As I write this on November 26, 2020, the mayor of my current home of Chicago has announced new COVID-19 restrictions. Instead of communing with relatives, we will all be trapped at home for the holidays, many of us alone or with just one significant other. Broadly speaking, 2020 has been the year of feeling trapped, helpless, subject to the will of others.
Rewatching Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 masterpiece, Woman in the Dunes, I was struck by how much the film has to say about our stay-at-home plight. The film introduces us to Niki, an entomology hobbyist who is searching for insects in a remote stretch of sand dunes. He misses the last bus home and is invited by local villagers to spend the night in a house at the bottom of a deep sand pit. There he meets a woman, the lone occupant of the house, whose job is to dig sand for the villagers to be used in concrete production—and to keep her house from slowly becoming enveloped by the surrounding dunes. Niki wakes up the next morning (spoiler alert) to learn that he has been deliberately trapped in the sand pit, forced forever to dig sand alongside the woman.
Niki’s first instinct is simply to try to climb out of the pit, a fruitless endeavor which reminds him how elusive a material sand is—not quite liquid, not quite solid. Next, he tries cutting foot ledges in the sand to climb on. They, too, disintegrate upon the lightest touch. Then he tries to trick the villagers. When they lower a bucket that night to be filled with sand, Niki grabs it and declares he will not let go until they pull him up. They pull him halfway, and promptly drop him back down, cackling maliciously as he curls up in pain.
His task of digging sand, only for it to be replaced by more sand, over and over, calls to mind Zeus’ punishment for Sisyphus. Indeed, the opening shot of the film, an ultra-detailed image of a single grain of sand (pictured below), looks like Sisyphus’ boulder—millions of them. For us the sand could easily stand in for the coronavirus itself: malicious little boulders seeping into our lives, sometimes even in confinement, kept at bay by wearing masks and washing hands (or in Niki’s case, shoveling).
After his initial escape attempts, Niki realizes he will not be leaving anytime soon, and so gets to know his companion. The woman, he learns, has resigned herself to her terrible fate, which greatly frustrates him—”How can you stand being trapped like this?” She replies, quietly, “This is my home.” Niki scoffs, “Then demand your rights!” His impassioned pleas and righteous indignation could easily have come from the mouth of a lockdown protestor: “You’re holding me captive? Is this a joke? I’m not some homeless bum. I’m a respected teacher. Illegal confinement is a serious offense.” In each case, forcible confinement becomes a kind of existential nightmare. Toru Takemitsu’s unsettling, abstract score compounds this feeling of despair, manifesting Niki’s mental deterioration with shrieking violins and jangling percussion.
Both Niki and the lockdown protestors feel that they have been stripped of their basic human dignity and autonomy. Even if one ultimately believes the lockdown orders are justified, Woman in the Dunes sheds light on the mindset of our aggrieved fellow citizens, with the government, or perhaps elites, playing the role of the malicious villagers in the film. From on high, they stare down at their helpless captives, lowering buckets of food and water every so often, just as the government periodically delivers stimulus checks or extends unemployment. Both Niki and the protestors ultimately desire freedom, though, not aid. “Here we are, ruthlessly exploited, yet happily wagging our tails,” Niki tells the woman. “Before you know it, they’ll abandon us here.”
Niki’s protestations fall on deaf ears. When he points out that she could walk around freely if she were released, she chuckles, “Isn’t it exhausting, just walking around aimlessly?” Not only has she given up freedom; she no longer harbors any ill will toward the villagers at all, focusing instead on life’s little tasks: steeping tea, knitting, shoveling sand, maintaining the house. While he continually tries to escape, Niki nevertheless begins to actively engage in the strange simulacrum of domestic life that the villagers have produced. For one, he becomes the woman’s lover, a fact that has led to Woman in the Dunes being erroneously marketed as an erotic thriller. (There’s nothing erotic about it; the lone sex scene focuses more on the corrosive effect of sand on sex than on the sex itself.)
