The Woman In The Dunes is a vague, deliberate, complicated, simple film. It’s a cinematic parable, though its interpretation can be bent to represent everything or nothing. A salaryman, holidaying by the sea to collect insects native to the local sand dunes, is lured to the house of a woman when he misses the last bus by local villagers offering him a place to stay. The house is in a pit, surrounded on all sides by steep, ever-collapsing dunes. When he wakes the next morning, the sole rope ladder connecting the inhabitants of the house to the outside world is gone. The man and the woman are prisoners, tasked with perpetually shovelling the sand to keep the dunes from collapsing on a neighbouring house, and which is illegally sold by the villagers to city builders for making buildings that will later crumble themselves, victim to the sand’s salt content.
The film’s plot doesn’t venture much further than that brief synopsis, encased by the conciseness of its perfect concept much as the woman’s house is encircled by the dunes. Director Hiroshi Teshigahara has said that the film has three characters: the man, the woman, and the sand.
In the film, the man is played by Eiji Okada, the woman is played by Kyoko Kishida, and the sand is played by Toru Takemitsu. Takemitsu is one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century. As we wrote in our blog on Kwaidan, he was an early innovator in musique concrete, and championed as an author of symphonies by Stravinsky, but much like his European contemporary Ennio Morricone, Takemitsu’s greatest music was in his soundtrack work. He crafted scores for over 100 films, working with the greats of Japanese cinema – including Akira Kurosawa – but his most symbiotic relationship was with Teshigahara, and the most acclaimed of their collaborations was The Woman In The Dunes.
Takemitsu was in truth much more than a film composer – he collaborated at every level of production, including casting and script. His scores were meticulous and constructed through a painstaking process of cataloguing each piece of diegetic sound recorded in a given scene, and then writing the score aroundthe diegetic sound, as if it were an instrument in itself – a bassline or melody. He would provide Teshigahara with precise notes on which of these sounds should be kept and which should be removed to allow for an extra, necessary note of music. Although the few of Takemitsu’s film scores that are commercially available – including The Woman In The Dunes – are gripping, brilliant listening, it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that they are fundamentally incomplete, as they mostly excise the original found music of sighs, whispers, rattles, gasps of wind and words captured by the film’s sound recordists that comprise at least half of the compositions, in the same way that lyric and melody each provide a necessary 50% of a pop song.
Toru was also a writer and musical theorist. He wrote in his A Personal Recollection: “One day in 1948 while riding a crowded subway I came up with the idea of mixing random noise with composed music. More precisely, it was then that I became aware that composing is giving meaning to the stream of sounds that penetrates the world we live in. It came to me as a revelation. Bring noise into the world of organised music.”
Perhaps Takemitsu saw his scores as literal duets with the worlds inside the films he worked on. Although he composed quickly and intuitively, it could take months for him to decide on a voice appropriate for a cue. A glass armonica for The Face of Another, a mood-splintering biwa for Kwaidan, prepared pianos and harpsichords for The Pitfall. In The Woman In The Dunes, the voice of the sand is strings.
They’re not melancholy strings, and this is not a melancholy film. They’re a howl, a cyclone, a sandstorm. The strings are a vicious threnody laced through the skin of Teshigahara’s film like surgical stitching. Although the soundtrack CD for The Woman In The Dunes actually runs a gamut of modes, from baroque to chanson, cut-up pop bricolage and solemn neo-gagaku, it is this nerve-shredding scream of strings that actually stains the viewer’s memory as anything resembling a musical theme.
Abstract, not-human, alive. The strings are the psychopathy of the capricious, lethal sand imprisoning the woman, and which took away the lives of her husband and daughter, the bones still buried somewhere in the dunes – another shackle holding her there. The sand has no morality and no agenda, and the strings play this eternal part with aplomb.
The Woman In The Dunes is a cinema of surfaces – the cinematography is fetishistic about the patterns and movements of the sand, and the ripples and leather of the actors’ skin. Takemitsu’s music is a surface too, one tilting at impossible angles. In the excellent Haunted Weather, David Toop writes that surfaces here are “eroticised: rationalism and the bureaucratic order of modern life are pitted against animism and the inexorable rhythms of nature, these transformations and oppositions echoed by Takemitsu’s granular, eerie musical score of sudden distorted shocks and attenuated, fibrous tones.”
Takemitsu once claimed that he was attracted to the eroticism and violence of cinema – qualities that were beyond his comprehension as an artist, but which he felt his work craved, to prevent his music from becoming too beautiful. The violence of The Woman In The Dunes is largely psychological, allegorical. But in Teshigahara and Takemitsu’s strange duet of image and sound, the parable takes on a convincingly tactile quality, which prevents the story from ever becoming too dreamlike. As a parable it is not surreal – the story may be open to interpretation but its execution is communicative and biting.