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Movie Review: "Woman in the Dunes" by Hiroshi Teshigahara

Teo Marcelo is art geek from Ukraine. He is a passionate rock- and movie-lover since childhood and has a profound knowledge in this topics.

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The idea that Eastern culture and traditions are far from our European ideas has long been entrenched in society mind.

But again, and again, there are people who are able to break through this invisible cultural barrier and find understanding and supporters on the other side of our blue ball. Akira Kurosawa's name is almost synonymous, although why "almost", it is really synonymous with "Japanese cinema". Just as Lars von Trier or Ingmar Bergman are both geniuses and murderers of the national cinemas of their own countries, so the name of Kurosawa, when mentioned, instantly erases from the minds of a fairly experienced film lover names of Masaki Kobayashi, Yasujirō Ozu and Hiroshi Teshigahara. Although I would like to dwell on the latter and consider his most famous film "Woman in the Dunes" more meticulously, because in this picture I see the answer to the eternal question: "What is this amazing unity of the opposites of West and East?". Perhaps the answer to this question will help us to understand the current trends that show the rapid rise of Asia compared to Western countries and the process of so-called "Eastenization".

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On the one hand, Teshigahara is a phenomenal man, a director of opera, fiction and non-fiction films, as well as a master of sculpture, calligraphy and ikebana (the traditional art of flower arranging). As they say "a talented person, talented in everything", not otherwise. On the other hand, the original author of the novel "Woman in the Dunes" and a classic of modern Japanese literature Kōbō Abe, with whom Teshigahara met through the creative group "Century". Discussions can take a long time on the topic - who is seen more in this film, Teshigahara or Abe? But the fact is that without at least one component, including the outstanding avant-garde composer Toru Takemitsu, the film is unlikely to surpass the book and become a world-famous classic of avant-garde, avant-garde cinema. It is also worth noting that this was not the first work of Abe and Teshigahara in cinema. Prior to that, the beginning of the collaboration between Teshigahara, Abe and Takemitsu was laid by the film "Pitfall" made in 1962 which was also based on Abe's work.


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First of all, to understand such a complex and wordy picture as "Woman in the Dunes", it’s necessary to understand the fact that the whole film is an allegorica

The actions of the characters, their motives can begin out of nowhere and end in about the same place where they began. In this sense, the picture is similar to "The Exterminating Angel" by Luis Buñuel. Each semantic image has its own meaning.

Like the original novel, Teshigahara's film begins with the landscapes of the desert through which the protagonist, Niki Junpei, wanders in search of a Spanish fly. By profession, Niki is an entomologist and a school teacher. Insect hunting is his escape from the bustle of life, a hobby that allows him to take a break from everyday bureaucracy. But stuck in the desert, Nicki loses the opportunity to take the last bus to Tokyo, so he is forced to stay overnight in a unknown house, at the bottom of a suspicious pit, where he is taken, by the locals of the desert village offering him shelter. The first time Nicki thinks he's here for a while and the next day he'll be at home. But, as it turns out, he is more of a hostage than a guest in this existential pit. This is where the main action of the film begins. While in the pit, all the events of the film allegedly stopped, while continuing this kaleidoscope of suffering of the protagonist. He seems to walk in a circle, forced to repeat the same actions over and over again. The fact is that the house of the same woman is constantly covered with sand, and in order not to be swallowed by an avalanche, you need to constantly rake the dunes. Under the pressure of these circumstances the protagonist's attitude to the current situation and his worldview in general begin to change. At first, he tries to deny any laws of this place. The woman tells him that they have to work, because that is the only way to get water and food in the village. But Nicki refuses to work, calling it an inexhaustible absurdity and pointing out that he is a man of science, not labor. His behavior is reminiscent of the revolt of the humanitarian-intellectual, whom they are trying to proletarianize. He cherishes the hope of escape, salvation, without losing the opportunity to implement this plan. However, the woman resists the will of the new guest, and willy-nilly, a sexual relationship develops between Nicki and his "new wife". Sexual tension is very noticeable in the scenes, not least thanks to the piercing Takemitsu soundtrack in the style of some Krzysztof Penderecki or Ligeti. The music of the film perfectly emphasizes the atmosphere of perishability, hardness of sand and drought. It is worth remembering that these scenes acquire a special eroticism only due to the Christian understanding of the "fall" and the "renunciation of the flesh", which has never been observed in Japanese culture. There is no sinfulness in love, no sweet forbidden fruit. Therefore, it is quite ironic that the sex scene of Nicki and a woman in the dunes often appears in all sorts of lists of "hottest" love scenes in movies.

