Isolation and Sex Tie these Two 1964 Japanese Films Together

This article contains major spoilers for Onibaba (1964) and Woman in the Dunes (1964).

This weekend Liza (who has contributed to this blog) and I sat down to watch a movie. We aimlessly scrolled through the seemingly endless options our streaming services presented. We ended up on FilmStruck (essentially Netflix for the Criterion Collection) where we selected a thumbnail with a goofy looking demon face. Onibaba (1964). I hadn’t heard of this film, but the synopsis sounded interesting so we gave it a go.

Onibaba takes place in medieval Japan during a civil war. An old woman and her daughter-in-law live alone in a marsh. Together they kill samurai who wander onto their property, and sell their armour for food. Their isolated existence is disturbed when their neighbor Hachi shows up. He has deserted the war, and brings news that the old woman’s son, the young woman’s husband, has died in combat. When Hachi and the young woman begin secretly sleeping together, the old woman grows jealous and spiteful.

When the film ended, Liza mentioned it reminded her of a book she had read, called Woman in the Dunes. We looked it up and found a film adaptation of that book was also made in 1964, so we decided to check it out.

Woman in the Dunes (1964) follows an entomologist exploring sand dunes for insects, who hopes to make a discovery that will land him in the books. He misses the last bus home so some desert-dwellers offer to put him up for the night. They help him down a rope ladder, to a house that sits at the bottom a deep, dry hole. The woman hosting him is friendly, but the man soon learns he has been trapped in this house, forced to work for the desert people in exchange for precious water.

WomanInTheDunesBoth films are simple parables that unfold between very few characters. Onibaba articulates the simple moral, “mind your damn business” with rich relationships. Hachi and the young woman’s affair unfolds right under old woman’s nose, who scolds her daughter-in-law for disgracing the memory of her dead son. However the old woman’s actions when no one is looking shows she’s more bothered by jealousy than the desecration. (In one scene she humps a tree stump, in another she bluntly tells Hachi to sleep with her). I’m not sure what the state of sexual politics were like in 14th century Japan, but for a 1964 film they are impressively progressive. Rarely in cinema are women (especially older women) afforded sexual agency, or a sexual appetite at all. The old woman’s lust is candid, human, and treated with respect. Her frustration is empathetic even when her reaction is cruel. She bears a demon mask (stolen from off the face of a slayne samurai) to haunt the young woman, warning her that her sexy times will not go unpunished! The plan ultimately backfires when the mask deforms the old woman’s face. Both the women are justified in their motives. No one is punished for their sexual urges, but the old woman is punished for her judgemental and spiteful cock-blocking.

Woman in the Dunes is a sad allegory for the trap of capitalism. The characters are forced to literally shovel sand. At first the entomologist resists. His single goal is to escape. His partner in imprisonment, who we learn is as much a victim as he is, is frustratingly complacent. She’s okay with shoveling sand, and she has no desire to escape. After all, this sunken house is her home, what would she do out in the world? The cruel circumstances slowly wear him down with each failed escape plan, until he discovers what he believes to be more productive pursuit. Through his elaborate attempts to call for help he discovers a way to mine water from the sand (perhaps this is what Uncle Owen means by “moisture farming” in Star Wars?) He becomes more preoccupied with perfecting this technique than escaping. He transforms from a resistant prisoner, to a reluctant laborer, to a willing participant. When he’s given a golden opportunity to escape, he passes.

Both films are also preoccupied with a single environment. Both locations define the characters’ isolation. Onibaba never leaves the tall reeds of the marsh. The stunning, crisp black and white photography holds on their elegant movement in the breeze. The dancing grass, moving together in hypnotizing, tantalizing waves echo the old woman’s sexual frustration. Similarly the camera in Woman in the Dunes is obsessed with the ever shifting desert sands, constantly cascading over itself. Every sheet of sliding sand reveals more sand. The metaphors can’t get much more literal- the characters are literally trapped within giant walls of sand, when he tries to climb out, he is essentially climbing in place, only to end up back where he started.

Common sense (and a quick google) tells me we’re not the first to find the connection between these two films. Their are so many parallels it’s impossible not to compare the two. I suppose it’s a bit like when  Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached came out within a few months of each other back in 2011. Actually it’s exactly like that.

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