An entomologist searching for insects by the seaside is trapped by local villagers into living with a widow whose life task is digging up sand for them. He eventually develops strong feelings for her as his hope for escape dims.
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Jumpei Niki, a Tokyo based entomologist and educator, is in a poor seaside village collecting specimens of sand insects. As it is late in the day and as he has missed the last bus back to the city, some of the local villagers suggest that he spend the night there, they offering to find him a place to stay. That place is the home of a young woman, whose house is located at the bottom of a sand pit accessible only by ladder. He later learns that the woman's husband and child died in a sandstorm, their undiscovered bodies buried somewhere near the house. The next morning as he tries to leave, he finds that the ladder is gone - he realizing that the ladder he climbed down was a rope ladder which is anchored above the pit - meaning that he is trapped with the young woman as the walls of the pit are sand with no grip. He also realizes that this entrapment was the villagers and the young woman's plan for him to stay there permanently to be her helper in the never-ending task of digging out ... Written by
Kyôko Kishida and director Hiroshi Teshigahara had a number of artistic differences in the film, ranging from Kishida's character's manner of dress to her symbolic importance. Kishida wanted to portray her character as a universal "every-woman" while Teshigahara insisted that her character was uniquely Japanese. Teshigahara's vision eventually won out. See more »
In my interpretation this movie is a reflection on Zen philosophy: Just like Zen monks that sweep the courtyards of monasteries and devote themselves to the most humble tasks to find inner harmony, Niki finds inner rest in the daily work of removing the sand, solving water supply problems and living a confined live. The movie suggests the modern lives we live in the big cities isolate us from our needs and ourselves. Just like a Zen garden, that is designed to mirror nature and men, the people in the dunes reflect our daily struggles and confinements. The surreal setting is a necessity to convey the message of the film. There is nothing goofy about the pits and how people behave in there. It is just hard for us western people to see the transcendence there.
I watched this movie on a Japanese Film Festival in Berlin in 1993. I can't remember all the details but the movie really mesmerized me. It is a very unique work and I wonder why it doesn't have the cult status of other movies.
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