In Japan,this film is titled SUNA NO ONNA. In 1964, the movie won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes, and it was nominated for two Oscars. It was directed by the multi-talented Hiroshi Teshigahara, who as well as a film director, was a poet, calligrapher, a wood block artist, had worked with ceramics, and had directed opera. It was based on a novel by Kobe Abe. The themes prevelant in the film leap from Zen parable to existential horror and Noh drama. It is reminiscent of stories by Franz Kafka, like METAMORPHOSIS.
The cinematographer was Hiroshi Segawa, and he played with light and shadow like a painter, finding a perfectly balanced blend between Abe's prose and Teshigahara's vision. He helped Sand become the third major character in the film, giving it personality, creating a Dali-esque canvas. He photographed sand as if it were a breathing beast, with wind rippling over the white dunes spreading the sand like waves of water, flapping the edges like it was moving silk. And he utilized a lot of extreme close-ups of skin pores choked with grains of sand, and sweaty strands of hair with sand granules clinging to them.
Toru Takemitsu did the music. The score was minimalist, yet powerful and staccato, piercing through us with flute, drum, and strings. The music only materialized when it was needed and necessary. Most of the film was not underscored with music. We heard breathing, moaning, rolling waves, shoveling, the crackling of fire, the bubbling of water, soap on skin, and the terrible creaking of old wood as that house swayed beneath the steady onslaught of the sand.
An essay written by Albert Camlus on the Myth of Sisyphus influenced the plot; that if a person is forced to exercise their entire being toward nothing, accomplishing nothing, mired in repetition, the human spirit is still not vanquishable. It will find joy in the task. Camus wrote,"happiness and the absurd are twin sons of the same earth; inseparable." Sisyphus achieved an emotional victory after he learned to love the rock he was pushing repeatedly up the mountainside. Our protagonists achieved a kind of emotional victory when their labor became sacred and necessary.
Eiji Okada played Niki Jumpei, a stranger wandering the dunes searching for insects; especially one rare beetle. Missing the last bus back to Tokyo, he approached some villagers and requested local accommodations. They agreed, and let him stay the night in a house at the bottom of one of their great sand pits. This was a village that the sand had attempted to devour, comprised of a honeycomb of pits dotted across the shoreline, mostly devoured by the shifting sands; only the occasional rooftop protruding out of the darkness of the many pits.
His hostess, played by Kyoko Kishida, was a thirty-something woman, widowed by the sand, and determined to stay the course, to remain in her domicle. She had to shovel the windblown sand constantly to deny the elements the chance to bury her alive. The following morning the man finds that the rope ladder he descended on was missing. He was trapped. Obviously the villagers were in on the conspiracy. Trapped there he lost his freedom, but in its place he found purpose, and with purpose he found meaning, and with meaning he found a strange joy; something he had never known.
This is a stunning film, perfectly in balance; blending poetry, literature, calligraphy, cinematography, and music. It is what all good movies aspire to be-- it is art. It a true classic, almost without flaw. I saw this film three decades ago, and as a twenty-something youth, during my University days, I was not fully appreciative of the subtleties within the piece. It is a timeless parable of the human condition, a film that begs for more than one viewing. The photography haunted me, and the eroticism, and the existential terror stayed with me. It made me hunger to read the novel.