by Jason Suzuki
One of the landmarks of Japanese cinema has been given the high-definition treatment by Criterion despite breaking up the set they originally released it with. Woman in the Dunes is a converging of some amazing players in the art world: filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara, novelist Kobo Abe who also worked closely in this adaptation of his novel, composer Toru Takemitsu, and actors Eiji Okada (Hiroshima mon amour) and Kyoko Kishida (An Autumn Afternoon). In what must be one of the most iconic realizations of Camus' Myth of Sisyphus, Eiji Okada plays a man, a schoolteacher as he defines himself, who is an entomologist in his spare time. While out and about big catching in the dunes he is tricked by the locals into the staying overnight with a woman they have trapped in a shack in a lower plain of the dunes. Stuck with her he must shovel the sand constantly pouring into their surroundings. Ponderings of identity and what it means to be human ensue.
A constant thought when reviewing this disc is why this film and the shorts? When Criterion released their initial set of Teshigahara/Abe collaborations they curated a narrative for the films. One which highlighted the two men and their work together (the majority of it anyway) and their dual focus on themes of identity. By leaving behind Pitfall and The Face of Another Criterion has created another narrative. It's fitting that through omission something new arises, much like the man in the film who has lost his original life for a new one. Still, the presentation of the film has been improved in a manner that the absence of the other two features is felt. Still, the film looks amazing, and the shorts have been given an upgrade as well despite the source material having to been rough.
Hokusai (1953, 23min)
A fairly straightforward, short piece on Hokusai and his work. This is a clear predecessor to Teshigahara's 1984 documentary Antonio Gaudi. The work is displayed mainly without commentary and with little to no distinct authorial choices. The most authorial he gets is through what minor details he chooses to hone in on and give us a closer look.
Ikebana (1956, 31min)
Another educational short, this one finds Teshigahara more playful and more personal as the focus is on his family's trade: the art of ikebana or flower arranging. Teshigahara delves deeply into the subject and also into the idea of arrangement, leading to him treating the film itself as an exercise in arrangement, combing stop-motion cut outs with live action footage. It is the highlight of the three documentary shorts included on the disc.
Tokyo 1958 (1958, 24min)
A collaborative effort, some of the names involved in this collage of footage from post-war Japan include Hani Susumu and Zenzo Matsuyama. It continues the trajectory of remaining informational in tone while inserting more and more distinctly formal experimentations. The blending of the different visuals (a result of all the directors) makes for an exciting watch but it lacks a thematic clarity beyond being a snapshot of a place at a certain time.
Ako (1965, 29min)
From an original story by Kobo Abe, Ako follows a teenage working girl for one day in her life. Going from the dorm where she lives, the pastry factory where she works, and the night out with her friends in order to release some steam. It is a barrage of visuals and striking sound design and just as striking is the lead performance from Miki Irie, who would go on to appear in just one more film before her marriage to composer Ozawa Seiji: The Face of Another. The must see extra of the disc.
Apart from the short films a few other extras were ported over to the high-def disc. First we have the short documentary on the collaboration between Abe and Teshigahara (34:53). Then there is the fantastic visual essay by James Quandt on the film (29:22), he did one for the other two feature films from the Abe/Teshigahara set and one can't help but think they were intended to work together as a whole as Quandt, as should the viewer, will find the connections between all of the works. The original trailer is included as well.
It is unfortunate that the fantastic set, now out of print as could be inferred by the dividing up of it, has only been partially upgraded to the high-definition format. We are essentially getting two of the four discs from Criterion's 2007 box set placed onto the lone Blu-ray. There is hope that Face of Another and Pitfall, with their accompanying video essays, will make it onto a forthcoming disc on her own. This and other films from Teshigahara including another collaboration between him and Abe, The Man without a Map (1968). But what we have here is a great upgrade, an incredibly full package (an actual booklet is included!) for those making the upgrade and an even better release for those who have neither seen or owned this landmark film. Depending on your love of the film or these shorts, particularly Ako, or your hope for a new and improved (comprehensive) set on the collaboration between these great minds from each medium will determine how integral this upgrade will be to your collection. The film looks fantastic and an upgrade is a good reason to revisit the dunes.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.