The Grainy Frontier: Revisiting the Images of Sandscape in Teshigahara Hiroshi’s The Woman in the Dunes

By Łukasz Mańkowski

To say something about the Japanese is to say something about sand[1]. Sand means particles, details, and grains. These combine into a bigger picture and form a landscape of distinctive and massive formlessness—a desert. There is no desert in Japan; outside of a small space of sand dunes, such a landscape remains non-existent. The word for the desert in Japanese, either sabaku (砂漠) or sunahara (砂原), reflects the vastness of flowing sand (the former) or sandy plains (the latter). In either case, the word indicates the spatiality interconnected with the particle of sand: a field of sand, an ocean of sand, a space preoccupied with the notions of a somewhat moving sand. Despite this, or perhaps, precisely for this reason, sand dunes became the imagined setting of one of the most resonantly allegorical Japanese tales of the 1960s, which was first released as a novel in 1962 by Abe Kōbō, and then adapted into a film by Teshigahara Hiroshi in 1964, with Abe as a screenwriter.

The Woman in the Dunes (1964) is perhaps the most critically acclaimed and recognized Japanese New Wave film. Critics and researchers have framed the film through a broad spectrum of perspectives, negotiating Teshigahara’s visually enthralling piece on the grounds of aesthetics, its allegorical capacity in the context of the anthropological or political gaze, or redefining the universally-resonant motifs of the Other, metaphors of collective identities, or notions of existentialism. One may claim that the tale of a schoolteacher gone missing in the realms of sand dunes, who is then forced to embrace a new identity in the new environment with the eponymous woman by his side, is, in fact, a tale which reception awaited an abundance of critical or analytical perspectives; or that its margins for  further discovery remain rather limited. I wouldn’t argue with either of these statements.. I would, however, claim that as long as there is art, there is a certain timelessness and limitlessness, especially when it comes to the representation of a formless vessel, the allegorical capacity of which seems to be equally limitless. This is to say, the sandscape it forms becomes a bottomless pit of meanings and allegories that resonate years after the tale originated in the minds of both Abe and Teshigahara.

The film fades in with the opening credits decorated with the fingerprints of the film crew and stamps (hanko) appearing on the screen. The image appears in step with the sounds of the city; the noises from a train station recall Tokyo, wherefrom the protagonist, Jumpei Niki, has escaped, as we learn in the following scene. It is the only time in the film that the audience encounters the presence of an urban space, even for a brief moment. The credits roll out, the city ambience fades out, and the particles of human tissue—fingerprints and stamps—are replaced with the grains of sand, just as nature takes over the urban. We’re already there. Accompanied by non-diegetic high-pitched strings in glissandi, we’re already gazing at the details of a grainy reality. The cinematographer of the film, Segawa Hiroshi, invites his audience to the realm of the dunes through four consecutive shots that progressively reveal the spectrum of a desolate sandy landscape: from a grainy close-up of a single particle of sand to a wide shot revealing the linear patterns of the dunes. The latter, in particular, forms a somewhat disturbing, almost carnal sculpture—the subconscious receives the visual when the face of a woman is juxtaposed in an exquisite double exposure a few seconds later.

The double exposition technique in The Woman in the Dunes.

The aforementioned four shots introduce the space with a distinctive noise of the non-diegetic quietness of the environment. We can almost hear the pulsating grains of the earthy picture radiating from the image, foreshadowing the unsettling story that is about to unfold—the tale not necessarily about a man’s agency, but that of the landscape in which humans struggle to sustain themselves, literally, on the surface. Then we see the man, a schoolteacher from Tokyo named Jumpei Niki who ventures into the fields of sand to find a new species of bug. The first moment we see Niki, he’s climbing up the dunes; then he rests. Left in the remnants of a boat in the middle of a sandy ocean, a space of palpable remoteness and vastness, he launches into a monologue about the life he had in Tokyo, about which he seems somewhat critical, but also eager to abandon. With the flow of words, the images, too, form a visual stream of consciousness—a woman appears through a double exposure, juxtaposed with the panorama of dunes, and her presence tells us a story of a faded romance.

When he’s left there, all for his own, with the flow of thoughts and images, criticising the plastic culture of Japanese modernity—one of the few moments in the film when we get to experience a clear distinction of actuality—there’s a sense of Niki being locked in a liminal moment: between urban and rural, but also individual and collective, as his indecisiveness translates to his inability to confront social expectations. He’s burning to escape the collective organism, only to find himself within a new one. Having been told (by villagers who appear out of nowhere) that he has missed the last bus to Tokyo, the man is invited to stay a night at the cabin in the dunes, where a woman lives on her own. The setting seems predetermined by fate—something between a horror setup and a male erotic fantasy, which Niki cheerily embraces at first, unaware of his unfolding future. This is how Teshigahara’s vision of a desert becomes a landscape for an echoing past, a flowing present, but then again, a stage for the unbeknownst future that is yet to unveil.

