Woman in the Dunes (Japan, 1964)

For a moment, the film is about bodies. Across its spatio-temporal design, Hiroshi Teshigahara explores the otherworldly life of bodies in close-up, in their textural surfaces, that lends one to rethink of a new possibility of seeing by touching or touching by seeing. The film gestures towards a critical assessment of the imaginary boundary that separates body surfaces and landscapes, and transgresses further by deploying its own politics of the landscape-body.

In the opening scenes, as the entomologist Niki Junpei (Eiji Okada) walks in the desert, we are entombed in the presence of insects and in the infinite totalizing horizon of the desert, its richness and also its strangeness: a desert teeming with life. The filmmakers’ juxtaposition of the close-ups of insects and the long shots of landscapes create an unruly feeling, as if the beauty of the landscapes is suddenly breached by giant insects. A close-up in Teshigahara’s film is therefore a miniaturization of space, not an enlargement. It displaces as well as replaces the spatial beauty of a well-grounded earth. One might eventually led to think that its aesthetic strategy is perhaps a pseudo-entry into the body horror, where the infinity of the body replaces the groundedness of the earth, for whom the body is beholden, mystified, and optimized.

In Japanese culture, the body is usually the site of the apocalypse. In Akira, Tetsuo Shima’s body mutates into a singularity that destroys Neo-Tokyo, triggering a universe-altering event. In Neon Genesis Evangelion, the Human Instrumentality Project relinquishes a dissolution of bodies to form a unified humanity, which partly involves the massacre of the thousands of humans transmogrifying into the extra-human realm.

In Woman in the Dunes, the labouring body of Niki and the woman (Kyoko Kishida) and the woman harbour a kind of apocalyptic rapturous potential at the brink of total alienation and obsolescence. Forced to work for capitalists selling beach sands to construction companies at a lower cost, Niki and woman’s body are sites of the proletarian struggle. In a sense, the film pays tribute to Marx’s theory of labor, in particular, the exploitation of labor power of proletariats that fuel the growth in urban centers.

However, the film does not show us this contractual economy. We are forced to form that logic within ourselves from the scraps of information the film give us: from the woman’s bitter and stark comparison of the developing urbanity of Tokyo and the backwardness of country side to the woman’s revelation of the necessity of keeping a man in the house to help in sand digging. The entomologist Niki, forced to work for an absent employer, carries a symbolic figural weight. He is the figure of the future precariat forced to sell his labor power to the absent capital even though he already has a establish career in the community. The precariat is a displaced labourer, forced to commit to something other than his job. In this sense, the dunes, its infinitely stretched horizon, with no escape route, no edge, with quick sands that could engulf you to death, are quite simply the film’s allegory to the desertification of capitalism, which is neoliberalism. The dune is the inescapable horizon of globalized capitalism that confiscates humanity’s hope for a way out.

The house itself is designed like an antlion’s nest – a trap. The woman draws a bait into her pit. The entomologist falls for her nest with the help of the villagers, who convinced the man to give in to convenience. Lured towards false hopes – isn’t that typical of capitalism? To lure us into believing that our lives will be better if we sell our labor power to the capitalists.

The landscapes, the desert, the skin, and a generous play of light and darkness also comprise a collapse in the visual field of reality. This is Teshigahara’s foray into metaphysics. Teshigahara is not social realist filmmaker, but a filmmaker of fantastic worlds, disturbing reality by combining inexplicable abstraction of spaces with objects. Woman in the Dunes commences a spatial politics that works by occlusion, detachment and alienation, a politics that refuses to construct an idea of society, while also parodying society’s lack of regards to strangeness. The film is therefore a look into the void of the anthropocene, or what Baudrillard describes as the desertification of the real.

The spaces in Woman in the Dunes are therefore abstractions or ideas of spaces rendered as optical continuums. We have seen these approach to spaces in European Cinema in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, in particular L’Avventura (1960) and L’Eclisse (1962), in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and in Luis Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel (1962). In L’Eclisse, the walls pierced by landscapes and faces embody certain emptiness that Resnais also deployed in Last Year at Marienbad. In Marienbad, the criss-crossing passageways and gestures constitute the metaphysical realm. One can easily get lost in its lingering cadence of mobile cameras and long tkaes. In Exterminating Angel, the bourgeois space form what Roger Ebert termed a cul-de-sac, a stasis, of a space at degree zero. In Woman in the Dunes, the crisis of space is conceived as a horizontal concentrationary confusion, circling to infinity, without any repose.

Is Woman in the Dunes a surrealist film? Partly. Unlike its Western counterparts, the film maintains a clear demarcation between the inner and outside worlds. The woman insists on getting a radio to hear about Tokyo, while the man still strives to find a way out. There is a contrived force of modernity that the viewer can implicitly draw from its narrative. In any case, the film’s subtlety to depict surrealism lies in its pictorial beauty: the skin is landscape; the insect, a person. To compare is to create a textural continuity that only cinema can actually recreate in practice and in image.

Woman in the Dunes is a prophecy, an ode to the future desertification of the world, to the ghastly triumph of the anthropocene as an era that successfully converted the anthropomorphic body as the host of the apocalypse. Teshigahara and Abe have given us a practical image-work of thinking about the future of global capitalism.

I refuse to believe that the film is about nihilism for the ending gives us hope when the entomologist Niki resolved his own fate via the affirmation of his condition. There is a Nietzschean ring to it: amor fati or love of fate. To overcome the desertification of the world, one must first affirm the conditions, to create strategies of slowly living through it. Niki’s scientific discovery of producing water from the wooded bucket returns us to a basic principle of praxis: part of the struggle is actually not only to theorize a way out, but also to employ materialist scientific solutions of living through. Niki is excited to share his discovery to the community, a seed to revolutionary consciousness that seeks to evade the ration-system deployed by the capitalists that subject the community into forced labor. It is a big step for the community, a way out.