Having watched almost 600 films that have been nominated for the top two prizes at the Oscars you start to get an idea of the sort of films that the academy like to honour. Occasionally though there’s an odd nomination that surprises you and Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes is one of those films. There are several reasons for this namely that it isn’t a prestige picture, hasn’t got much in the way of production designs and is essentially a horror film. However, in some ways I’m glad that the film was nominated over fifty years ago, as it gave me a chance to watch what is often considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time.
Teshigahara’s film stars Eiji Okada as Niki Junpei; a teacher and entomologist who at the start of the picture has travelled to the sand dunes to collect insects that inhabit there. After missing the last bus, he is cajoled by the local villagers to stay the night with a local woman who lives in a house at the bottom of a sand quarry. Although Junpei is initially happy with the hospitable welcome he soon discovers that he has been deceived and that the villagers have trapped him in the house alongside its female occupant. The titular woman of the dunes is employed by the villagers to shovel the sand that accumulates in her house so it can then be sold on to make concrete but since her husband died in a sandstorm she’s been forced to do that alone. The villagers are hoping that by trapping Junpei in the house, that can only be exited via a rope ladder that is lowered from above, that he will take the role of her new husband and help her with the sand shovelling. Inevitably Junpei isn’t too happy with this arrangement, initially trying to make several attempts to escape and eventually believing that his friends back in Tokyo will rescue him when they discover his disappearance. The film moves from set piece to set piece with the relationship between Junpei and The Woman changing over time whilst the threat from the creepy villagers looms large. Whilst I was expecting some sort of redemptive conclusion Kōbō Abe’s screenplay, adapted from his novel of the same name, gives a sinister ending in which Junpei almost accepts his fate. A final scene which depicts his missing person’s report is even more chilling and has stuck with me ever since I saw the movie.
As I mentioned in the introduction, Woman in the Dunes was a surprising watch for me not least as it came off as a chilling tale of entrapment that the academy of today would certainly steer clear of. Although it was only nominated for Best Director, Teshigahara’s film was obviously still highly thought of by Oscar which is odd seeing that it is a very sparse film both in terms of dialogue and scenery. As you would expect most of what you see on screen is sand and cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa certainly makes sure that his camerawork turns the dunes into their own character. Every time sand falls from the ceiling of the woman’s house I started to feel a little bit uncomfortable a feeling that was magnified when Segawa’s camera zoomed in on tiny grains of sands on the arms of Junpei and the woman. Abe’s story is also quite dense in the way that nothing particularly happens over the two hours aside from Junpei’s futile escape attempts and his eventual acceptance of his fate. The film as a whole also doesn’t include a lot of dialogue which works due to the strained relationship that is shared between the only two primary characters in the film. The reason I believe Teshigahara was nominated for Best Director was due to the mood he was able to create with minimal materials as Woman in the Dunes was truly a creepy watch. This is especially true of Junpei’s escape attempt, which ends in him being trapped in quick sand, and a later scene where the creepy villagers blackmail him into having sex with the woman while they watch. These scenes were really uncomfortable to watch and added to the chilling tone which I believe Teshigahara was out to create.
One element of Woman in the Dunes that has stuck with me the most is the eerie almost futuristic score of Toru Takemitsu which helps add to the aforementioned mood. Takemitsu’s score builds up the tension and almost acts as a way of echoing the characters’ moods without having them speak. The characters themselves are both easy to understand thanks to the brilliant central performances from the lead actors. Eiji Okada is brilliant at portraying Junpei’s feelings of entrapment and is compelling as he sinks into his eventual madness. However I felt that Kyōko Kishida gave the stronger turn as the titular woman who is initially portrayed as quite simple but goes on to reveal herself to be the smartest character of the piece. Kishida had to portray a range of emotions and did so to the extent that I feel she deserved a Best Actress nomination. Although I feel it was a little long, clocking in at almost two and half hours, Woman in the Dunes was a film that had a profound effect on me and one that I’m surprised that Oscar chose to acknowledge at all.
Next time I return to Italy and catch up once again with Marcello Mastroianni.