After lunch on Sunday the sun put in a rare appearance. While everyone shot off to the beach, I ignored it in protest and went to the cinema. The local cinema is a converted barn run by volunteer movie buffs, who leaven mainstream Hollywood with a strong dash of European arthouse. For two-and-a-half hours, while everyone was out sunning themselves, I sat in darkness and watched a 40-year-old black-and-white Japanese film about a man and a woman down a hole.
In the advance publicity sheet for Woman of the Dunes, the reviewer said that the film was a collaboration between three of Japan’s leading post-war intellectuals: Hiroshi Teshigahara (director), Kobo Abe (screenplay) and Toru Takemitsu (music). This statement had excited me. When I think of foreign intellectuals, I automatically rank them by nationality. Stupid, but there you are. In the top rank I see the German, Italian, Czech, Hungarian, Russian and French intellectuals. But at a kind of intellectual pinnacle I see the Japanese. The ranking is based not on personal experience but on national stereotyping, on an ignorant scorn of high seriousness taken to absurd lengths, and on the comic value of abstract ideas articulated with a funny accent.
The reviewer also excited me by stating that these three Japanese intellectuals’ mental landscapes had been formed in a country whose pre-war values had been utterly discredited, and whose society had been emasculated by foreign occupation for the first time in its history. ‘They wandered forth,’ said the reviewer, waxing Biblical, ‘into a strange new world that had no identity of its own and was distorted by poverty.’
But if I’m honest I was mainly attracted to Woman of the Dunes by the reviewer’s firm assurances of ‘a strong erotic content that is filmed with a palpable physicality’. When it was first shown, the film shocked the Japanese audience, at whom it was principally aimed, but ‘harmonised unexpectedly, but perfectly, with the sensibilities and existential instincts of the international avant-garde’.
The smartly turned-out ladies and gentlemen of the film society were gathered in the foyer to greet the local avant-garde as we trickled in out of the bright sunshine eager to have our sensibilities and existential instincts delicately manipulated in Japanese. I heard the lady tearing the tickets say to the gentleman handing out the bimonthly film list that this was one she’d been looking forward to for weeks. ‘Where would you like to sit, sir?’ said the woman at the desk, showing me a plan of the seating arrangement on her computer screen. I chose a seat four rows from the back but, when I went in and found it, it turned out to be four rows from the front. Would a film that thrilled the intelligentsia in 1964 do the same in 2009? I wondered, as I settled in. If the saying is true that everything changes except the avant-garde, perhaps it would.
My overriding impression of the reactions of the tiny audience scattered about in the darkness of the auditorium during the film was that although the story was bizarre, to say the least, and the ‘music’ consisted of someone thumping an oil drum with an adjustable wrench or running their fingernails down a blackboard, we liked the rape scene. Most certainly, the story of an entomologist forced against his will by primitive villagers to live in a deep hole in a sand dune with a sexy, mute woman, and spend every night helping her to shovel away the sand that had fallen down on them during the day, had to be an allegory of some kind, but of what was impossible to fathom.
Very early in the film, the man hungrily gobbles down a meal prepared by the woman. Although they are inside a driftwood shack, she opens an umbrella and hangs it over his head while he eats to keep the continual showers of sand off the rice. The man’s look of surprise at the brolly got a big laugh from a man sitting behind me. His laugh said, ‘Guys! Guys! I know! It’s a comedy, thank God! Hooray!’ And I could feel him on high alert for the next laugh that would prove his thesis. But to raise a laugh based on the cultural difference between a 1960s Japanese actor expressing surprise, and how the man behind me thought it was proper and more decorous for an Englishman to express it, was not, on reflection, something that the three Japanese intellectuals who made the film particularly intended. And, to give him his due, the man behind me must have quickly realised this because ten minutes later I could hear gentle snores.
‘Well?’ I heard one punter say to her friend afterwards, as we spilled out, blinking, into hot, dazzling sunshine. ‘Fancy an ice-cream?’ said her friend.