In building the visual tension of the film, Teshigahara sweeps the sand through a perspective that resembles that of an entomologist looking for a discovery (clearly the film’s protagonist), a collector, perhaps even a photographer gazing at his needs; or an ikebana (flower arrangement art) artist, taking a step back so that one can see the wider picture clearly and precisely. After all, Teshigahara was an ikebana artist himself; born and raised in the family of ikebana master, Teshigahara Sōfu, whose practicehe depicted in avant-garde short documentaries—but not a regular biopic. — Eventually, he followed his father’s path, but more so did this to keep the family’s legacy intact, while his film career had to stop. Through an ikebana perspective, Teshigahara captures four quick snapshots of the particularity of the scenery he observes. He imitates the artist who begins looking with a gaze fixed on maximum detail, but who then slowly repositions himself to gain a distanced perspective. It is only possible to seize the whole image of the artwork, once the person behind the work takes a step back and looks at it from a distance. From the very first scene, Teshigahara invites his spectators to look through a fixed and predetermined gaze; not only does he direct each of the scenes, but also pays close attention to the capacity of his spectator’s eyes.

The grain and the landscape; an ikebana perspective in The Woman in the Dunes.

Let’s take a step back, then. Why the desert? If it doesn’t exist in Japan, why have Abe and Teshigahara decided to take interest in something that feels so distant, beyond one’s reach, perhaps even irrelevant? “The desert is often mobilised as one of the figures of late capitalism, resource depletion, and exhaustion,”[2] writes Daniel Mann about the use of space in cinematic representation. The New Wave filmmakers strived for a strong resonance with the here-and-now. The season of politics (seiji no kisetsu) abounded in protests against the ANPO agreement[3], Narita construction plans, and nuclear policy. Artists of that time deemed it necessary to address reality in their filmic representations and Teshigahara was one of the few who leaned towards the surreal and allegorical in his body of work. The Woman in the Dunes is no exception, although the aspect of disinterestedness indeed seems to determine his aesthetic and formal choices.

The motivation behind the setting can be found in Abe’s writing. He was not only a successful novelist but also a proficient theorist and philosopher. One of the essays that left a sdeep impression on the researchers of his work was titled “The Idea of the Desert” (Sabaku no shisō, 1958), in which Abe delineated political and geographical markers of the desert space, as well as spatial strategies of incorporating sandy landscapes in film representation. There, he envisions the desert as a political metaphor, a frontier, where the government has no right to be; the absence of  deserts in Japan opens up a margin for allegorising the Japanese post-war landscape—a forgotten wasteland; a vast desolate space—as well as Japan’s imperialistic ambitions. After all, Abe experienced his coming-of-age among the enormous landscapes of Manchurian deserts, so sand might have been engraved in his mind with immediate political significance — as an image of Japanese colonisation—thus becoming not only a metaphorical vessel, but also a tool for scrutiny. As with many things that the Japanese inherited over the years and made their own, sand in Abe’s eyes seems to be no exception: it becomes purely Japanese.

The film was shot entirely on location amidst the Tottori Sand Dunes (the only sand dunes in Japan) in Tottori prefecture in West Japan. The dunes are quite far away from Tokyo, which makes it interesting that the protagonist of the film misses the bus back home. With such a setting, the bus would take half a day at least, if not longer, and more importantly, I highly doubt that such an intercity bus would even exist in the 1960s. Realism aside, something more important is hidden here: the particularity of the environment existing within the frame of one’s imagination. I wonder: what was the reaction of those watching the film in Tokyo in 1964? Did they realise the fictionality of the setting? Was there anything uncanny about the idea of such a setting? Was there at least one person who thought that the image of the desert near Tokyo was not purely imagined?

Floating in the sand: the man among the dunes in The Woman in the Dunes.

What strikes me as peculiar in Abe’s choice of setting is that even though there are no deserts in Japan, he manages to unravel his narrative as an allegory for a space that organically refers to a massiveness built from the singularity of sand—particles, grains, components, details, micro-elements. An image that exists on entirely different circumstances when shown through a close-up or a wide shot revealing the wholeness of an imagined sandscape. Teshigahara takes this premise a step further. By extending the allegorical capacity of the space through a selection of audiovisual techniques that enrich the image as a whole, he comes up with a whole spectrum of double expositions, in-detailed close-ups, the distorted sound design, and the use of Brechtian techniques. These render the sand both beautifully captivating and poignantly metaphorical in many ways. The closer we look, the grainier it becomes. The wider the picture, the more collective it gets—we get to see the individual struggling against the collective body, or rather, shovelling to survive on the backdrop of an organism that consists of sand.

