February 18, 2014  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes
Woman in the Dunes. 1963. Japan. Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara

Woman in the Dunes. 1963. Japan. Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara

These notes accompany screenings of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes on February 19, 20, and 21 in Theater 3.

Hiroshi Teshigahara (1927–2001) was a latecomer to the movement known as the Japanese New Wave (like his French counterparts, he began as a film critic), preceded by Susumu Hani, Nagisa Oshima, and Shohei Imamura. When the movement began in 1956, Mizoguchi was dying, but Ozu, Kurosawa, and Ichikawa were at their career peaks. Teshigahara’s breakthrough film was Pitfall, adapted by Kobe Abe from his novel, and the two would collaborate again on Suna No Onna (Woman in the Dunes). Abe was a member of the avant-garde who would be nominated several times for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Unsurprisingly, he admired Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Nietzsche, and Poe. He was also, like the male protagonist of Woman in the Dunes, an insect collector, and the film makes use of insect metaphors, much as John Steinbeck had done in The Grapes of Wrath.

Teshigahara was a highly diversified member of the avant-garde arts community, a painter and sculptor as well as a filmmaker, and he was also skilled in ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement), of which his father had been a grand master. In the course of his career, he made several documentaries on artists like Antonio Gaudi and Jean Tinguely.

Woman in the Dunes was nominated for an Oscar and is generally considered his masterpiece. (Teshighara was the first Japanese director ever nominated.) It stars Eiji Okada, who had come to international attention in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Kyoko Kishida, who plays the woman, had a long career. Teshighara used her several times again, and she appeared in Ozu’s last film, An Autumn Afternoon (which will be shown again in our Auteurist Reprise series on May 26).

Woman in the Dunes. 1963. Japan. Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara

Woman in the Dunes. 1963. Japan. Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara

Last week we showed Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (as a Valentine’s Day “treat”) and, inadvertently, we seem to have fallen into a misogynistic film festival, almost like Okada falling into the dunes-woman’s pit. Actually, the ending of Woman in the Dunes could be read as romanticism of a sort. (It would be a while before the phenomenon known as “Stockholm syndrome” was recognized, but I don’t want to give away too much of the plot.) The film, with its desolately ominous landscape, abetted by Toru Takemitsu’s experimental and modern score (the celebrated composer provided the music for Lucille Carra’s recently shown The Inland Sea), is a haunting, enchanting, and otherworldly fantasy. It shares with Repulsion a nightmarish quality—especially in the scene with the masked locals gleefully celebrating the incarceration of their victim—and it suggests a throwback to a strange medievalism. I couldn’t help but think of the Sale pirates who captured and imprisoned Robinson Crusoe. (One day, just before 9/11, I naively wandered alone around Sale, Morocco, unfamiliar with the details of Defoe’s plot. There were no pirates, just some kids on bikes who wanted to know my opinion of George W. Bush.) In an interview with Joan Mellen in her Voices from the Japanese Cinema, Teshigahara comments on the voyeurism of the villagers who force the couple to have public sex, seeing this as a “universal” human instinct. He laughingly recalls an incident from World War II when he observed “an old country fellow peeking at two lovers through the hole in a shoji screen.”

The eroticism and nudity was very un-Japanese for mainstream cinema of the period, although our own former curator, Donald Richie, was already shocking some Tokyo sensibilities with what amounted to “X-rated” underground films. As the critic Gudrun Howarth wrote, “When the woman washing the man reacts to the touch of his skin and to the patterns of soap lather on his flesh, the sensual, almost tactile, participation of Teshigahara’s camera creates one of the most erotic love scenes ever photographed.”

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