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However, due to lack of water, the heroes start working and accept the rules of the game. All this is reminiscent of a gloomy absurdist works by Franz Kafka or Nikolai Gogol, from the series "Arabesques", on the theme of married life. At this point, the influence of the ideas of the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger on the authors of the film and the literary source becomes palpable. Nicki in the film feels abandoned in a world that exists and functions according to its own rules and laws; different from the urban world of Tokyo, where he is trying to return. In this case, the protagonist, at the beginning of the film seemed to run away from his everyday life, and now completely absorbed in the desert, a place where he feels alive like nowhere else. Being isolated from the outside world, Nicki can focus on two main existential themes - death and love, or rather even lust, given the protagonist's not-quite-healthy relationship with the woman in the dunes, who only does something silent and stares at the protagonist. Speaking of the two main impulses to life, it should be noted that they have their imagery in the symbols of sand and water. According to the protagonist himself, each grain of sand is one-eighth of a millimeter in size, but these 0.125 mm can destroy everything. After all, what is left of the statue of the legendary Ozymandias in Percy Shelley's sonnet - right, sand! Sand is everywhere in this film, it constantly covers the characters, it penetrates into the smallest cracks, there is no escape from it, only the opportunity to delay its invasion for a while. Sand is an image of decay, death, continuous entropy of our universe. It devours everything. Its victims were a man and a woman's child. By the way, it does not seem to you that the situation in which Nicki and the mistress of the house in the pit found themselves, is artificial, given that at the end of the film a woman gets pregnant from Nicki. Who can deny that the past man was similarly driven into the circumstances in which Nicki found himself? It is known that the villagers deliberately lure lost travelers to this village. All this is reminiscent of some inhumane experiment, which resonates terribly with our reality. One should study, get a job, get married and have children, like an animal, or rather, in this case an insect. No wonder Nicki set traps for insects at the beginning of the film, but ironically, he fell into such a trap, and now for other villagers, he is the same insect in the jar, which only needs to work and reproduce to saturate this anthill with new individuals, but not persons. This motive for the complete deconstruction of basic social institutions is most clearly shown in the scene of lustful locals offering Nicki to rape a woman in exchange for the opportunity to see the sea. Just like an insect under a glass cap, it performs all the algorithms of its life. This motif is enhanced by the camera work and the composition of the frame, which seem to study the behavior of the characters. If the heroes refuse to perform their social functions, they are ostracized and deprived of all benefits, as indicated by the woman's story that there should be a man in every house in the village, or they will not bring food and water there. And really, why, because a lonely person is an inferior part of society. Whip and gingerbread, these are the basic tools of our civilization according to the authors.

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And at the same time, Nicki sees in life in this pit, its advantages.

Eventually, at some point, he finds a common language with the woman, photographs her, catches the same Spanish fly for which he came here. Together they save money on a radio. His life begins to fill with meaning. He goes through all the stages of acceptance, and resigns himself to his destiny. This is best seen in the scene when a pregnant woman is taken to the surface and Nicki remains in the pit. He climbs a rope ladder to the mountain and sees the sea, but in the end, he decides to stay where he is used to. Nicki completely merges with his surroundings, becomes one of the inhabitants of the village. And indicative in this rethinking of their life values ​​is that if the whole film Nicki gets water from the outside, it is lowered on a rope by fellow locals, then at the end of the film the protagonist learned to extract water in his pit as if from the ground. He found the source of life in the middle of himself, becoming part of this world. He no longer needs tons of papers, documents, insurance policies and medical certificates to feel alive, to feel his being. Like Sisyphus, who is eternally doomed to push his stone up the mountain, Nicki feels alive in confrontation with the element of sand, the element of death.

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But the reader, who is concerned about the content of my article, will finally ask: what is the point of the West, the East, some unity of opposites?

And the point here is that, unlike many other artists of the East, Abe and Teshigahara are much more deeply immersed in the context of Western culture than their own, so their works are always full of a kind of dialectic of Europe and the Far East. In this particular case, with The Woman in the Dunes, we see a conflict between the Eastern and Western understandings of freedom. What is freedom? The two main characters, or even the main character and his surroundings, are opposite sides of the understanding of freedom as such. Please note that Nicki is the only character in the film who has a name - and what is it? - quite familiar to our ear. It sounds like an acronym from Nicolas. From this we conclude that Nicki is a representative of Western civilization, which is emphasized by his determination, ambition and commitment to scientific and rational approaches. He is a scientist, and this best characterizes his Western perception of freedom. Freedom in his understanding is the will, the sovereignty of the individual, his independence from external circumstances. He himself is a circumstance, he conquers nature, he modifies it in line with his anthropocentric whims. In one of Nicki's dialogues with the landlady, he talks about how the desert could be used as a tourist area to improve the life of the settlement. What else characterizes his practical mind. Western man, instead of living in harmony with nature and obedience to fate, creates his own artificial environment. But in the beginning, we see how Nicki himself escapes from the world created by the hands of people like him. In the desert, he experiences his intermezzo before returning to civilization. But the strange environment does not leave him. He finds himself in a different position than in urbanized Tokyo, in the position of an object affected by external circumstances and he must submit to it. Now he is not an individual, but part of a group whose common interests are higher than his personal. His value system instantly crumbles like a sand castle by the sea, washed away by the surf. Nicki goes the way of reassessing values, and begins on the Eastern path not to conquer nature, but to know it through self-knowledge. At the same time, this whole story about the settlement of hermits suspiciously resembles the history of Japan itself, which was also isolated for a long time, and only with the Meiji Restoration and the American occupation after World War II was modernized. This conflict between a western-built city and a conservative village also has its place in the plot. Like the American soldiers who served in the land of the rising sun, Nicki assimilates, takes on the traditions of the locals, and refuses to leave "his home". Such a cultural exchange, or even a synthesis of two cultures, gave rise to the technological giant that Japan is today. The Busido Code of Samurai was rethought into corporate ethics, and feudal clans became large capitalist enterprises. Everything runs, everything changes, but the essence remains the same.

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This is how the work of Hiroshi Teshigahara and Kobo Abe is really valuable, because it has always been a perfect synthesis of Western form and Eastern content. Even now, when the West is experiencing another crisis of identity and distrust of its own values, the East can give it its content, depth and sacredness. It is not known whether this exchange will be the result of a militant dialectic or a peaceful adoption of values, but it is safe to say that great changes await our world.

© 2021 Bogdan Marchenko

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