Hiroshi Teshigahara crafts a spare and haunting allegory for human existence in Woman in the Dunes. An entomologist (Eija Okada) on holiday from Tokyo has come to a remote desert in order to study and collect specimens from the local insect population. As he momentarily rests on the sand dunes, he ponders a fundamental existential question: does a person’s recognized achievements validate his existence? Is the value of his life measured by the number of certificates and awards he has received in his lifetime? For the entomologist, the answer is clearly reflected in his latest quest for an unclassified beetle that, if found, would be named after him in all the scientific journals. After lapsing into a daydream, he is awakened with the news that the last bus has left for the day, and the villagers arrange for him to stay with a young widow (Kyoko Kishida) who lives at the bottom of a sand dune. Soon, fragments of the woman’s odd existence begin to surface: the pervasive contamination of sand throughout the house, the economy of food and water, the shoveling of the sand from dusk to dawn. She reveals the tragic details of her life – her husband and child buried under the crushing weight of the shifting sand – and alludes to his extended stay as her permanent company. The following morning, his attempt to leave the dunes is thwarted when he realizes that the rope ladder he had used to descend to the woman’s house had been retracted, and the sand formations are too amorphous to climb. Eventually, the cyclic, seemingly mindless ritual is laid out before him: the shoveled sand is exchanged for provisions; the sand is hauled away at night and sold in the black market for construction; to stop shoveling would bury the house, and the adjacent house becomes at risk. Given an eternal task similar to the mythical Sisyphus, the entomologist asks the woman: “Are you living to shovel, or shoveling to live?” Resigned to an existence of displacing sand that will invariably be re-deposited by the following morning, can his life have existential meaning beyond deferring the inevitable cascading of the sand? In the barren landscape of the shifting dunes, is there a redemptive purpose in performing the monotonous, uncomplicated task? Or is the meaning of life reserved for only those who pursue the artificial, created cerebral exercises of modern civilization?
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