Jeremy Clarke Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 22 August 2009

Intellectual pursuit

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’.

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