By Chelsea Spear
Woman in the Dunes – Hiroshi Teshigahara – 1964
The titles of the 1964 drama Woman in the Dunes fill the screen with heavy, rough lettering, spelling the Japanese title out in sumi-e, a traditional form of calligraphy. The opening shot depicts the lead character, Niki Jumpei (played by Eiji Okada of Hiroshima Mon Amour) wandering the dunes in a dress shirt and jacket that give him the appearance of a salary-man on holiday. In these early shots of the film, director Hiroshi Teshigahara contrasts elements of the contemporary and the mythic, a juxtaposition which will drive his trademark film.
Woman in the Dunes portrays the relationship between the aforementioned Jumpei, a teacher and entomologist, and the Woman of the title (Kyoko Kishida). Jumpei, visiting the Japanese desert on holiday, stays too late looking for a rare breed of beetle and misses the last bus. Some local villagers lead him to the Woman’s house, only accessible by descending a rope ladder into a sand pit, for what he assumes will be an overnight stay. In the morning, he finds that they’ve pulled up the rope ladder. After futile attempts to climb out, he is pressed into service assisting the Woman in shoveling the drifts of sand that threaten to bury the house. The film’s story simultaneously evokes Greek mythology and post-atomic Japanese culture, and the cinematography creates a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere.
Teshigahara frequently employed striking cinematography in his films. His visual trademarks included a heavy contrast of black and white and willfully asymmetrical composition. In the context of Woman in the Dunes, whose story contrasted myth and modernity, these visual contrasts further underscored the thematic dissonance. A sequence in which the couple makes love illustrates this theme; the very pale skin of Jumpei and the Woman is thrown into contrast by her dark hair, with its seaweed-like texture, which rests on a bed of sand. The fluid appearance of her hair resembles the sumi-e lettering from the title screens, and the asymmetry of the shot brings to mind the Op Art trend of the film’s mid-1960s release. He further uses the color contrast to anchor characters to their surroundings and underscore the claustrophobia within the Woman’s cottage. Early shots depict Jumpei and members of the village in silhouette against a clear, cloudless sky. In another early shot, Jumpei and the Woman share an ominous dinner inside her cottage. Though the background is in as perfect focus as the characters in the foreground, it is barely lit. Teshigahara further underscores the claustrophobia of the shot by slowly zooming in on the couple until they’re in a medium two-shot. This shot, as well as a few other scenes, suggests a more technically sophisticated variation on Fritz Lang’s M. Like Lang, Teshigahara favors long takes, with many shots lasting a minute or more, and in these very long-in-duration shots one can feel the camera pressing down on the leads. However, where Lang zoomed in on Peter Lorre with dolly shots to give viewers the feeling that he was being watched and to avoid cutting, Teshigahara employs slow zooms to the same end.
At the time of its filming, industry standard format was widescreen. Almost all of the films shot from the advent of television on were shot in the 16:9 ratio, but Teshigahara shot Woman in the Dunes in the Academy standard of 4:3. This adds to the film’s claustrophobic feel. He further underscores Jumpei’s claustrophobia by shooting him through door- or window-frames, skewed slightly to the left or right of the frame, with busy details filling the frame around the door or window. At several points – most notably the end of the love scene – Teshigahara even shoots Jumpei through slats in the walls, making him appear as though he was in a prison. On those rare occasions when Jumpei is shot from below (traditionally a very powerful angle), the director is careful to place him under a ceiling or a similar barrier, visually alluding to the limits of his power. Overhead shots are woven throughout the film – most notably in a scene in which villagers turn out to watch Jumpei and the Woman have sex – but they are taken at such a long distance that any people in them look like ants.
This blend of the au courant and the timelessness of mythology is also reflected in other set pieces. A scene in which a sandstorm threatens the house’s foundations evokes the horror of nuclear destruction. Using his trademark color contrast, Teshigahara shoots the couple inside the dark, cavernous house, with white light emanating from outside. When Jumpei ventures outside, he cowers in the blinding white light – similar to that of nuclear fallout. The film was released almost twenty years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended WWII, and parallels could be drawn between Jumpei’s shock and the experiences of families who experienced the bomb.
No discussion of Woman in the Dunes would be complete without mentioning the sand. In the wide shots at the beginning and end of the film, sand unfolds across the screen. Teshigahara shoots the sand to resemble water. An early overhead shot reveals a sand bank that’s been worn away into little bumps and eddies, looking like a small pool in a larger ocean. In another cutaway, a small drift of sand moves across a flatter plain, resembling a dribble of sea foam skittering along the surface of the sand at high tide. The visual comparisons drawn between sand and water reach their apotheosis in a scene where Jumpei attempts to escape the Woman’s cottage. He grabs pieces of sand and tries to scale the side of the sand pit, but in doing so brings an avalanche of sand down on his head. Teshigahara gets this in a wide, low-angle shot that makes Jumpei appear as though he’s drowning. Grains of sand stick to the skin in close-ups, irritating the characters (as in the shot of Jumpei emptying his socks and cleaning his feet). The sand is a topic of much discussion between Jumpei and the Woman, who fervently believes that sand is moist and can sustain plant life. When the pair begin excavating the house after the avalanche, Jumpei asks the Woman “do you live to shovel sand, or do you shovel sand to live?” he evokes the pointless and unrewarding task of Sisyphus.