The imagined space of grainy particles becomes a perfect vessel for envisioning an anthropologically-oriented groupism-related allegory—the organism that consists of components that needs to remain intact so that the body can thrive, a metaphor for the Japanese sense of collectivity, that is—the audiovisual strategy behind rendering such force points to notions of agency. Teshigahara, consciously or not, captures the presence of sand through a more-than-human-agency lens, which links to a very distinct understanding of the politics of spatiality. A desolate landscape refers to the political wasteland of Japan’s 1960s reality on one hand; on the other, the frontier works as an imaginary space for existential scrutiny of the individual—a mere grain of sand in the whole picture: the desert.

Much like in Teshigahara’s film poetics, although without focus on the graininess per se, the earthy representation (that is, carnality encompassed within a frame of land) can be also found in Imamura Shōhei’s body of work (The Insect Woman, 1963; The Profound Desires of the Gods, 1968) and Kanai Katsu’s film, The Desert Archipelago (1969). The former casts an anthropological gaze on the idea of seclusion in the context of Japanese collectivity, while the latter offers a take on Camus’ existentialism. In all of these cases, the landscape becomes vital—it’s an environment where individuals are controlled, formed, and subjugated to the needs of a constantly modernising reality. The characters are allegorised, but what fascinates is the outdated perspective and the male gaze behind it, asthe filmmakers decide to impose a gendered frame: these are the women who either actively or passively superimpose conformity, and perform somewhat of an abusive controlling act over the men. And they are, obviously, sexualized through an erotic gaze; insofar as their primal sexuality is linked with the forces of nature, they embody the component of nature in all of these films—an invisible notion that is there.

This is encapsulated beautifully in Teshigahara’s film: the collective force connects with the notions of sand to form an uncanny omnipresence. There is clearly an uncanny feeling in the film’s ambience—be it the villagers, whom we barely get to see, or the sand itself, which accentuates its presence according to the protagonist’s mood shifts. Everything in the setting seems under control and surveillance, which results in the sand pit becoming somewhat of a fluid panopticon.

The water element is not accidental here, as it underlines the formlessness of the film’s sandscape. Surprisingly, there is a lot of indication of the watery nature of the environment the film takes place in; humidity, sweat, and different forms of liquids reappear throughout the story, influencing the characters and their motivations. The movement of the dunes, which constantly changes the surroundings, seems also to be fluid. The omnipresent force of sand makes things rot or rust,shaping the lives of the dunes’ inhabitants so they have to adjust their routines to its movement and take precautions in order not to lose their everyday essentials, including water. Covered with sweat—which Segawa renders through numerous close-ups, with an equally fascinating obsession—they have to comply, prepare for the unpredictable, and get used to distractions and constant motion.

The presence of water and the watery nature of the sand in The Woman in the Dunes.

In other words, sand possesses agency and it’s a watery one. It gets everywhere, just like water. Its formlessness, changeability, and permeability are revealed in Teshigahara’s audiovisual approach. It seems that with the sand’s infinite capacity as an allegorical vessel, and the landscape it builds into, one can untangle the limits of the narrative to an imagined maximum. That’s the reason why Teshigahara’s sand resonates years after the film’s premiere. The sandscape as imagined in The Woman in the Dunes is both the earthquake and tsunami, a capitalistically-driven bubble of the neo-liberal dream of agency, and an existential fable of a ‘no exit’ situation; its formless force haunts the real landscape just as it haunts Niki and the woman in the film. When the horizontal lines of the sand walls collapse in one of the scenes, they reveal the friction in the textures of the sand. What we get to see is the inside; and it’s the harshest image of the whole piece.

Whenever I rewatch The Woman in the Dunes something strikes my attention and leads my thoughts to the uncanny resemblance between Teshigahara’s film and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour (1959). The radiating quality of a single image of sand that reappears throughout the film—an image that might as well exist solely for the sake of its exquisite beauty, as sand was never given such attention in film history—sparks a visual connotation. The layers of sand, as captured by Segawa, draw the spectator’s attention to carnality and textures: the dunes are introduced as the landscape of bodies and sand attached to sweaty human skin. The close-up of the latter brings to mind the poses of the human bodies from Resnais’ introduction, where the grainy image was juxtaposed with the coarseness of a keloid scar. Teshigahara’s idea to juxtapose the sand with skin, the dunes with bodies, and the environment with carnal through numerous double expositions seems a very conscious visual projection, which stems from his acknowledgement of the image’s power,, as well as the actor’s presence. Okada Eiji stars in both of these films and surely there is a temptation to draw the line connecting the realms of these stories.

The radiating skin and the bodies, Hiroshima, mon amour (left), and The Woman in the Dunes (right).

