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, and eventually develops strong feelings for her.
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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 »
Haunting Parable of Survival Among the Rational and the Primitive Amid Enveloping Sand Dunes
Like Robert Bresson's "Au Hasard Balthazar", Hiroshi Teshigahara's 1964 existential allegory can be a challenge to sit through if you are not prepared to be swept away by its elliptical profundities. Written for the screen by Kobo Abe based on his 1962 novel, the surreal, highly symbolic story focuses on an amateur entomologist on what he thinks is a day trip from Tokyo to a seaside area with vast and immense sand dunes. As he looks for a particular beetle that he thinks will bring him fame within scientific circles, he loses track of time and misses the last bus back to the city. Local villagers come upon him and take him to a woman who can provide overnight lodging. As it turns out, she lives in the bottom of a sand pit reachable only by a rope ladder. With the ladder gone the next morning, it dawns on him that he is being held captive by the villagers.
From this revelation, Teshigahara and Abe focus on how the man deals with the situation and his evolving feelings toward the woman. In order to survive, she reveals that she shovels sand all night for the local construction company in exchange for weekly rations that are dropped into the pit by a pulley. Meanwhile, the sand takes a life of its own as it encroaches upon their existence in ways most unexpected. Already well known from Alain Resnais' "Hiroshima Mon Amour" (1959) and starring opposite Marlon Brando in 1963's "The Ugly American", Eiji Okada dominates every scene of the movie as the emotionally volatile entomologist evolving from sexist entitlement to humiliating desperation to serene resignation. As a representation of supposedly civilized rational thought amid the primitive surroundings, it's a masterful if sometimes overripe turn where only the sand threatens to upstage him.
As the woman, the offbeat-looking Kyôko Kishida initially seems to be playing Friday to Okada's Robinson Crusoe, but her character starts to reveal layers that startle and fill in necessary plot details. Their relationship becomes highly charged with several scenes that move mercurially between violent and erotic, the capper being a harrowing, Lord of the Flies-type of public act in front of the villagers. Hiroshi Segawa's black-and-white cinematography is nothing short of amazing with memorable vivid images such as the abstract patterns of the dunes, the skin textures flecked with sand granules, and the off-kilter shot compositions that amplify the sheer oddness of the circumstance. The film's overall unnerving tone often makes it feel like an extended episode of a "Twilight Zone", and Toru Takemitsu's unsettling music adds to the eerie atmosphere.
Made for less than $100K, Teshigahara's film was such an art-house hit that he received an unexpected Oscar nomination for Best Director alongside the mainstream likes of Robert Wise ("The Sound of Music"), David Lean ("Doctor Zhivago") and William Wyler ("The Collector"). Currently available only as part of a box set from the Criterion Collection, "Three Films By Hiroshi Teshigahara", the 2007 DVD contains the full 148-minute director's cut (twenty minutes were cut when initially released for international audiences) and a helpful video essay by film historian James Quandt. Be forewarned that the film will feel overlong for the uninitiated, especially since most of the action takes place between two people in a sand pit, but this is a worthwhile cinematic achievement by any stretch of the imagination.
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