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on 27 August 2007
Hiroshi Teshigahara may not rank as highly in the echelons of Japanese directors as Ozu or Kurosawa, nevertheless he has produced a classic in Woman of the Dunes.

A professor in search of rare butterflies (what else when the film is concerned with transformation) on the dune coast of Western Japan, misses his transport home and is offered shelter by the local people in the strange sand pit home of a widow. All is fine until he tries to leave, and finds that the villagers have other ideas, for the widow needs help in shifting the sand from her pit, an endless and thankless task, and he is held captive. At first he rails against his captivity, sometimes violently, until he finds a purpose in this case the need to keep sand out of the water butt, and he no longer thinks of escape.

Filmed in 1964 at a time when Japan was undergoing a period of growing discontent, the student riots were only a few years away. The film serves as an excellent metaphor for the problems a rapidly changing society has with maintaining the belief systems of the past, and the alienation found in progress. The professsor at first views the peasants as inferior and in the way of his work, he is the face of the self centred modern Japan. But through his captivity he comes to see the need for conformity and a unity of purpose.

If you are interested in cinema, not just Japanese cinema, then I strongly recommend this film, you will probably read something completely different into the film than I did, therein lies its beauty.
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There have been a number of films about victims kidnapped and held against their will. Sadly it is something that has happened in the real world, as recent cases have highlighted. I recall watching William Wyler's "The Collector"(65), where Terence Stamp adds a very attractive Samantha Eggar to his butterfly collection. There was also "Misery"(91), where a very scary Kathy Bates holds James Caan much against his will. No one could blame him there! But the daddy of all these films is Hiroshi Teshigahara's "Woman of the Dunes". This darkly hypnotic tale weaves its magic for a running time of 119 minutes. Remarkably, it is riveting viewing throughout.

Eiji Okada plays an amateur entomologist from Tokyo visiting sand dunes by the sea in search of bugs. When he misses his bus he is offered a bed for the night in rather an unusual lodging. He is taken to a house in a deep sandpit which is only accessible by rope ladder. Next day he finds the rope ladder has been lifted up and it begins to dawn on him that he has been kidnapped. He discovers that the young woman of the house played by Kyoko Kishida has lost her husband and daughter in a sand slide, and he is there to work as a replacement for them. His job is the sisypheon task of removing endless quantities of sand that are always threatening to engulf the house. The sand is sold to bulders by the villagers, who are all in cahoots. The woman is young and comely and willing to wait on our victim. She is also not above being seduced. She is also no Kathy Bates! Now some blokes might think they have fallen on their feet, get on with a bit of digging and enjoy the perks. But oh no, not Eiji. He tries repeatedly and with increasing desperation to escape. But gradually he begins to acclimatise to his surroundings. As a Beirut hostage once said " You can get used to anything eventually". He is now the worlds leading expert on Lebanese radiators! Will Eiji just become another missing person?

The film has a third big star that is uncredited, and that is the all pervading sand that is given a fluid life all of its own. There are many shots of sliding sand and expanses of sand rippled like the sea. There is more sand on display than there was in "Lawrence of Arabia". The film was made for a reputed paltry 100,00 dollars, which does not surprise me! All they had to do was find a big sand pit and build a rickety house resembling a garden shed out of driftwood. Then just find a few actors and off you go! But the film is much more than a simple budget frightener. Tension is cleverly built by the use of extreme close ups of the actors, and myriad shots of the ever present sand. The minimalist film music by Toru Takemitsu also creates an atmosphere of menace. Even the intelligent close up shots of strange bugs in the sand begin to make the skin crawl. The film is also strangely erotic as the two inevitably become lovers. But it should be added that there is nothing too much to upset granny. There were a couple of scenes that I suspect were cleverly included to create deliberate sensation. If so this was a successful ploy, as it was one of the few Japanese films to prove popular in the west. Sadly Teshigahara did not really fulfill his great potential and made all too few films. This stands as his masterwork and a fitting elegy to his memory.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 April 2012
Woman of the Dunes must rank as being one of the strangest films ever, but not in a weird way. More a modernish (it's set in the 1920s) fairytale, one for adults.

Not everything is explained and that adds to the mystery. One is left a feeling of unsettled awkwardness after its 141min running time. (The BFI release runs to this, some 20 mins more than that stated in listings - it'd be interesting to know where the 'extra' is within the film), which is how a classic fairytale/folklore tale should leave one.

The cinematography is superb; lingering studies in monochromatic shape and form, sand running like water, close-ups of insects, parts of faces, bodies, all adding to the surreal and intense imagery.

The woman whose shack it is at the bottom of a sand pit, by the sea - well, we don't really get to know why she's still there and why she hasn't left years ago. How does she make a living or do the village council, who seemably 'control' her , really subsidise her enough? But, her deadly pit is like a spider's web as our university professor, innocently out looking for creepy crawlies for his studies, finds out. And, big spiders, even in female human form, don't give up their prey easily.

The relationship that unfolds goes through many emotions, many very believable, others less so. But, the intensity with which they are carried, really draws us in.

As others have said, the director, Hiroshi Teshigahara, really is an unheard one, at least to western audiences. According to the IMDb, Woman Of was his second feature, making five more since, the last being in 1992. He made many documentary shorts, especially early in his career. However, this is an extremely accomplished film and only the most critical could find fault.

