Woman in the Dunes Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review
The man walks through the desert, up and down thick mounds, leaving a line of footprints behind. His are the only human-made marks on the land. At a point, he stops to photograph and then capture a bug. Another emerges from the sand and the man is again on the hunt.
Niki Junpei (Eiji Okada, Alan Resnais’ HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR) is a schoolteacher and entomologist who specializes in sand bugs. He is endlessly fascinated by the creatures; so much so that his attentiveness is much of the reason he misses the last bus out of town. When he encounters locals, they lead him to a pit that has a small house at the bottom, with a rope ladder the only way to reach it. Inside, Niki meets the owner (Kyōko Kishada, who had a small role in Yasujirō Ozu’s AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON).
The woman offers a meal and tea, and informs her guest that on a nightly basis she must shovel sand away from the house or else it will rot. Niki is skeptical because he can’t imagine that dry sand could cause the issues the woman says they do. And with that, something immediately seems off. And when Niki tries to leave the next morning, he finds the rope ladder missing.
The symbolism here is apparent and far from subtle—the hunter has become the captive, the scientist now the bug in a jar. (Being trapped and helpless is prevalent from the first scene, as Niki simultaneously becomes stranded and drops bugs into capsules; at one point, he even relaxes in a boat surrounded by sand, a surreal image that hammers in the idea.) But there is something deeper and perhaps even more frightening at work here.
WOMAN IN THE DUNES (SUNA NO ONNA in its native Japanese), based on Kōbō Abe’s 1962 novel (Abe also penned the screenplay), serves, at least in part, as an allegory on the struggles of everyday life and loop of daily routines. Consider how as Niki digs into the wall to gain footing, sand trickles down like a waterfall. Any work he does is immediately negated by an uncontrollable force—the parallels to Sisyphus are not unnoticed. Additionally, it is Niki’s occupation that brings him to the dunes, and the woman must continue to work out of the necessity for survival. There was a point where she settled into her routine, just as the viewer may expect the same of Niki. (They may even reflect on their own choices and where it has lead.)
Director Hiroshi Teshigahara (1962’s PITFALL, also written by Abe), who was nominated for the Best Director Oscar (the film itself earned a nod for Best Foreign Language Film, losing to Vittorio De Sica’s YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW) has created a work that is at times beautiful, at times horrific and at times sexy. The viewer feels the frustrations and the attractions, the silence and the inner pleas. With the assistance of cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa, Teshigahara has orchestrated a complex film; one that is not a horror or a tragedy or a piece of eroticism, although elements of each are here.
Maybe it is hor-tragi-erotica, a subgenre on a long, mostly empty shelf. Or, if anything, it is undefinable. Certainly there are no other films quite like it, certainly no other visionaries quite like Teshigahara.
Video: 1.33:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. “This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine from a 35 mm composite fine-grain master positive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI Film’s DRS and the Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for jitter, flicker, small dirt, grain, and noise management.”
WOMAN IN THE DUNES looks excellent in high-definition and this Blu-ray is certainly an upgrade over Criterion’s initial DVD release. Blacks are deep, contrast is strong and the overall image presents fine textures, all of which add to Hiroshi Segawa’s cinematography. Purists will also be pleased that the filmic quality remains.
Audio: Japanese Mono. Subtitles in English. “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from an optical fie-grain print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX 4.”
Dialogue is clean and the effective score by Toru Takemitsu plays nicely.
Video Essay (29:22): This video essay, recorded in 2007 by James Quant of the Cinematheque Ontario (now TIFF Cinematheqeue), discusses the themes, characters and legacy of WOMAN IN THE DUNES.
Teshigahara and Abe (34:53): This fascinating and detailed documentary focuses on the professional relationship between director Hiroshi Teshigahara and writer Kōbō Abe.
Short Films: Included here are four short films by Hiroshi Teshigara: HOKUSAI (1953), IKEBANA (1956), TOKYO 1958 (1958) and AKO (1965).
Also included with this Criterion Collection release is an essay by film scholar Audie Bock and a 1978 interview with Hiroshi Teshigahara.