Kobo Abe

Woman in the Dunes (1964, Teshigahara Hiroshi)

Episodes of the “Twilight Zone” ran thirty minutes, or whatever without commercials, for a very good reason. Stretching a one-note story out to an hour would be too exasperating. Woman in the Dunes stretches it out to, I guess, two and a half hours.

The film starts interestingly enough. An entomologist looking for bugs finds himself in a strange village (where the people live in houses surrounded by sand) and hears about a new species of insect. Having read Abe and seen another film he wrote before, I expected Woman in the Dunes to go somewhere, namely to exploring this strange world. But it doesn’t. It gradually–the scenes are lengthy and padded–becomes clear the film isn’t going anywhere, just like the trapped entomologist and his trapped insects (the symbolism is blatant–actually, it isn’t symbolism… it’s simile). The characters are poorly written. While the man’s captor is just a woman trying to survive, she’s also a raving lunatic, so it isn’t a strike against him when he tries to ransom her for his freedom (if anything, it takes him five or six minutes too long). Except he’s not a good character either, Abe’s fast and loose with him–being an entomologist is his defining trait–and Okada’s either just as lazy (or a rather mediocre actor).

There are some decent shots of sand. Sometimes it falls, sometimes it looks like water running across the surface, but mostly it’s just there. There’s never any point to the shots of the sand. It’s never a symbol of man doing this or that or feeling this or that. It’s all filler and sometimes neat-looking filler. But mostly not.

I can appreciate, like I can appreciate an episode of the “Twilight Zone,” some of the generative reasoning behind the film. I can’t imagine the novel’s similarly paced, since I’ve never heard of its mass burning by attempting readers, but it’s way too long and way too shallow. I guess the director’s cut, which I attempted, runs a half hour longer than the theatrical, which puts a lot of the blame on the, well, the director.

Films appearing to be pretentious and empty are often not difficult to consume–if there were content, even pretentious content, they’d be consumable–they really are just pretentious and empty. And Woman in the Dunes is definitely one of those films. While it’s harmless (except to my time), Abe and, particularly Teshigahara, who fills the film with meaningless shots of sand, knew they were playing to a particular audience and knew they didn’t have to do much work and exploited them.

It’s astounding they not only went on to make an acceptable film, but a decent one (The Face of Another).



Directed and produced by Teshigahara Hiroshi; screenplay by Abe Kôbô, based on his novel; director of photography, Segewa Hiroshi; edited by Shuzui Fusako; music by Takemitsu Toru; production designers, Hirakawa Totetsu and Yamazaki Masao; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Okada Eiji (the entomologist), Kishida Kyoko (the woman) and Ito Hiroko (the entomologist’s wife).

The Face of Another (1966, Teshigahara Hiroshi)

Novelists make interesting screenwriters (though maybe not as much any more). When they adapt their own work, however, it might not be the best idea. The adaptation allows them to package their interpretation of themselves, as opposed to actually adapting a work from one medium to the next. The Face of Another, adapted by Abe Kôbô from his own novel, is a good example of how not to adapt a novel into a film. Besides including some decidedly bad visuals–not everything can be visualized for film and work in the context of a film, after all–he also made some really bad pacing decisions. The first hour of the film, about a man whose face is horribly scarred in an accident, drags along. It opens well with a scene between the man and his wife and the marriage scenes do play well in the film and should have been it’s secondary focus. However, most of the first hour is spent with the man (who is in bandages for that first hour, until he gets a life-like mask in the second) and his psychiatrist. The psychiatrist somehow becomes the film’s focus, which doesn’t fit….

What does fit the film is the rather novelistic juxtaposition between the man and a pretty young girl with a radiation burn (from Nagasaki) on her face. She appears in the second half and the film switches focus a few times. While he’s desperately trying to fix his psychical appearance amid people who really don’t care (except his wife), she’s kind and good and trying to help people even though child point and scream. In her scenes, there’s a real sense of the post-war condition. His scenes aren’t just missing that setting, they’re missing any subtext. The psychiatrist’s mad dreams of lost identity are a poor substitute for anything going on with the man below the surface. Even the relationship with the wife, which disappears for a good forty minutes only to come back with some promise, fizzles in the end. The end really fizzles as the film gets visually theatrical and Abe keeps novelistic elements film is incapable of presenting.

The acting is excellent, which makes the film’s faults all the more glaring. If this cast couldn’t iron them out, they must be bad. The scarred girl, Irie Miki, never appeared in any other films. The lead, Nakadai Tatsuya, has an impressive emotional range given the first the bandages, then the mask, which stays static, and the character is too shallow. As the film’s configured, the suffering wife (Kyō Machiko) should have been the protagonist, but obviously she isn’t. Only the psychiatrist, Hira Mikijiro, gives a less than stellar performance in one of the main roles, but since his character changes so much from scene to scene, it’s not really his fault.

When I started Face of Another, I was expecting something great, but as it drug on and on–and particularly when it failed to stay on the good course it found in the second hour–I really wondered whether or not a novelist should be adapting his own work. Especially Abe (though I’ve only read one of his novels), who seems to have a good setup then a poor resolution.



Directed and produced by Teshigahara Hiroshi; written by Abe Kôbô, based on his novel; director of photography, Segewa Hiroshi; edited by Shuzui Fusako; music by Takemitsu Toru; production designer, Awazu Kiyoshi; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Nakadai Tatsuya (Okuyama), Hira Mikijiro (Doctor), Kishida Kyoko (Nurse), Kyo Machiko (Mrs. Okuyama), Okada Eiji (Director) and Irie Miki (Girl).

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