Freedom in the Dunes

Published 22 Jun 2017

Suna no onna translated as Woman of the Dunes is a novel by Kobo Abe which was adopted into film by Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara. The novel was published in 1962, and the film was released in 1964. Kobo Abe also wrote the screenplay for the film version making him the author of both the screenplay and the novel. The surreal and at times absurd plot of Woman in the Dunes has drawn comparisons with major existentialist works like Jean-Paul Sarte’s No Exit and Samuel Backett’s Happy Days. The film is most well-known for Teshigahara’s direction that brings life to the ever-shifting sand that mirrors the fluidity of the character. The plot is also an intriguing aspect of the film

The entomologist Niki Junpei went on an expedition to collect insects in an area full of sand dunes. He missed the last bus back and a group of locals recommends that he spend the night at their village. The allow him to go down a rope-ladder to a house at the bottom of the sandpit, where a young widow lives alone. Her task was to dig sand to be sold to the cities and preventing the sand from destroying the house because if her house is consumed by the desert the other houses will also fall.

In the morning, Junpei tries to leave only to find that the ladder is gone. He is held as a slave by the villagers to continue the shoveling of the sand. Eventually he falls in love with the widower and learns to accept his fate. Eventually he gains the means to finally escape but does not because the widow is already pregnant with their child. The movie ends with a missing person’s poster claiming Junpei has been missing for seven years.

The movie’s premise is largely unrealistic. Sand can not consume a house or rise up from the pit the way the widower claims it would in order to destroy the other houses. However, once the suspension of belief is established and the viewer accepts the absurd premise everything in the movie is so painstakingly real. The woman’s beauty is so seductive, she sleeps naked, that we can not help but sympathized with Jinpei for falling love with her.
The sand is destructive in the beginning, just like Jinpei who, at first, tries to hold the woman as a hostage so he can win his freedom. However he is forced to let her go so they can both try to save the house from destruction.

Eventually, in desperation Jinpei tries to climb the sand pit and fails. But in his failure he disturbs the sand so much that the insects and unearthed and birds are drawn by their discovery. The sand then starts to bring forth life just as towards the end Jinpei brought life the widow, quite literally, by making her pregnant. Praise must be given to Jinpei for refusing to abandon the pregnant woman in the pit despite his earlier urgency and desire to escape.

The movie Woman of the Dunes is the first time sand was captured so vibrantly since the time of Lawrence of Arabia. Everything was so realistic that the viewer becomes sympathetic because they actually feel the sand encroaching upon the house and the Widows beauty is so vapid it is almost as if she could be touched by the audience. Another gem in the film is the initial dichotomy of the two. Jinpei refuses to be trapped in the pit while the young widow accepts her fate knowing that her survival is going to depend on her labor. Besides, she reasons, her husband and daughter are buried here somewhere. Jinpei’s discovery of how to extract water from the sand is the one true discovery and achievement he makes since as he himself points out his IDs and other documents are just frauds supporting one another to pretend that there is such a person.

Since Kobo Abe wrote both the movie and the novel it can be said that both are extremely faithful to the ideas he started with. Although a bit disturbing to foreign viewers the movie is in fact, the journey of Jinpei and his desire to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and find peace. He finds peace in the strangest place in the depths of a sand pit with a woman that he barely knew.

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