Are you shoveling to survive, or surviving to shovel?
Jumpei ask the widowed woman in the 1964 film called Woman in the Dunes. In this allegory of modern life that would strike a chord to modern viewers in spite of its age has been considered a classic and won the Special Jury Prize at the 1964 Cannes film festival. The movie is shot in Black in White in a 35mm film. Written by Kobo Abe in 1962 and adapted by the author for screen for director Hiroshi Teshigahara in 1964.
Woman in the Dunes starts off with Jumpei, an entomologist on a local trip to a remote desert region in Japan. He has been collecting insects in the region hoping to find a new species of bugs; dreaming of seeing his name published in books along with his discovery but was stranded as the last bus returning to the city has left. The local villagers offered their hospitality and led him to a house at the bottom of a sandpit, descending on a rope ladder to spend the night with a widowed woman there. The woman served him diligently with food and water as he laugh with the woman's story of wood and sandals getting rotten because of the sands intervention, seeping into the walls and roof of the entire house. Life wasn't easy in the pit as he found the woman shoveling sands at night and hoisted by men though a rope till morning. In the next morning, the man discovered that the rope ladder was missing and he was inducted by the villagers to help the widow shovel sands in order to prevent the sands from swallowing the entire house. As she puts it, if they stop shoveling, the next household might suffer as it will also succumb by the sand. Jumpei founds it absurd as the woman puts it as "community spirit" and tried various ways to escape the pit but to no avail, the sand is an eerie reminder that they could swallow you whole with every struggle. He tried to keep the woman hostage in order to demand freedom but it dawns on him that he is no longer just a prisoner but one who has to shovel sand to survive. If they stop shoveling, they will be swallowed up by the sand like the woman's husband and daughter. Scenes of different shots of sand added more depth to the chilling undertone of life in the pit as constantly fluid, dynamic and frightening. Complemented by a musical score that is more haunting and equally mocking the characters like a waterfall of sands that plunges into their entire being.
The relationship between the two starts off predictably as they had a series of encounters that provokes sensuality as they uses visual of textures of sand, of skin and sweat. It is almost possible to be able to feel the sense of touch as if your whole body is seductively engulfed in sand. Jumpei's life has been reduced to shovel, sleep, food and sex has found his new measly life as unimportant has he grows frantic wanting his freedom that he found ways to entertained himself by setting traps for the crow but found ways for a water pump to work on the pit. This gave tremendous pride and a sense of fulfillment for Jumpei as he records daily changes and find other ways to make his new discovery works for their life in the pit and also for the rest of the community. In the end, as Jumpei had the chance to escape the harsh life in the pit has found new meaning in life as he watches the sea in his contentment. As he put it, he can always escape but it can wait as he anticipated his joyous achievement.
Woman in the Dunes exudes itself like a modern parable of life as evident in Jumpei's question: "Are you shoveling to survive, or surviving to shovel?" It is more of an existentialist question of merely existing rather than focusing on the relevance of life itself. Modern life has been exceeded to school and work as we struggle to survive into this modern world. Do we work to survive or do we survive to work? Do we do this thing just for the simple task of simply surviving or do we find meaning to life? Although, Woman in the Dunes doesn't really underline this tone of thinking, it poses a lot of question for every individual viewer to ponder over.