At first it looks like an unassuming art-house Japanese film with its typically elegant cinematography and the poetic attention to details. But when the percussive, experimental soundtrack kicks in and the story is established, something unusual emerges: a very universal allegory of the human condition and human conditioning with echoes of Kafka’s The Trial, Albert Camus and Marxist theories about freedom. Like the characters in this film are engulfed by sand, Hiroshi Teshigara’s Woman of the Dunes creeps in the viewer’s attention right from the start.
Teshigara’s 1964 film boasts an impressively coherent organic unity, a very original mise-en-scene, which is as integral to the story as the two main characters, and top-notch performances from its two leads, Eiji Tokada and Kyoko Kishida. The story, based on the homonymous book by the existentialist writer Kobo Abe, who also penned this screenplay adaptation, is very simple and straightforward: an entomologist called Jumpei Nika (Tokada) is collecting insect specimens on the sand dunes of a remote shoreline in Japan. He misses the last bus home. The local villagers offer him shelter in the house of a young window at the bottom of a sandpit. When he wakes up the next morning, the rope used to hoist him down is no longer there. While still under the impression that the rope will re-appear soon enough, he agrees to help the woman in her nightly labour of shovelling away the sand that threatens to bury them.
At this point the erotic tension between the two rather good-looking actors becomes visible. The stark black and white photography often focuses on the texture of their skin and hair while the ever-present sand creates a menacing atmosphere. The cluttered and claustrophobic space of the hut is also infused with erotic frisson. Kishida is particularly skillful in alternating between femme fatale, slave and geisha-like ‘wife’. She masterly switches from plain-faced woman resigned to a financially secure life without freedom to a sensual, mysterious presence. Her transformations throughout the film provide some of the pillars that sustain the interest in a work that could easily have been monotonous but which manages to remain as edgy as a thriller. Moments of dark humour also strike a balance needed to keep the film consistently engaging.
When Jumpei realises that the deceptively benign villagers trapped him and that he has been made into a prisoner, at their mercy for food and water, he starts making plans to escape. After a spectacularly failed attempt, he finds out that there is water bubbling under the surface. The prospect of an experiment greatly arouses his scientific instincts. It also prompts a shift in his attitude and the way he deals with a terrifyingly strange change in his life.
Woman of the Dunes won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1964 and looking in hindsight and at how well the film holds up, it seems like a deserved recognition of its technique and the material of the film. It is also worth pointing out the angular, punctuating soundtrack by Toru Takemitsu, which often cuts through the narrative like a dangerous intervention. Absorbing, intriguing, ironic and universal in its human interest, Woman on the Dunes is on pair with Orson Welles’s The Trial and Antonioni’s most inpired moments such as L’Eclisse.
Plus:(Funeral Parade of Roses. Dir: Toshio Matsumoto. Released by Eureka!): Although stylistically worlds apart from Woman of the Dunes, the ‘swinging Tokyo’ Funeral Parade of Roses was made by a peer of Hiroshi Teshigara, Toshio Matsumoto. Both were part of a newer generation of Japanese directors who took their inspiration from Italian neo-Realism and the Novelle Vague. While in Teshigara’s case he took the ideas and made them their own, Matsumoto was limited to being a good imitator, if Funeral… is a anything to go by. A cross-dressing adaptation of Oedipux Rex, it often lapses into over-the-top attempts at hipness and formal experiments that come across as naïve and ill-judged, like the travail of a film student trying to pay homage to his idols. Still, as a time-capsule film with a great soundtrack, it does provide a glimpse into the rarely-on-screen Japanese gay culture and anticipates the Crying Game by more than two decades in its use of a ‘lady-boy’ as a female protagonist and object of desire, with a similar fascination for his/her body as a site of lust and ambiguity. Real-life transvestite Peter (who plays the queen of clubs Eddie) makes a riveting lead (he also played Kyoami the Fool in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran) and the support cast of non-actors also create a feeling of a well-populated film. Despite the tragic mainline, there are moments of priceless humour, such as the scene when three drag queens get into a fight with three ‘tough’ women a la Faster, Faster Pussy Cat, Kill, Kill! in the streets of Tokyo. Moments of self-mocking humour like this fill in the gaps left by Matsumoto’s immaturity.
Woman of the Dunes and Funeral Parade of Roses are out now. To buy a copy, please follow one of the links provided and support Kamera by doing so.