Recently I watched Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes, an art-house film adaptation of Kobo Abe's novel (who also wrote the screenplay) made in 1964. I threw Teshigahara on the list for my Japanese New Wave festival because he fit in the time period and seemed to at least be contemporaneous with the New Wave (he started making films in 1962). However, Teshigahara seems at odds with the New Wave since he was independent from a studio and since his aesthetics and content seem to be derived much more from the high-brow art world, probably largely due to the significant literary content of a world-renown literary figure such as Abe. Regardless, parallels can be made in terms of themes of identity and sexuality, but I'd rather just say what I liked about the film in itself.
The allegorical content of the film at first set me off: a man gets trapped in a sand dune with a woman where they have to constantly shovel sand in order to survive in a Sisyphus-like situation. The heavy symbolism, I feared, would be didactic or obvious and boring, but I was immediately taken aback at how intrigued I was with the film from the very beginning. The sheer beauty of the striking images and black and white photography is the biggest and most prominent source of pleasure; it is just so wonderful to look at. The beginning sequence starts on an extreme close-up of a grain of sand and then cuts in successively longer shots until we see a sea of shifting, rolling sand. Teshigahara manages to invoke so much lyrical beauty in the shifting sand in the way it moves that it almost makes it seem as if it was the third character in the film (aside from the man and woman).
Paired with the excellent photography is the production design and art direction of the shack in which woman and man live. The broken planks of wood and hanging umbrellas give a skewered geometric feeling, invoking traditional Japanese-style homes, but making them oddly off-center and chaotic. Within these spaces, playing with various angles and lights and shadows, Teshigahara and his cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa are able to make striking Wellesian images that continue to keep us interested despite the claustrophobic and non-changing setting.
The film stars Eiji Okada, who I've seen in Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour, and who has a great presence on the screen, especially for this particular role as a pathetic, arrogant, and conflicted entomologist. He is a man from the "outside" world, meaning outside of the sand dunes, yet he is an outsider within the outside world he lives in - he seems to be lonely and without many friends, he collects bugs and his only goal in life seems to be to discover a new beetle in order to get his name in a book; when he goes missing he eventually becomes doubtful whether anyone will actually come look for him. Kyoko Kishida plays the woman who is timid, and thus made very Japanese, yet strong-minded and sensual. Though she takes much verbal abuse from the man, it is she who lured him and thus it is really she who is in control. Though she seems to need a man for practical reasons of helping to shovel the sand, there is a repressed and intense sexuality within her that is eventually released in a poetically filmed sequence.
There is a lot to be discussed in the film in terms of what the allegory is for exactly (we are trapped, but from what?), how the woman is portrayed, how much of it is Japanese and how much of it is universal, the literature of the film verse the filmic qualities, etc. etc. In the end, however, I felt like I experienced a wholly satisfying work, probably contending as one of my all-time favorite films for its aesthetic beauty, its philosophical weight, and its ability to engage and entertain despite obvious restrictions. Oh! and not mention the score by Toru Takemitsu, which has discordant violin and Japanese percussion that stunningly help create mood in a striking manner.
I greatly look forward to seeing Teshigahara's other work (Face of Another and Pitfall are available in the same box set), feeling like I've found a director that I've been able to intellectually and emotionally resonate with instantly for the first time in a long time.