The act of personal introspection through dedicated commitment is a through line in Japanese tradition and art. Honoring and accepting one’s role or purpose in life and craft is both liberating and constraining simultaneously. No one quite understands the delicate nuance between this conflicting narrative quite like Kōbō Abe (1924-93), Japanese writer, artist, and inventor with a notable political interest. Abe’s own personal journey is reflective of this quiet conflict and what led him to become one of Japan’s most influential creatives of the 20th century. Perhaps this theme is best displayed artistically in his 1962 novel, Women in the Dunes, a Yomiuri Prize-winning piece of literature that catapulted his career and prompted a Japanese New Wave film adaptation directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara in 1964. A film which went on to win the prestigious Cannes Jury Prize as well as being nominated for two Academy Awards.
The story of Women in the Dunes is eerie, and transfixing. Abe achieves masterfully a surreal expression cast by a dark shadow, ultimately succumbing to it’s own defeat. Although the storyline is bizarre and satirical, the feelings felt by the plot’s protagonist are nonetheless entirely relatable, possibly more so for a generation of Japanese viewers who may have felt confined within their own societal roles. The novel and its film adaptation take you through the story of Jumpei Niki, a schoolteacher from Tokyo who takes a day trip to a fishing village to collect insects (a hobby that Abe possessed himself as a child.) Jumpei loses track of time and finds himself stranded on the beach after missing the last bus home. Upon being approached by local villagers he is guided down the sand dunes on a rope ladder to the home of a widow named Kyōko Kishida. There he witnesses her lifestyle, one trapped on the beach tormented by the daily shoveling of sand to maintain its form. After he finds the rope ladder missing, Jumpei soon realizes he too is trapped at the home, forced to shovel sand and procreate with Kyōko. The remainder of the film unpacks 7 years of the psychological implications of his fate; from attempting to escape, finding value and purpose in a water collecting project, evaluating his life back home, giving up one opportunity for freedom, and ultimately accepting his new life. Through witnessing his experience, we are exposed to an intimate observation into one's own human inquiry. Realizing the true breadth of deep human emotion, we are taken on a whirlwind journey of anger, fear, love, and acceptance of which purpose is discovered and existence is defined.
The film was released just months after Abe was finally able to break ties with the Japanese Communist Party, which he had been attempting for years prior. Critically acclaimed and an immediate success, the film both reflected Abe's own trials and tribulations while offering solace to those struggling with purpose and identity in a similar manner. As examples of true art, the novel and film are each successful in many regards, both being prime examples of the subtle and intricate proficiency in Japanese artistic expression.
Written by Alexis Kanter
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