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It is very odd to read this book, to be reading it, to have read it; because I have known and loved the film since I was in high school. Woman in the Dunes came out as a novel in 1962, but Abe was already at work on the film script. The movie, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, came out in 1964, and is one of the great masterpieces of world cinema. I have never seen sand photographed the way that it is in that movie. It is one of those films that actually changed the way I look at an object, at the way that sand moves.

So you see the novel had a lot to live up to, and the film is an extremely faithful adaptation of it. The question is whether the additional input from Teshigahara and the other people who worked on the movie makes the work a better or a worse one in its trip across media.

The premise is of course the same in both. A man, whose name we don't initially know, travels into the country on an insect-collecting trip. He reaches an isolated village, surrounded by massive sand dunes that peter into ocean. Misses the last bus back. Is offered a place to stay for the night, and is lowered into a house in a sandpit, a house so deep in a sandpit that one needs a ladder to reach it at all. A woman lives there, alone, her husband and child buried in a previous avalanche. Her life is one of backbreaking labor, digging the sand away from the house, putting it into barrels, having it hauled out of the pit. Without this labor the house will be buried very quickly.

In the morning when her guest wakes up, there is no ladder.

It becomes obvious that the villagers will never let him go, and that the two of them can easily be made to work, because they don't get water or food if they don't. The man tries scheme after scheme. The sand trickles, flows, seeps, insinuates, itches, rots clothing and wood. The woman works. The sand hauled out of the ground is sold to a construction company, but the salt content is too high: the concrete made out of this sand will rot and crumble. The man is distressed by this. The woman doesn't care. Digging sand is the life of her house and her village; her dead are buried here; it would be, she says, the same anywhere else.

There are levels on which this is an allegory, of course, about human nature and the nature of work and the world, hardship, degradation and surprising redemption. There are levels on which it is about identity and the questions of Japanese identity in the wake of WWII, whether clinging to a village way of life is destructive or communal, whether the city is dehumanizing or freeing, and what individual personhood has to do with that. It is, also, genuinely about these two people and their personal reactions to each other and the sand, whether they are trapped, and whether they think they are trapped, and whether the status of whether or not they are trapped is affected by what they think about the matter.

The novel spends a lot of time inside the man's head. We get snatches of his daily life, in the city, what he thinks about that life, his previous relationships. We get the close-ups of his desperation, the intricacies of his plans, the moments when he is sure that something in him is breaking, the exhilaration when he thinks he might be getting somewhere.

The movie, as it must, has a much more exterior perspective. We can't see his plans until he carries them out. We must read his state of mind by his face.

Both are absolutely full of sand, the sound of it, the eternal presence of it, sand in teeth, sand in water jug, sand in clothes, sand falling in on one's head all the time, sand superheated by the sun. Teshigahara said about this story that there were three characters, the Man, the Woman, and the Sand. He is right. The novel has more freedom to indulge in philosophy, thoughts about the ways sand is fluid, the way it wears at things, the questions about why sand grains become such a uniform set of sizes (there is only a very limited range of sizes of grains of sand). The film has, as I said before, the greatest photography of sand ever performed.

I think that in this circumstance I like the movie better, because in the novel, I honestly think we lose something by knowing too much about the protagonist. He has Freudian theories that have since been disproved, and he has misogynistic tendencies that are annoying, and we get much more invested in his plans. Also he sees the woman from outside, so we don't get her subjectivity. In the film she is as much the protagonist as he, because the viewer can decipher from each of them only what the viewer can read from the facial expressions, dialogue, and so on. They are equal forces in the film, and although they probably are in the novel, the weight of the book is tipped to the man. Also, I really do like not having to put up with the misogyny and Freudianism. I suspect that the lack of these is one reason the film has lasted and will continue to last-- it's a very timeless movie. And I miss the soundtrack, which is music so cleverly threaded with the sounds of blowing sand that the two are inextricable.

There is, however, one thing about the novel I like better, which is that it is illustrated by Maiko Abe in a gorgeously sparse, spare style of precision linework. There's one illustration which just amazed me, which is at one and the same time a picture of the woman asleep on a reed mat, with a towel over her face to keep the sand out of her eyes and mouth, and a picture of the dunes leading to the sea and the small creek cutting through them. The towel is the creek, the reed mat is the beach grass, the curves of her body are both precisely recognizable as human curves and not so definite as to fail to be believable dunes. It's an utterly breathtaking drawing.

In general, though, this is one of those rare circumstances where I would urge you to see the movie rather than read the novel. Criterion has very kindly put it out on DVD, and I think it may even stream on Netflix-- I know it did at one point. Still, I am glad to have read the book, to have the reference point. It makes me appreciate the movie even more.


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