Episodes of the “Twilight Zone” ran thirty minutes, or whatever without commercials, for a very good reason. Stretching a one-note story out to an hour would be too exasperating. Woman in the Dunes stretches it out to, I guess, two and a half hours.
The film starts interestingly enough. An entomologist looking for bugs finds himself in a strange village (where the people live in houses surrounded by sand) and hears about a new species of insect. Having read Abe and seen another film he wrote before, I expected Woman in the Dunes to go somewhere, namely to exploring this strange world. But it doesn’t. It gradually–the scenes are lengthy and padded–becomes clear the film isn’t going anywhere, just like the trapped entomologist and his trapped insects (the symbolism is blatant–actually, it isn’t symbolism… it’s simile). The characters are poorly written. While the man’s captor is just a woman trying to survive, she’s also a raving lunatic, so it isn’t a strike against him when he tries to ransom her for his freedom (if anything, it takes him five or six minutes too long). Except he’s not a good character either, Abe’s fast and loose with him–being an entomologist is his defining trait–and Okada’s either just as lazy (or a rather mediocre actor).
There are some decent shots of sand. Sometimes it falls, sometimes it looks like water running across the surface, but mostly it’s just there. There’s never any point to the shots of the sand. It’s never a symbol of man doing this or that or feeling this or that. It’s all filler and sometimes neat-looking filler. But mostly not.
I can appreciate, like I can appreciate an episode of the “Twilight Zone,” some of the generative reasoning behind the film. I can’t imagine the novel’s similarly paced, since I’ve never heard of its mass burning by attempting readers, but it’s way too long and way too shallow. I guess the director’s cut, which I attempted, runs a half hour longer than the theatrical, which puts a lot of the blame on the, well, the director.
Films appearing to be pretentious and empty are often not difficult to consume–if there were content, even pretentious content, they’d be consumable–they really are just pretentious and empty. And Woman in the Dunes is definitely one of those films. While it’s harmless (except to my time), Abe and, particularly Teshigahara, who fills the film with meaningless shots of sand, knew they were playing to a particular audience and knew they didn’t have to do much work and exploited them.
It’s astounding they not only went on to make an acceptable film, but a decent one (The Face of Another).
Directed and produced by Teshigahara Hiroshi; screenplay by Abe Kôbô, based on his novel; director of photography, Segewa Hiroshi; edited by Shuzui Fusako; music by Takemitsu Toru; production designers, Hirakawa Totetsu and Yamazaki Masao; released by Toho Company Ltd.
Starring Okada Eiji (the entomologist), Kishida Kyoko (the woman) and Ito Hiroko (the entomologist’s wife).