Hiroshi Teshigahara directed Woman in the Dunes in 1964, and while I haven’t read Kobo Abe’s novel, on which this film is based, I have recently been reading a lot more Japanese fiction, notably Haruki Murakami. Murakami led me to this film. One of the things that keeps me coming back for more Murakami is his persistent placing of his protagonists (or others) into holes that they seemingly cannot get out of. Something usually happens: a rope ladder is dropped from above, a guide helps him out through the dark, or some other cyber-punkish narrative twist ends the character’s in-ground (even if it is within the terra firma of the mind) exile.
I’ve known that Abe’s book deals with the same, I suppose psychological, phenomenon of “holes,” and I’ve thought of the novel often, hoping to read it. But, I decided to watch the film first. The screenplay was written by Abe so perhaps I’m safe in choosing that order.
What is interesting to me about the film is not necessarily how diabolically the villagers tricked the entomologist, but the cultural reasoning behind keeping the woman down in the dunes. And, as a second point of interest: why, ultimately, the entomologist does not leave.
At some point in the film, the woman tells the entomologist about the work that she does and how it helps the village survive. Well, the work she does is repetitive, tedious, and seemingly un-needed, realistically speaking–because the villagers could just let her out and let the sand cover over her house. But instead, every night she shovels sand from around her house that has been blown by the wind. She shovels the sand into buckets and the villagers (who are essentially keeping her prisoner down in the pit so that she will fulfill this utilitarian purpose) hoist up the buckets of sand all night long. The woman is essentially forced to toil every night at this. She also does other “woman’s work” in order to earn money. To add insult to injury, despite the hard work she does every night, she is only given rations of food and water every so often, and not nearly as often as needed. Needless to say, her life is hard. And, apparently, without a husband, she gets less from the villagers.
Based on my experience with Japanese fiction, I know that Japan experienced a significant cultural shock when western culture began invading, and that shock is manifested in fiction, film, etc. I see the woman’s daily shoveling as being indicative of a fear (the villagers’, Japan’s???) of a way of life (the old, non-western way) being overrun by forces (the sand, the west) beyond their control. Perhaps the novel sheds more light on this, but from what I gathered from the film, the woman was the only person having to do this. It’s unclear as to whether anyone else is having to live such an enslaved, ridiculous life as she. There were many villagers–they even came around to mock their two captives with a sadistic, sexual taunt–but no other instances of others down shoveling out their holes in the dunes.
What might be happening is that the villagers represent a new way of doing things that requires enslaving or perversely maintaining the old way of doing things (i.e. the woman’s shoveling of the sand). So while they still live out in the country, and they technically represent the ‘old’ way of life, versus new city life, they almost keep a grossly-exaggerated feudal control over the woman–perhaps this is their last-ditch effort to maintain their cultural identity. But this reflects very poorly on the villagers if their cultural identity is dependent upon exploiting a poor, innocent woman. Perhaps this is the message–that it’s a poor reflection on “us” that we have to exploit others so needlessly.
This film is very perplexing to me and I don’t think I’ll be able to answer my second question above (why the entomologist stays) until I can figure out why the woman is even there in the first place. I suppose I’ll need to get the book. I’m sure I’ll be updating this posting at some point….