in Criterion Month, Review

Woman in the Dunes (1964)

Last month I wrote a list of my “Top 50 Favorite Horror Movies of the 2010s”. Something I noticed when reevaluating my favorite horror films of the last decade was the recent surge in “Transcendental Horror.” Movies like The Lighthouse and Midsommar that aren’t built on scares, rather existential dread. Movies that make you question your existence and if anything matters. The feeling of being trapped in life. I figured this was a recent phenomenon in cinema. Little did I know Hiroshi Teshigahara was making Transcendental Horror over fifty years ago.

Woman in the Dunes isn’t a horror film per se but it did leave me horrified. I couldn’t stop asking “What would I do if I was in this scenario?” If I was trapped in a strange place with no conceivable way to escape. How long would it take to accept this is my life now? How long would it take for life to take on a new meaning? How would I deal with being stuck in a hole?

Niki Junpei (Eiji Okada) is an entomologist in the desert studying a rare species of beetle. After a long day of snatching up dusty critters, Junpei takes a nap and loses track of time. When he awakes he realizes he’s missed the bus back to the city. He meets an old man (Kōji Mitsui) who invites Junpei to stay the night in his small village in the dunes. Junpei agrees and the locals lead Junpei to the home of the Widow (Kyōko Kishida).

The Widow lives in a small house at the bottom of a deep hole surrounded by sand. The only way down is a rickety rope ladder. Junpei stays the night with the Widow, who we learn lost her husband and daughter to a sandstorm. She is a solemn figure yet Junpei feels a connection.

Later that night, Junpei finds the Widow out digging sand and pouring it into baskets. The baskets are then lifted up by the villagers and sold to make concrete to support the village. Junpei asks if he can help but the Widow insists he shouldn’t have to help on his first night.

Junpei awakes the next morning to find the rope ladder is gone and that no one will answer when he screams for help. It’s at this moment Junpei realizes he and the Widow are prisoners and he must dig sand. If he refuses the village will not send food down the hole and even worse, if he stops digging he will be buried alive by sand.

Fuck. Horror movie or not, that is a terrifying premise. Of course, Junpei tries everything he can to escape the hole but the sand is so loose he can’t grip it without causing more sand to cascade down. At one part he actually does escape with a grappling hook but gets lost in the desert. He gets stuck in quicksand where the villagers find him and bring him back to the hole. All he can do is make the best of his situation.

Junpei and the Widow go through many shifts as their relationship unfolds. The enclosed space brings them together at times and at other times makes them want to tear each other apart. The main dividing factor being that the Widow has resigned to living in the hole. She accepts this is her life. While Junpei refuses to be trapped like an insect in a glass jar.

A majority of this two-hour-plus film is Junpei and the Widow talking, fighting, and falling in love in their dusty shack. Junpei goes back and forth between trying to make his new life work and giving up entirely, refusing to shovel sand. His only distraction is an experiment he conducts, capturing moisture in the sand to make a hole filled with water. How can this water exist in such a desolate environment? It’s a nice parallel to how two people make the desert their home.

Then there’s the big question: “Is this way of life really that bad?” Junpei and the Widow do love each other, they are given food and have a home. Isn’t that all any of us need? This is the conclusion the film ends with. I hate to gloss over the story beats but I have to talk about the ending. SPOILERS BELOW.

After the couple endures the highs and lows of their relationship–and I mean LOWS! There’s a part where the villagers shine a light on the couple and say if they have sex Junpei can leave the hole temporarily, but the Widow fends him off–Junpei is faced with a choice.

The Widow has to be brought out of the hole after it becomes clear she is suffering from an endoscopic pregnancy. The villagers lift her out and leave town leaving Junpei alone with the ladder descended. Junpei climbs up the ladder and realizes he can leave.

He doesn’t. He returns to the hole to work on his water experiment. It has become his new passion and when the Widow returns they can continue their life, maybe even with a child someday. Living in the hole, the dune, this is his purpose in life.

Jesus Christ! That is some scary shit. Kōbō Abe, who adapted the film from his own novel, is a nightmare man. I should have known after watching Teshigahara and Abe’s Face of Another a few years earlier that this film would drop me right into existential crisis mode. To think all it took was a hole in the sand.

By the way, if you like footage of moving sand, I’ve got a film for you. In Woman in the Dunes, you got sand blowing through the air, against the ground in waves, falling like snow. If AFI did a list of the “Top 100 Sand Movies” I would put this at number 1. Take that Mad Max: Fury Road.

Hiroshi Segawa’s cinematography is like watching a beautiful black and white nature film. Even if beautiful events aren’t always happening on screen. The film is made even less comforting by Toru Takemitsu’s dissonant score. For sure Ari Aster (Midsommar) and Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse) love this film.

Kyōko Kishida plays vulnerable and scary and sweet with such effortlessness and Eiji Okada is the perfect portrayal of a descent into madness. All the elements are at play in a premise that sounds so simple yet is anything but simple.

I didn’t expect Woman in the Dunes to scare me so much but I’m glad it did. I love it when horror can still engage me long after watching the film. What I also didn’t expect is how much I hate sand now. It’s coarse and it’s rough and irritating and it gets everywhere.

Listen to this and tell me this isn’t supposed to be a horror movie.