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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Woman In The Dunes: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Woman In The Dunes: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Criterion // Unrated // August 23, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted August 11, 2016 | E-mail the Author

One of Japan's most celebrated avant-garde filmmakers, Hiroshi Teshigahara chose an interesting path during a life rich with opportunity. As the son of Sofu Teshigahara, the young man showed a natural interest in painting and sculpture, though his mind gradually drew him towards the world of cinema. His collaborations with author Kobo Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu yielded a handful of unique and stylish films that helped push international cinema during the 1960s and beyond. These three collaborations---Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes, and the underrated The Face of Another---were released as a DVD boxed set in 2007 that recently went out-of-print; luckily, the best of the bunch has been resurrected as a stand-alone Criterion Blu-ray featuring a new 4K restoration.

Woman in the Dunes (1964) stands tall as Teshigahara's most acclaimed film, and for very good reason. Though only the second formal collaboration between the three artists, this tale of man vs. woman vs. nature shows a marked improvement in execution and accessibility. Based on the best-selling novel by Abe, Woman in the Dunes follows an amateur entomologist (Eiji Okada, Hiroshima mon amour) as he scours the desert for rare insects. After missing the last bus back to Tokyo, the man is invited to stay the night in a nearby village. A helpful older man leads him to the modest home of a young widow, who lives at the bottom of a deep sand dune accessible only by rope ladder. Initially grateful for the hospitality, the man soon discovers that he's trapped in his new environment after the ladder disappears. The woman whittles her time away by shoveling the sand that falls from above; otherwise, her rickety hut would eventually be buried. Reluctant to embrace (or even tolerate) this drastic turn of events, the man must choose between stubbornness and compliance as the days, months, and years slowly tick away.

Even those completely new to Teshigahara or Abe's work should immediately realize that Woman in the Dunes asks compelling questions that never get clearly answered, thank goodness. It's almost dauntingly long at 148 minutes---not to mention that most of the film takes place in extremely close quarters---yet the story's raw power and emotion carry the weight completely. We get a sense of the man's predicament exactly when he does: trapped along with him, this oddly plausible scenario represents any obstacle that we reluctantly attempt to dig through. In their sealed-off environment not far removed from the insects he collects in containers, the man and woman fight with the sand that threatens to bury them...just as it buried her child and former husband, who are never seen. Whether they're working together or butting heads, one thing's for certain: the man and his de facto wife remain in general seclusion from the "authorities" above. Aside from a weekly delivery of rations and other small moments of interaction, their contact with the outside world is completely sealed off: the men above are gods toying with their creation, even though one of the Sisyphean laborers has long since been beaten into submission.

More than 50 years after its original release, Woman in the Dunes still impresses with its thematic layers and dense, foreboding atmosphere. It's perhaps the most timeless of the director's early films, largely due to its unusual locale (which might as well represent another planet) and deceptively universal appeal. Quite simply, Woman in the Dunes offers a perfect pairing of style, drama and symbolism that hasn't aged a bit. It even earned Teshigaraha two Oscar nominations...including Best Director in 1965, though he lost to Robert Wise for The Sound of Music.

Sourced from a recent 4K restoration, Criterion's new 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer of Woman in the Dunes represents a strong leap in quality over their own 2007 DVD. This is an incredibly clean picture loaded with detail and texture, none more apparent than the tiny grains of sand in close-up or the massive, intimidating walls that isolate our hapless main characters. Grain structure, contrast levels, shadow detail, and overall depth are also much improved, making this the film's best home video presentation to date. It's also not window-boxed (a surprising and unfortunate practice that Criterion utilized to minimize the effects of overscan on tube TVs), which means that we don't have to settle for a slightly smaller resolution size. That, combined with Criterion's sterling track record for Blu-ray production, should give fans confidence that this likely represents the closest we'll get to visual perfection for now.

DISCLAIMER: The still images and promotional photos on this page are decorative and do not represent the Blu-ray under review.

Not to be outdone, the Japanese PCM 1.0 audio mix also appears to be in better condition than its DVD counterpart. Dialogue is relatively crisp, while the music cues by Toru Takemitsu are balanced nicely with an expected amount of clipping during louder moments. Overall, there's a decent amount of improvement overall, though lossless audio is still bound to be overshadowed by the phrase "4K" in most circles. Optional English subtitles are included.

As usual, Criterion's interface is smooth and easy to navigate. The 148-minute main feature has been divided into 27 chapters, and no obvious layer changes were detected during playback. This one-disc release is packaged in Criterion's standard "stocky" keepcase with artwork that mimics the 2007 boxed set. Similarly, a refreshingly thick Booklet (remember those?) reprints an essay by film scholar Audie Bock and a 1978 interview with the director.

Everything from Criterion's 2007 boxed set, aside from a few extras created for the other two films. These recycled supplements include a Video Essay by film critic and festival programmer James Quandt, the mid-length documentary "Teshigahara and Abe", the film's Theatrical Trailer, and four interesting Short Films by the director (Hokusai, Ikebana, Tokyo 1958, and Ako) produced between 1953 and 1965. Optional subtitles are included for translation only.

Like most who weren't around (let alone exposed to international cinema) during the 1960s, I only heard about films like Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes decades after their original release. Criterion's DVD boxed set was a revelation for yours truly, collecting three impressive (and until then, hard-to-find) films in one lovingly produced package, and I'm glad I've held on to it now that it's long out-of-print. Though I'm glad Woman in the Dunes has gotten the Blu-ray upgrade it deserves, I'm sincerely hoping that Pitfall and The Face of Another will earn a (double feature?) release in the near future. If they're half as good as this single-disc package, with it's top-tier A/V presentation and generous supplements, fans of the director have much to look forward to. Highly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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