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Thursday, May 14, 2009

A House at Sea (on Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes)

At the end of this essay is a short video clip from the film.

Kōbō Abe (screenplay, based on his novel), Hiroshi Teshigahara (director) Suna no onna (Woman in the Dunes) /1964

The death of Hiroshi Teshigahara on April 14th of this year, led me to review the film, which I last saw, I believe, while in college. I remembered little of the film, and was delighted to rediscover/discover this masterpiece.

Although critics of the sixties (and some today) make a great deal of Abe's existentialist concerns, I think today the film points us less to its philosophical (and thematic) concerns, while revealing its closer relationship to the Absurdists of the 1950s and early 1960s such as Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. While clearly having a relationship with Sartre's and Camus' ideas, the film has less to do with moral action than it does with indeterminate purposelessness, and its metaphors continually point to the absurdity of the major characters' situations.

Like many of the film's beautiful images, the plot is nearly an abstraction and can be easily summarized: an entomologist, Niki Jumpei, visits an isolated island consisting mainly of sand dunes, home to the beetle he is researching. He plans three days on this desolate island, returning to civilization each afternoon by bus. When he misses the bus, some local villagers, actually wily town elders, suggest that he stay in a local house. The houses, however, all appear to me located in deep ravines of stand, with access only through rope ladders.

Niki, a true innocent, descends to the house assigned to him, and enjoys a pleasant meal, despite the continuing intrusion of sand, with the woman living there, a widow whose husband and daughter and been buried in a sand storm.

At first, the widow seems highly uneducated, explaining the her house is also subject to rot because of the moisture in the sand, and idea to which the scientist, Niki, ridicules: we all know sand is dry. Other such sentiments have led some critics to describe her as ignorant, but we later learn that she is far wiser than her "guest."

The widow spends the night, oddly to Niki's way of thought, digging out the sand from around her ramshackle house, depositing it in containers which the locals hoist up and spirit away (for illegal use, we later learn, in construction; sand with such a heavy salt content is no good in making concrete). She explains that it's easier to work at night, and the sand must be taken away if her and her neighbor's houses are to survive. Despite the continual rain of the fine grains of sand, Niki eventually falls to sleep, awakening to observe his now-naked host lying upon her futon.

Dressing, Niki arranges his knapsack and bugs, preparing to leave; but when he seeks out the ladder, he discovers it has been pulled up. Desperately, he tries to climb the walls of sand on either side of the house, producing merely small avalanches of more sand that results in him falling back to where he has started from.

Querying his host, the terrified Niki demands an explanation for what she answers "he already knows." He has been duped by the locals, and is now trapped like an animal in this hell of a sand pit. The island gets few visitors, and like others before him, he has been "kidnapped" to help in the village's activities.

The rest of the film is a study in Niki's reactions, as, at first remaining determined to escape, he refuses to help shovel the sand, later turning to violence, gagging and typing up the woman. When he finally takes the towel from her mouth, she explains that the drink and food they have are rationed, and they will not deliver any new water until he begins to work.

As the two endure the never-ending rain of sand in their horrific thirst, Niki finally surrenders, and water is delivered. In a beautifully filmed scene of high eroticism, the two carefully brush and wash the sand from each other's bodies, the woman—who obviously has been starving for the touch of a human hand—gasping in the simple pleasure of the act.

Niki later binds together enough rope to temporarily escape, but when he attempts to outrun the local posse, he falls into quicksand; they dig him out only to return him to his internment. Pleading for just a hour each day at the ocean, Niki is hopeful that the local leaders may decide in his favor. They will grant him his wish, they report, only if he performs sex with the "woman" while the entire village looks on. evidently their only form of entertainment. In a violent scene in which he attempts to force her to join him in the act, Niki loses out to the woman who is determined to keep her moral ground.

Niki, it is apparent, must come to terms with the absurd conditions of his existence. At one point, he asks the obvious existential question: "Do you shovel to survive, or survive to shovel?" Yet a far more important interchange reveals the miraculous salvation of their lives; referring to the endless sand about them, the man observes: "It's like building a house in the water when ships exist. Why insist on a house?" The wiser woman provides the simplest of answers in such an absurd world: "You want to go home too."

The home Teshigahara builds for the film viewer is an ever shifting reality that is simultaneously both breathtakingly beautiful and horrific. For this couple not only must live in a world in which no values are permanent, but endure a ever changing landscape that reminds them every moment of their own mortality. Whereas, at the beginning of the movie, Niki checks his watch often, by the end of the film his new Eve reports that she has no idea of the time.

What ultimately comes to matter most is the relationship forged between the two. When the woman becomes pregnant and the villagers are forced to lower a ladder to take her away, they forget to pull it up, and Niki cautiously follows them into a possible escape.

Yet in the next scene we see him against the house in the pit of sand. He cannot leave her. Besides he has made a new discovery: he has found a way to draw water out of sand just as she has maintained a house on a sea of sand. The absurd has been transformed into reality.

Los Angeles, May 4, 2001

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