The question that Woman in the Dunes (1964) asks and what we should all ask ourselves is “Are you shoveling to survive or surviving to shovel?” Here is a movie that is effectively the story of Sisyphus, the Greek king punished for his deceitfulness and condemned to an eternity of pushing a boulder up a hill just to find, when he reaches the top, that boulder inexplicably rolls down the hill. In Woman in the Dunes, a man (Eiji Okada), a teacher with an interest in insects, is on an entomology holiday in a sandy desert. He misses the last bus out of town and is offered the hospitality of a woman who lives in the bottom of a pit. “I love staying in local houses,” the man says. Members of the community see him down into the pit via a stepladder, and there he finds the woman (Kyôko Kishida) who provides a meal for him. In the morning the stepladder is gone and the man comes to know he is trapped at the bottom of the pit, meant to join the woman in an existence made up of shoveling sand for the use of the people above them.
Around this framework, director Hiroshi Teshigahara, screenwriter Kôbô Abe and cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa make a chilling and important comment on the ways we live our lives. The story is Kafkaesque; it’s never revealed what the purpose of the man and woman’s endless toil is in a satisfactory way. They shovel sand out of their pit, otherwise the drifts will cover them, but outside of a few vague notions about selling the sand for construction purposes, what they do seems unnecessary, considering there is nothing but sand around them and could be taken from anywhere. However, like Buñuel’s greatest surrealisms, the movie is less about the internal mechanics of its story and more about the message. When the man discovers he’s been captured, he panics and tries desperately to escape this life of pointless toil. But how different, really, is this life from his former one? Wasn’t he just shoveling to survive before but in a different way?
Using the pit as a metaphor for life, the filmmakers present one that is reduced to the basic functions of subsistence: eating, sleeping, sex. As the man struggles to escape, the woman has accepted her fate and finds a quiet nobility in providing a service. She justifies herself as a bulwark against the collapse of the village, as in her mind the community relies on her sand and, should she fail, not only would her hut be swallowed up, but others next to it would be put in danger. This doesn’t give her happiness, per se, but it spares her from the frenzied anxiety of the captive man, who spends his waking moments imagining escape. It gives her something he doesn’t have, something we all strive for: purpose. Whether or not this purpose is worthwhile in our eyes is irrelevant. She has accepted it as the hand she was dealt and has made her peace; compared against the man’s fruitless labor, she is admirable.
Beyond the movie’s wonderful premise (based on Abe’s novel), Woman in the Dunes is a visual tour de force. This is one of the most tactile movies ever made, one that presents sand in a way I’ve never seen before. Segawa’s camera is able to convey just what these grains of sand feel like, the grit of it, the coarseness of it, its transformative nature depending on the wind, water or human interaction. You feel the roughness of wood in the hut, the imperfections of ropes. Contrasted against this is the softness of the woman’s skin, which represents, depending on your outlook, a respite from the work or a siren’s distraction from greater purpose. Woman in the Dunes was recently screened at the Des Moines Art Center as part of a series programmed by a visiting sculptor, and it made sense to me that an artist who works with physical material would be drawn to this movie, which makes such good use of our sense of touch. The movie is a feast for the eyes, but it also touches us between our fingers, on the nape of our neck and in other places where sand can frequently find itself.
Few of us are lucky enough to drive our own destinies, and the best of us, like the woman, accept the things we can’t control. The wonderful thing about the movie is that when it begins, we are naturally in complete sympathy with the man and his desire to escape; as it goes on, we pity him and implore him to take lessons from his counterpart. Of course, it’s the man’s right to try and better his position, and a pessimist would say that the woman is hardly living at all. But for most of the movie, the man’s struggling gets him nowhere. The movie reveals its worldview at the end, and that outlook is dependent on how full the glass of the viewer is. The byproduct of one of the man’s escape attempts is the discovery of a process of pumping water out of the sand. As a scientist, he is intrigued by this, so much so that, when he has the opportunity to escape, he returns to the pit to develop the pump system. He has found his purpose in bringing water to this community.
When I watch this great movie in times of despair, I feel the man has cheated himself; he’s taken the easy way out, conformed to an unexamined life by returning to the pit. He, like the woman, has given up, replacing his search for meaning with a meager substitute of this pump system. His life of desperation is suddenly quieted. In times of optimism I think that the man has truly escaped, not from the physical limitations of his environment but from the meaningless of existence, both as a shoveler of sand but also in his previous life as an anonymous Tokyoite. The reason he returns to the pit is because he realizes that the pump system represents a tangible improvement, real change, and with it he can affect the lives around him permanently, positively and going forward. What greater purpose is there for him, for any of us who have but one turn in this temporary sandpit? My two opinions on this wrestle against each other and on most days, most importantly this one, the optimist wins. The man has made the world better, to a meager degree, perhaps, but how many of us can make even that claim?