This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
Woman in the Dunes plays better on the screen than the printed page. This 1964 adaptation of Kobo Abe’s novel begins with a schoolteacher (Eiji Okada) vacationing in a remote seaside area to indulge his insect-collecting hobby. Once there, the locals abduct him and confine him to a sand quarry. It is home to a young widow (Kyoko Kishida). He is to join her in her work digging sand for the community to sell. The teacher is reduced to the most basic of lives--work, sleep, food, sex--but his failed attempts at escape gradually lead to acceptance of his circumstances. The story is prison-escape pulp dressed up as an existential parable. It is essentially an extended Twilight Zone episode with adult-audience elements. But Kobo Abe’s screenplay improves on his novel in a number of ways. It focuses less on the escape efforts and more on the relationship between the teacher and the widow. The director, Hiroshi Teshigahara, does an excellent job of realizing the story: the action is kept clear and extremely well paced. The most impressive aspect of his work is how he and the superb cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa give the viewer an almost tactile awareness of the characters’ bodies and their environment. The shifting of the windblown dunes, the grit that collects on the skin, the smoothness of that skin after the sand is cleaned off--all add up to a remarkably eroticized atmosphere. The visuals are haunting, and they transcend the pretentiousness of the narrative. The fine musical score, which makes striking use of discords, is by Toru Takemitsu.