few years ago, Rivers and Tides, and feels invaluable.
Tokyo 1958 (**½/****, 24 mins., 1958), a collaboration between multiple filmmakers to capture a Tokyo sick with the West and late for something, plays a little like Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera. Eight different directors participated in the project, which has, curiously, a white guy as its central "protagonist," observing with curiosity an alien culture he has, lately, colonized and begun to acculturate. Maybe it's not so curious after all. A surrealist piece, in the end, that marries the ancient with the new, it superimposes ancient images and art over modern throngs to chart the evolution of the country's leadership from literal God to figurehead. Though it feels like defiance, I bet Teshigahara would have argued it only was what it was.
Ako/White Morning (****/****, 29 mins., 1963), based on one of Abe's short stories, follows a day in the life of the eponymous teen (Miki Irie) as she wakes up, goes to work at some hybrid pastry/baked-bun factory, hangs out with friends, and goes for a drive. It feels very much like a Godard film from the period, specifically Band of Outsiders but a little like the subsequent Pierrot le Fou as well. Sufficed to say that I love Ako. There's a grand obsession with work in it--an Abe hallmark--along with passages of surpassing beauty, all of it climaxing in an impromptu roadside dance after a tire change. Ineffably poignant and thick with nostalgia, it was initially part of an anthology picture called The Flower of the Age, or Teenage Girls (La Fleur de l'age, ou Les adolescentes) that found Teshigahara on a bill with Gian Vittorio Baldi, Michel Brault, and Jean Rouch.
The original trailer, spruced up to 1080p, rounds out the extras on the disc proper. Criterion's traditional booklet insert sports an essay by author Audie Bock, who offers an interesting take on the film tackling a collective approach to it. Interesting primarily because it's the last place I would've gone with something like this. I wasn't blown away. An interview with Teshigahara by Max Tessier reveals the director to be thoughtful, a fan of the expressive possibilities of cinema over painting and literature, and possessed of great insight as to what the symbolism of sand was to him in the context of Woman in the Dunes. It's something both harmful and potentially good. Again, that's not what I'm intrigued by with regards to the film, but it was, in this case, revelatory to me. Invaluable stuff.