The soundscape that Toru Takemitsu has created is an integral and essential part of the film, adding to its overall feel and mood. Each eery sound is like a visual image, evoking mystery, pain, hope and horror. It is a pity that the sound quality is quite poor, with the high pitched sounds becoming screechy.

Anyone who appreciates a film, of any period, or from any country that is a bit different, makes one think as well as feel and has that feeling of mystery, where not all the boxes are ticked, then, Woman of the Dunes comes in at number one to try - and you will remember it afterwards, for quite a long time, I promise you.
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on 8 March 2012
This is a good release of a Japanese classic. Picture quality excellent! However, this is a much shorter version (only 119 min.) than the new version of Criterion (147 min) and without any relevant extras. If you can afford it go for the Criterion version.
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on 3 February 2008
Just to point out that the running time listed above is incorrect. The BFI edition is the full uncut version, at 141 minutes PAL speed.
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on 30 September 2009
If you are a fan of Japanese cinema, then this is surely compulsory viewing. Filmed in a very atmospheric black and white (colur would not have had the same drama),it draws you in from the start by the exceptional cinematography and unusual location and subject matter. It's one of those films that leaves you contemplating the fragility and resilience of the human condition and the somewhat ambiguous ending (to my dull mind at least!) only adds to the speculation your mind is forced to consider. It also has some of the most intensely erotic and sensual scenes I've ever seen on film, which are balanced by some moments of real tenderness. You'll also never view sand in quite the same way again!
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 9 February 2016
I'd waited years to see this famous Japanese film by Teshigahara from 1964, and I am so glad to have finally experienced a cinematic marvel that is like no other before or since.
I was expecting an oblique, non-linear, perhaps tough-going art film, but it's really none of those things. It tells an admittedly strange story, but one that engages and enthrals from the first shots of teacher and entomologist Junpei Niki (Eiji Okada, superb) wandering in vast dunes looking for insects, to the last unexpected scene of serene acceptance over two hours later.
He's abducted by a gang of 'villagers' (this is like no village you've ever seen) and deposited in a deep dune where there is a small sand-enclosed hut in which lives a young widow. The latter is played by Kyoko Kishida in a performance of such sly, subtle brilliance that it's easy to forget she's acting. She affects to be shy, elusive, fatalistic, but we see her change as the film develops, and her relationship with the frustrated, frequently enraged man - who had literally just dropped in, after all - becomes more physical. The sexual scenes are incredible. Bodies become deserts, a tender body-wash becomes something more...nothing is explicit, but it's startlingly erotic just the same.
The direction and photography - in beautiful black & white - are an astonishing achievement, with even the blatant symbolism of sliding sands or shaking sand-hills blending in with the whole, never seeming too obvious or hackneyed. All concerned rarely put a foot wrong, save perhaps in an extended 'rape' scene which, arguably, doesn't quite come off. However, this is a minor quibble in a film which repays more than one viewing, and will probably haunt you forever.
{NB. I have reviewed the BFI edition, which is the full 141-min version.}

A masterpiece.
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on 3 December 2010
A 2 hour black and white Japanese movie from 1964 whose plot is pretty much, guy trapped in pit, can't get out - sounds pretty grim viewing, right? Wrong. I can't remember the last time a movie flew by so quickly, hypnotic is the only way to describe it. We follow a fairly arrogant character, an entymologist, who is collecting insects in a remote area of sand dunes. He accepts an offer of overnight accomodation from an elderly local and is taken to a large crater in the dunes with a rickety house at the bottom. Only access to this house is via a rope ladder. Our man puts this strangeness down to rural hick customs ("it'll be an adventure") and descends the ladder, after all there's a welcoming lady down there, what could go wrong?. What does go wrong is fascinating and not in the least predictable.
This is a visually beautiful film full of rippling sand and strange fleeting images. I was hooked for the duration. Only a fairly gratuitous mask scene, a la Onibaba, seemed out of place.
Only reason I've not given this 5 stars is due to the bare bones disc. Apart from a decent booklet there is no extras, not even a trailer. Surely Mark Kermode or Tony Rayns could have supplied at least a commentary? Shame Eureka didn't release this but at least the picture quality is excellent.
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on 14 March 2016
I really like 50's and 60's Japanese cinema and this film is one I would highly recommend. It suits the Japanese psyche perfectly by its allegorical reference to entrapment within oneself, and how to live with that entrapment. For what is essentially a low budget black and white film, the story is intriguing and the acting superb.
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on 25 May 2010
First - My thanks to the young friend who suggested I search Amazon for a copy of this film - I would never have thought of doing so!

Can't put a date on when I saw Woman of the Dunes but it was L-O-N-G ago, on TV, late one night and (to the best of my knowledge) has never been repeated.
Nonetheless, it has stayed with me ever since because I have never seen a better example of a simple tale, simply told. Other reviewers see other things but to me the allegory is obvious. Think of the villagers as Society and how they crush the Student's dreams and ambitions, giving him nothing more than female company in exchange. How many of us wanted to do something big, important, creative and/or helpful to others, only to put it aside for domesticity...then ask, did we decide to put it aside - or were we pressured?
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