Saturday, March 22, 2008

Woman in the Dunes

Last night I had the pleasure of watching the 1964 Japanese film, Woman in the Dunes. The basic premise is that a schoolteacher from Tokyo comes to the coastal sand dunes to collect strange bugs in hopes of finding a new species and getting his name in a field guide. He stays at the dunes too long in the day and misses his bus back towards town. Local villagers offer him a place to stay and he accepts. The home they offer for him to stay in is inhabited by a widow and is in the bottom of a large sand pit. He is lowered down by a rope ladder and when he attempts to leave the next day the ladder is gone and he is essentially imprisoned.

Throughout the film we see sand all over the place; it leaks through the roof, covers their bodies, erodes from the pit walls, and windstorms bring large cascades of it. Near the beginning of the film, we see the woman shoveling sand into buckets to be lifted out of the pit for an entire night. We learn that she has to shovel sand every night in order to protect her home as well as the homes of neighboring villagers (the logic being that if her home is buried, it will be easier for other homes to follow). The nameless schoolteacher is captured so that he can prevent the destruction of her home through help with shoveling.

The most telling scene of this seemingly existential allegorical movie is during one of these scenes where they are both shoveling sand. The schoolteacher is venting frustration at the futility of trying to get rid of the they would have to do this endlessly and it seems so meaningless. However, if the pit is symbolic of society/life etc. the woman's task is no more futile than the man's activities of collecting bugs. Her task is based on survival while his is based in academia, but both could be seen as ultimately meaningless. Any individual life is full of routine and detail to seemingly meaningless tasks...whatever we do for a living, chores, hobbies...all of them are series of routines. The video essay included as a special feature makes the interesting comparison of shoveling sand to the Myth of Sisyphus, but makes the distinction that Sisyphus must roll his boulder to appease the gods, while those in the sand pit have more primitive and basic survival reasons.

While the film may not contain a particularly hopeful theme, it does provide many beautiful visual images and some memorable love scenes. Overall the images, story, and even the soundtrack all add up to one striking adjective: the best way possible.

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