Woman In The Dunes (1964): Meaning within Mundanity

One of our writers explores the 1964 black and white film adaptation of Kobo Abe's novel

Matthew Barratt
13th May 2023
Image from IMDb
Based on Kobo Abe’s novel of the same name, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s film is a disturbing, bizarre and heavily existential story on the modernization of postwar Japan and the work culture that was enabled as a consequence.

'Woman in the Dunes' explores the expedition of entomologist and schoolteacher Niki Junpei, a man who travels from Tokyo to the coast for the purpose of collecting insects. Hoping to have his efforts immortalized in an encyclopedia, Junpei focuses on unearthing an undiscovered species of tiger beetle. Missing the last bus, and with nowhere else to go, Junpei agrees to an offer by a local villager to stay the night, to which he is guided towards a sandpit with a small hut situated within. After descending the pit, he meets the woman who lives there, whose job consists of digging sand which is then hoisted up the villagers to be sold. Junpei sleeps until the next morning only to find that the rope ladder he initially climbed down has been taken away.

Woman in the Dunes establishes a perfect middle ground between the bleak nihilism of Camus and the demented absurdity of Kafka. Arguably the most poignant quote of Woman In The Dunes is Junpei’s question to the woman that he has been enslaved alongside: “Are you shoveling sand to live or living to shovel sand?”.

For something so mundane and irritating, every granule of sand is visible in each shot, capturing the smooth flowing textures of a substance that slips through the cracks of the hands that shovel it

Enslaved and trapped within the sandpit, forced to shovel sand alongside the women, Junpei’s existence is stripped down to the all-consuming power of manual labor. Every shovelful of sand is replaced by four more that cascade down the slopes of the dunes, seeping into every crevice of Junpei’s body and clothing. Teshigahara’s visual depiction of sand is arguably the most appealing ever put to film. For something so mundane and irritating, every granule of sand is visible in each shot, capturing the smooth flowing textures of a substance that slips through the cracks of the hands that shovel it. It coats every fiber of Junpei’s being; every action, movement and object. Clothes, furniture, and bed sheets are all permeated by the ever-presence of sand. Intimacy and closeness is intertwined with the granules that stick to every visible surface of Junepei’s skin in the prickling stifling heat of the Japanese climate. He eats, sleeps and breathes the unvarying commodity that he has been tasked with procuring. His hierarchy of needs is redirected for the sourcing of a product to be sold for the economic gain, of his captors, a product that envelops his existence.

An environment in which work, and labor is placed as a priority over everything else, sacrificing one’s wellbeing in the process

Both Abe’s novel and Teshigahara’s film came to being in the 60s, a time of rapid modernization and economic upheaval in Japan after the country’s devastation during World War II. A direct consequence of these developments was longer shifts, with a large portion of Japanese workers undertaking up to 60 hour work weeks – sometimes even longer – as opposed to the typical 40 hour week weeks of other countries. This work culture has been argued as a trigger for what is known as ‘Karoshi’ which translates to a sudden work-related death within Japanese society, the first of which was documented in 1969. Whether due to physical exhaustion or mental instability, Karoshi culture is one that is still prominent in Japan today. An environment in which work, and labor is placed as a priority over everything else, sacrificing one’s wellbeing in the process, we can apply the context of Karoshi culture to that of Teshigahara’s film.

Junpei could arguably represent the typical Japanese worker suffering under the crushing weight of Karoshi culture. Abandoning his job as a teacher for the pursuit of his etymological hobby, Junpei must then apply this to his imprisonment within the mundanity of the sandpit if he is to live with fulfillment, whether it is through catching birds or establishing dominance over the villagers by creating a well to obtain water. The escapism of hobbies and interests is essential if Junpei is to separate the backbreaking pitfalls of his teaching job as well as his newfound enslavement as a sand shoveler, ultimately adapting to his predicament by the film’s end.

What may seem like a film on the process of Stockholm syndrome is one that uses allegory to explore existentialism and the purpose of man within an environment that reduces them to mechanisms of labor. In a suffocating system of vapid supply and demand; one that pollutes the hierarchy of needs and orients it towards the subserviency of a higher power through laborious mundanity, it is the compromises that those who are trapped make which then allows them to unearth purpose.

The sand pit and the events that take place within, perhaps a retelling of Camus’ 'Myth of Sisyphus', depict a morbid existence for Junpei who struggles to come to terms with the futility of his existence and the impossibility of his escape. And so, Woman in the Dunes poses the cynical but frighteningly realistic suggestion that to leave the sand pit in a better place than when Junpei entered it, to find purpose within the banality of the dunes, is arguably more fulfilling than to dedicate oneself to rebellious escape.

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