Women in the Dunes, you might have guessed, tells the story of a woman and a man in a hole, in the dunes. And that was the thing that bothered me about this longish Japanese film: why was The Woman forced by her backward comrades to live alone in a huge hole in the sand by the seashore? Weekly, they lower her enough water and rations to survive in her ramshackle hut. When a young school teacher-amateur entomologist (bugs) happens along, they let him (Eiji Okada) down the rope ladder for her (Kyoko Kishida).
But aside from telling us The Woman must shovel sand which is sold as inferior and illegal building material, director Hiroshi Teshigahara gives little indication why The Woman must be kept in such degrading servitude. Why not live with integrity on the ground and shovel like a normal coolie laborer?
If it's because the world is just crazy and sadistic and absurd, I think that's too bad. Any old plausible reason would be better than another visit to the ambiguity scene. If I knew there were some reason for her being down there, then I'd take the His and Her hell hole as a bitter and savage commentary on life.
Like Sisyphus, doomed to his meaningless life of pushing the boulder up the mountain, The Woman and her man, must shovel each night knowing that the constant sand slides make it a never-ending task, and they finally emerge absurd heroes in their own way. As Sisyphus must be imagined happy, so too are man and woman revealed as not digging sand to live but living to dig sand.
But these bald philosophic propositions are the weakest part of a suspenseful and moving script. Of course it's redundant for the man to say "It's useless," or "Even a monkey could be trained to do this" when he's digging in a hole as dismal as that one; but after sand, struggle and serendipity, when life gets reduced to ciggs, sake, and sex, the sensations are powerfully communicated to the audience: you taste that drag, you smell that swig, you ... like the feelies in Brave New World.
Certainly the images are among the most eloquent on film. Extreme close-ups of the skin and minute sections of the body dehumanize the characters, make them merge with the surrounding sand, reveal their mood and activity. The texture of their skins becomes a history of the man and woman's trials with the elements.
Though this film should certainly have been shorter, the inexorably regulated pace successfully suggests that time and routine, resignation and insight, are more crucial than crises of escape or rape. When the man finally is presented with a chance for freedom, he walks to the sea he longed to view, but returns willingly to the sand pit. "There's no need to run away yet," he muses.