Woman in the Dunes (1964)

Discussing the weather is one of the most common topics of conversation, especially when threats towards infrastructure and personal safety emerge. All citizens whose lives could transiently or permanently be altered by a ‘special weather statement’ are on high alert. Ice storms have caused massive power outages, and the devastating 2004 tsunami claimed the lives of thousands while destroying the homes and businesses of millions. Although grim, these major weather events create a sense of community between all involved. It would be quite a different story if dangers in the natural environment solely affect one person, further isolating them from others. This particular scenario and fear of isolation is explored in the haunting 1964 Oscar-nominated Japanese film, “Woman in the Dunes”, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara.

The film begins with an entomologist, played by Eiji Okada, exploring the desert in search of insects for his students and for his collection. Upon missing the bus to return to the city, seemingly well-meaning villagers offer him a place to stay. It would be with a lonely woman (Kyoko Kishida) living among sand dunes who recently lost her child and husband in a sandstorm. A ladder lowers him to her home, but is removed the following day. This is a trap set by the locals for her to find a husband to help her continue with the extremely dismal yet necessary operation of shovelling sand to be used for concrete. The visitor is now in “fight or flight” mode, pondering his ability to escape from this claustrophobic and desolate fate. The shrill chords in the film, gorgeous sand imagery, and hazy black-and-white cinematography amplify the conflict of man vs. nature but also man vs. a village.

The repressed and essentially quarantined main characters ironically face multiple societal challenges. Their future is predestined by a patriarchy, and their sexual tension, privacy, and daily struggles against nature are mocked by those in power. This is an unfortunate scenario plaguing many who are enveloped in controlling relationships. A spouse, employer, or the two conflicts previously mentioned are all examples. Some may decide to combat the stifling existence while others resign to this destiny. As demonstrated in this film, social supports are huge contributors to health and well-being. Thus, the resolution made in this setting is frequently based on this factor. As John Donne coined, “no man is an island”.

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I do not own the above image.

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