Home Video Hovel: Woman in the Dunes, by Scott Nye
Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes begins with walls of sand. The wind whittles them away, yet the walls seem permanent. In high definition, one can see every grain, sense their collective mass; unyielding, yet fragile. We meet our anonymous protagonist (played by Eiji Okada) as he scales one such mound, which due to the camera angle, lens, and focal length seems as steep as the side of a building. The man climbs with effort, but no great difficulty. He seems to have mastered his terrain. He has not.
No sooner has he missed his bus back to town than he’s taken in by a scheme to trap him in a pit with a woman (Kyōko Kishida) where he must shovel sand for the rest of his days.
Divested of his resources, this relatively civilized man has little recourse. He can shout about the law and morality all he wants – while the pit has his house, his captors still control his access to food and water. When your situation’s that grim, you tend to make the best of what you’ve got. Yet this is not a compromise one makes only under direct imprisonment. Tashigahara and screenwriter/novelist Kōbō Abe carefully suggest this is a bargain we all make to one extent or another – when the man asks whether the woman is digging sand to live, or living to dig sand, he could very well be asking that of any ordinary pursuit, or the nature of labor at all. We land a job, certain we are leveraging it to our advantage, only to become subsumed and conscribed. Our individual effort yields little; we are but cogs in the great machine. The man is a schoolteacher hoping to make his name studying insects, and is certain a search party will discover him before long. No such party ever comes. How valuable could his labor have been beyond supporting his livelihood and satisfying a certain curiosity? And if that’s all it gained him, isn’t he just as well off in the pit?
As I suggested above, this is a film that can really flourish in high definition. Tôtetsu Hirakawa and Masao Yamazaki’s production design is spare and finely-textured – the bulk of the film’s 147-minute running time is spent in the house in the pit. We can feel the aging wood and the invasiveness of the sand and the sweat and the desert heat and the hollowness that comes with thirst. All this becomes more apparent in Criterion’s HD transfer on Blu-ray, which excels in its depth and clarity. I would have liked to see a bit more grain and detail in the blacks of this black-and-white feature, but the image still feels organic enough to convey the horror in the film.
Criterion previously made Woman in the Dunes available in a now-out-of-print DVD box set with two other Teshigaraha/Abe collaborations (Pitfall and The Face of Another). While we don’t know what will become of those other films, they have transferred a good deal of the supplements from that set. We lose James Quandt’s video essays on Pitfall and Face, but retain the one for Dunes, and it is an excellent exploration of the collaborative effort that crafted such a singular, electrifying film. We retain also four short films by Teshigahara, which are not as beautifully-preserved as the feature, but which still look quite nice and provide some interesting outlets for the filmmaker’s creative exploration. Finally, there’s a half-hour documentary about Teshigahara and Abe’s collaboration, with insights from some of their contemporaries, as well as noted film scholars. As with the video essays, the booklet loses the pieces specific to the other films, but keeps Audie Bock’s essay and Max Tessier’s interview with Teshigahara. The latter is translated from French, giving it an added layer of remove from the Japanese filmmaker, so it reads a bit awkwardly, but has some helpful insights.
I’m not thrilled that Criterion has upgraded one film in a box set while making the rest unavailable, and am somewhat fearful for what this portends for the future potential of upgrading foreign-language box sets (particular the Rohmer, Bergman, Varda, Renoir, and Dreyer collections). But as an individual release, this is a very solid one, and the film more than stands on its own as a haunting exploration of individual identity in collective society.