This is not to say that The Woman in the Dunes is a narrative reflecting on post-nuclear trauma; but to underline the inseparability of certain visual allegories to specific notions, especially in the Japanese context—be that the image of sand’s or skin’s graininess or the landscape of bodies formed in a specific posture; or to emphasise the allegorical capacity of sand that starts from aesthetic choices but then translates to a wider scope, such as the notions of unrepresentability, especially in the context of nuclear trauma. If we look at The Woman in the Dunes as a tale of certain remoteness, where the dunes become an embodiment of a frontier, a stage for a transfiguration of the Other, we might conclude that it might as well be a narrative revolving around the idea of the seclusion of those who are stigmatised for various reasons—the hibakusha (nuclear survivors) certainly did experience such stigma in their lives.

Something entirely non-Japanese—because it doesn’t exist and remains purely imagined, almost unnatural, perhaps hidden, somewhat rejected (in a psychoanalytical sense), in a way absent—might as well resonate with a symptomatic link and become a very Japanese notion. And it did.  It has become a vessel,simply because years after the premiere of The Woman in the Dunes, there is still someone striving to capture the metaphorical meaning of Teshigahara’s sand. To evoke Anna Tsing’s words again, through which she encapsulates her understanding of an assemblage, “making worlds is not limited to humans”—I have a feeling that The Woman in the Dunes might be read as an assemblage that mutates, as an “open-ended gathering”, a work-in-progress that reveals “a potential history in the making.”[4]

After all that time, The Woman in the Dunes became this wonderful cinematic miracle. The sand took over to create a world of its own rules. Thus, the film unveils unlimited layers of meanings, visual references, and philosophical tropes. What seemed to resonate back when it premiered, on both Western and Japanese grounds—a scrutiny of the post-war here-and-now, a criticism of fast-paced modernization, and a disconnection from the plastic culture and the bubble of Japanese identity—has now been interwoven with universal and contemporary notions that perhaps no other Japanese New Wave title has managed to render. In fact, the film became something else—it mutated; the film started to superimpose a new meaning to embrace. At the end of the story, the woman is taken away, and the man is left alone. There is no woman in the dunes any more. The ladder remains there, all ready for the man to let go of the sandy landscape, but he refuses to leave, as he has just extracted another sign of fluidity, another element of water that will make him stay: the water pump. “This ending is a warning”[5], writes Violet Lucca in her analysis of The Woman in the Dunes for Sight and Sound in 2022. The sand pit became another inescapable hole among the seemingly boundless pool of neo-liberal choices. These stand as attractive, tempting, shining among the wastelands, in this bottomless pit of despair: climate crisis, human rights violation, you name it. The water pump becomes more important than anything else, a fabricated illusion of one’s agency. And then we know—Jumpei has been gone for seven years now, succumbed to the sand. The warning was there from the start; we just had to take this one necessary step back.

 

Footnotes

[1] This is actually a reiteration of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s hypothesis from her seminal book, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[2] Daniel Mann, “Red Planets: Cinema, Deserts, and Extraction,” Afterimage 49, no. 1 (2022): 92.

[3] ANPO (Nippon-koku to Amerika Gasshūkoku to no aida no anzen hoshō jōyaku) — the United States–Japan Security Treaty, which allowed the United States to maintain military bases in Japan. First signed in 1952, it was meant to be re-signed every decade, which led to a massive series of protests against its realisation in the early 1960s. The treaty was imposed on Japan by the United States as a condition for ending the Occupation of Japan and restoring Japan’s sovereignty as a nation.

[4] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 22.

[5] Violet Lucca, “Head in the sand: the ending of Woman of the Dunes,” Sight and Sound, August 16, 2022, https://www.bfi.org.uk/sight-and-sound/features/head-sand-ending-woman-dunes.

 

Bibliography

Lucca, Violet. “Head in the sand: the ending of Woman of the Dunes.” Sight and Sound. August 16, 2022, https://www.bfi.org.uk/sight-and-sound/features/head-sand-ending-woman-dunes.

Mann, Daniel. “Red Planets: Cinema, Deserts, and Extraction.” Afterimage 49, no. 1 (2022): 88–109.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.


About the Writer

Łukasz Mańkowski is a film scholar and critic writing about Asian Cinema, a Japanese language translator, and a festival programmer for Five Flavours Asian Film Festival. Enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Artes Liberales (University of Warsaw), he prepares an interdisciplinary dissertation on the perception of Japanese New Wave and Avant-Garde Cinema and teaches classes on Asian Film. Łukasz has been selected for many critics talent labs, including the IFFR’s Young Critics Programme 2021 and Berlinale Talents 2022. His writing on Asian Cinema includes bylines in: MUBI, Sight & Sound, Senses of Cinema, Asian Movie Pulse, ALT/KINO, dwutygodnik, EKRANy, Czas Kultury, Kultura Liberalna, and KINO. He is a founder of Asian film-focused blog Kinema Chromatica.

 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.

About the Writer