the woman in the dunes

dir. hiroshi teshigahara, 1964, japan

[Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes, and The Face of Another] pose essential questions but provide few answers. Who am I? Why does one live? What is the nature of this thing called society that surrounds me? Where am I going? What is the value of my work? My relationships? My existence? These are the issues that the protagonists of these films grapple with, and they struggle alone, without a benevolent deity or a comprehending society available to provide solutions. How is the viewer of these films to respond to such characters, in such situations? Are they real, we ask ourselves, or are they mere devices in a larger allegorical universe? Are they flesh and blood or ghosts from another time and place? In the opening sequence of The Face of Another, the protagonist is introduced through an X-ray image of his face, speaking in a recognizable language but utterly detached from reality and asking questions that cannot be answered. His identity is further called into question when we realize that his bandaged visage is not his own face but that of another person, grafted onto his head. Who then is he? Is he the man whose face was burned from his body, or is he the personality of the new face, or is he some grotesque amalgam of the two?

…Abe, Teshigahara, and Takemitsu were in total accord in their vision for Woman in the Dunes. While making the film, Teshigahara frequently commented that the film had three main characters, not two: the man, the woman, and the sand. Decades after completing the film, he repeated: “The sand has its own identity . . . And without Toru’s help, we never would have been able to realize this fully.” Takemitsu’s music for Woman in the Dunes relies almost totally on a string ensemble, first recorded and subsequently rearranged and distorted electronically for desired sound effects. The sounds, alternately shrill, harsh, and menacing, form a perfect soundscape for the austere allegory of Abe’s narrative. But this “composed” music is only part of Takemitsu’s unique contribution to the film. The weird environment is the dominating quality of the film, and, recognizing this, Takemitsu gives life to the sand through sound. It is there at all times, even when a scene seems completely silent. The soft, barely audible sizzle or hiss or patter of sand—dripping, shifting, and constantly in motion—inhabits every moment of the film, as it does every moment of the protagonists’ terrifying existence. And it is through the subconscious quality of sound that the woman’s persistent reply to the man’s fearful questions—“It is the sand”—develops its total, all-enveloping meaning.

from criterion essay by peter grilli