The “love” they develop for one another is not particularly passionate or romantic. It’s the love that inevitably germinates between two people forced to live together who share common goals—in this case, something as mundane as shoveling sand. As Golde from Fiddler on the Roof says, “Do I love him? For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, fought him, starved with him. Twenty-five years my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?” Niki’s relationship with the woman forces us to contemplate what effects the quarantine is having on the billions of relationships in the billions of homes around the world. Does familiarity breed contempt, or does it, as Woman in the Dunes seems to suggest, breed a kind of pragmatic, mutual solace?
As the days stretch into months, Niki grows accustomed to life in the pit. He inadvertently devises a way to extract water from the sand, which develops into a kind of obsession. Wrapped in a self-made shawl, he whiles away the hours, contentedly perfecting his water-extraction pump. One day, the woman is discovered to be pregnant with his child. The villagers carry her out of the pit to be looked after by a doctor, accidentally leaving the rope ladder dangling over the side. Niki is finally free to escape!
He climbs out of the pit and wanders through the dunes. Eventually he reaches the seashore, something he has desperately yearned to see again ever since the first days of his entrapment. He stares out at the vast, open ocean and the crashing waves...
Then, he returns to the sand pit, quietly descends the ladder, and shambles back to his water contraption.
“There’s no need to rush away just yet,” he says to himself. “I have a return ticket. Besides, I’m bursting with the desire to tell someone about the pump. And who better to tell than these villagers?”
As it turns out, Niki’s beliefs, hopes, and anxieties, not his captors, are keeping him in the pit. Similarly, studies show that fears of infection, not government lockdowns, have been the primary motivator for Americans to shelter in place. The “dominating force” in our lives that we rail against for trapping us, oppressing us, stripping us of our freedoms is an illusion.
Timothy Iles, a scholar of Kōbō Abe, author of the novel on which the film is based, offers the standard interpretation of the ending: that it’s a crushingly bleak conclusion to Niki’s character arc. His human desire for freedom has been extinguished by the sheer weight of his predicament—a sort of spatial Stockholm syndrome. Thus the film, like the Sisyphus tale, can be read as an absurdist tragedy. But Woman in the Dunes also bears a hidden, much more radical message: Niki’s story is, strangely enough, the story of a lost soul finding happiness under unexpected and less than ideal circumstances.
When we first meet our hero, he’s wandering aimlessly around the dunes, snapping a photo of the occasional insect, mostly just lazing about in the sand and sun. He has come to the desert, in some sense, to find himself, a time-honored tradition dating back to biblical times. Niki believes new sights and sounds will rejuvenate his soul, and help him escape the hustle-bustle of Tokyo. For most of the film, he only knows how to derive happiness from things outside of himself. He’s so alienated from his own identity that he needs the outside world—physical comfort, acquaintances, professional recognition—to remind him of his own purpose. His goal as an entomologist, for example, is to have a rare beetle named after him—an external signifier of success. At one point, he proclaims confidently, “If I miss a week of work, they’ll come looking for me!” Until his transformation, he relies on the great Other—whether other people, other places, or other experiences—to save him from the chasm of meaninglessness.
What has happened by the final scene of the film is not a spirit crushed, but a spirit awakened from a disillusioned stupor that only superficially appeared to be freedom. Niki has, through a bizarre stroke of serendipity, discovered a way to derive happiness purely from his own soul. “I’m free to write in my own origin and destination,” he thinks to himself in that final scene.
We are inclined to read this last line ironically. But why not take it as a genuinely moving, profound meditation on the human condition? As he looks into the little pool in his water pump, he reaches out and touches his own reflection. A faint smile dances across his lips. Niki is seeing himself in his creation. The puddle is infinitely more majestic than the vast ocean, because it is his.
For those of us stuck at home for months, if not years, Niki’s counterintuitive spiritual salvation-through-confinement might be illuminating. If the external freedoms that we enjoyed prior to quarantine were vital to our sense of spiritual and mental well-being, were we truly free?
Woman in the Dunes is one of cinema’s great bait-and-switches. It tempts us into identifying with Niki’s initial mindset and then subtly reprimands us for it—so subtly that many viewers leave the film thinking they have witnessed Niki’s damnation. Hopefully, if we interpret the film as the subversive ethical manifesto that it is, we won’t have to witness our own.
Abe Callard is a Chicago-based writer and filmmaker.
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