Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Woman in the Dunes (Suna no Onna) (1964)

Sunna No Onna
”Woman of the Dunes” is an odd movie. It is one of those stories you cannot place in a single category as it seems to contain many elements or aspects.

On the face of it it lands somewhere between a prison escape movie and a robinsonade. Schoolteacher Niki Junpei (Eiji Okada) has ventured into an area of sand dunes to collect bugs for his collection. He misses the last bus home and the locals offer that he can stay with one of them, a woman that lives alone. She lives in a hut at the bottom of a sandpit, accessible only with a rope ladder. Soon enough however Junpei finds out that there is nowhere out and he will not make it back to school in time.

It turns out that the woman (Kyoko Kishida), who is never given a name, lost husband and child and needs a new man and the villagers has decided that Junpei is the one. He is of course upset by this turn of events, but no matter what he tries he cannot get out of the pit. In the beginning he tries brute force, but over time his schemes become more cunning. Meanwhile the woman seems bent on trying to make it comfortable for him and to make him accept his fate. When Junpei finally succeeds to get out of the pit he ends up in quicksand and is brought back to the woman. That seems to make him give up.

The sandpit is obviously a prison with Junpei the prisoner constantly trying to escape. The sandpit is also a deserted island with very limited, and certainly no visual, contact with the outside world and Junpei has to learn how the island works if he is to survive. Grudgingly at first, but with more enthusiasm as time wears on.

These, the surface themes, work well, albeit a bit slow and the ending is quite surprising. It is however on the deeper levels that “Woman of the Dunes” stands out. There is something very surreal about people living at the bottom of a sandpit. In reality it would never work. Sand is incredibly mobile and for all their shoveling the pit would be covered soon enough. I should know, I took my masters in sand dunes. There is simply no point to placing a hut at the bottom of a sand pit. The real story therefore is one of metaphors and that is where it gets interesting.

Junpei is getting caught in a marriage and he cannot get out of. Or more to the point, the life of a woman in Japan in the 1960’ies (and probably today as well) is a life at the bottom of a sandpit. Chained to a life with no outlook. Work is a Sisyphean affair that has to be done but never takes you anywhere and being together with a man is like being a spider capturing prey, dragging them into her sandpit. From this perspective the movie works very well. The woman who knows no other life and no other destiny is fatalistic and accepting about her life. The man, seeing this life from the male, outside, point of view, sees it as a despairing prison, an end to all he wanted to be.

This storyline is underscored by the soundtrack which is haunting and brooding and otherworldly and the sand is a perfect metaphor for the inevitable. The villagers with their googles and shrill laughter are like small demons tormenting the man and the woman, with the difference that the woman is accepting their treatment of her.

I found “Woman of the Dunes” a clever movie and captivating, literally, but it was also a tad too long. My version was an uncut version and I understand the need to trim it. It could easily loose about half an hour. When the scenes drag out I found myself drifting a bit. Overall, though, I would say “Woman of the Dunes” come out positive.     

There will be a short break now on this blog as I will be going for the next two weeks to The States.


  1. I too found it captivating and much more sensual than I was expecting. I like your interpretation about the man and woman looking at the situation differently: he is a bit more worldly than she is, so knows what he is missing, but one also understands her desire for a companion.

    Gotta love 50s and 60s Japanese cinema, it is so rich and interesting.

    1. It is indeed. The large majority of the Japanese movies I have watched have been excellent.

      Yes, there is absolutely a sensual element to it, which, I think, underscores the man-woman metaphors. They are both trapped. The man sees it, the woman does not, but there is a sensual glue that ties them together anyway.

  2. I really like this movie a lot. Just so strange and both dreamy and disturbing.

    Where are you going in the States?

    1. It is indeed. Very ortherworldly.
      I will be going to Miami for some family reunion thing on my wife's side and then a short stop in D.C.

  3. I waited to comment because this was coming up so soon for me. I just love this movie. There is so much to think about and so many metaphors to explore. Also it is completely gorgeous.

    I hope you enjoy your trip and have beautiful weather. Probably too early to catch cherry blossoms in Washington but we can hope! I worked in DC for many years and miss it sometimes. I am certainly glad I am not working there now!

    1. I am back home now and yes, those cherry blossoms are very beautiful.

  4. Replies
    1. It could very easily slip into being pretentious, but avoids it neatly. I worried the the surreal elements would cross those borders, but it stayed on the right side.