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The Dark & Vast Sands

 Suna no onna / The Woman of the Dunes

of Unexpected Eroticism

 by M. Dante` / Black Dahlia Creative (BDC)

Woman in the Dunes (砂の女, or Suna no onna) is an existential novel written by Kōbō Abe  published in 1962. In 1964 Hiroshi Teshigahara directed a brutally erotic avant garde film based on the novel Starring Eiji Okada and Kyoko Kishida. A smash success at the Cannes Festival thanks to Abe’s screenplay conversion of his novel, and director Hiroshi's erotically charged vision for the film adaption along with Toru Takemitsu's chilling score to the film.  Many literary critics commented how sad it was that this is what made Abe’ a success when he had produced so much quality writing during his life. The film, though, brought the story to an international audience and into eternal acclaim.


The Woman in the Dunes explores both political totalitarianism, and in the same story – as metaphor – an intensely frightening relationship of forced slavery, pure without costume or regalia; and the unexpected loyalty which bonds deeper than love  or sex -   Imagine your identity literally dissolving into nothing more than a grain of sand in the hollow of a woman’s hand!  The film explores that vast emptiness that led many Japanese youth to run towards the cities, towards a state of "Tokyo Decadence"; the youth ran way from the rural outlands in search of a vibrancy to life that was gone from the country side - leading the rural dwellers to find subserviants very different from Ai, yet very real in consequence!


Kobo Abe’, pronounced AH-bay KOH-boh, died in 1993 at the age of 69.  Raised in Manchuria when it was still considered a puppet regime of the Japanese, Abe’s work is compared in greatness to Yukio Mishima, prolific author of achievements such as Confessions of Mask, The Sound of Waves and  Madame de Sade (a contemplation of the feminine perspective on the writings of the Marquis de Sade).  Abe  explored the existential disconnect happening in human beings, along with the contradicting need for love and a bonding, collective experience. His upbringing, somewhat revealed through his writing, exudes an exotic logic that is rare and eloquent. There is something in the slow, specific poetic language and brutally clear perspectives conveyed in Abe’s work that has made me carry this book for years.   It is truly written in a stark language that is magic to perceive.   It is no wonder this arenose sojourn won  so many international awards including the 1964 Cannes Film Festival Jury Special Prize, 1965 Kinema Jumpo award for Best Director and Best Film and a 1965 Blue Ribbon Award.


Abe’ was not a student of literature, he studied of medicine.  He never desired to practice in the field, though he graduated from Tokyo Imperial University.  He then went on to associate with various art and intellectual groups.  He experimented with the radical Yori no kai (Night Association), and through the leader, philosopher Hanada Kiyoteru, Abe’ joined the Japanese Communist Party.  His writing during this time has not really been translated into English, and most of what has been translated is far beyond the scope of the average reader.  Critiques of his work are enjoyed by advanced literature and culture students.  Luckily, with evolutions in the reader’s market, such as with Barnes & Noble Cafe and, literature of this kind is coming closer to the general public than in the last few decades. It would be a shame for Woman in the Dunes to be considered too intellectual or political for the hobbyist reader.  For though we would like to say that forced slavery is only possible a continent or two away, we can -if we look closely - actually see some resemblance to our world.  Possibly…  




This is a very slow moving tale, like a subtle breeze on a very hot summer day.  It is very simple in plot, location and characters, yet is excruciatingly complex in the mechanical elements of each chapter.  The dynamics between the two main characters grow almost painful to watch.  You feel a voyeur to a futile, cruel situation. It is kind of like watching an insect die in a window beneath magnified hot sun.


I use the analogy of an insect because it is a good way to introduce the protagonist of the story.  His name is Niki Jumpei.  His date of birth was 7 March 1924.  He disappeared on 18 August 1955.  He was an entomologist. Niki was a teacher, and an amateur entymologist – he studied and collected bugs.


One day in August a man disappeared. 

He had simply set out for the seashore on a holiday, scarcely half a day away by train, and nothing more was ever heard of him.  

Investigation by the police and inquiries in the newspapers had proved fruitless.


He took the bus to the seashore, taking a holiday to go in search of insect specimens within the depths of the sandy shoreline.  No one knew he was going to the far away shore.  He had decided that he would find a new species, not yet on catalogue, and that he would be revered by his colleagues for doing so.  He would, smugly, share his tale after he had succeeded.  Once the bus let him off, he walked and walked.  He walked passed strips of rice paddies and hillocks.  He walked through a village, and he walked onward.   He walked and walked wondering where the shore could be, as it had to be near.  By the time the landscape revealed white, dry sand beginning beneath his feet, he had walked far and long, yet still had further to go. 


              Sometime went by, but the seas still could not be seen.  Perhaps the hilly terrain obstructed the view. 

The unchanging landscape stretched endlessly on.  Then suddenly, the perspective broadened and a hamlet  came into sight. It was a commonplace, rather poor village, whose roofs weighted down with stones, lay clustered around a high fire tower.  Some of the roofs were shingles with black tile; others of zinc, painted red.  A zinc-roofed building at the hamlet’s single crossroad seemed to be the meeting house of a fisherman’s cooperative.


              Beyond, there were probably more dunes, and the sea.  Still, the hamlet was spread out to an unexpected extent.  There were some  fertile patches, but the soil consisted mainly of dry white sand.  There were filed of potatoes and peanuts and the odor of domestic animals   mingled with that of the sea.  A pile of broken shells formed a white mound at the side of the clay-and-sand road, which was hard as  cement.  As the man passed down the street, children were playing in an empty lot in front of the cooperative, some old men were sitting on the sagging veranda repairing their nets, and thin-haired women weregathered in front of the single general store.

All movement ceased for a moment as they looked curiously at him.  But the man paid no attention.  Sand and insects were all that concerned him.


              However, the size of the village was not the only surprising thing. Contrary to what one would expect, the road was gradually rising.            

Since it led to the sea, it would be more natural for it to descend.


He did eventually come to the sea.  He did begin his search for insects within the sand and breeze.  The day was much later on into itself than what he had anticipated, and he lost track of time.  Hours later men appeared on the beach.  They wanted to know if he was an inspector.  When he stated he was not, and bid them good day, they asked if he knew that the last bus had left.  He did not know, but he was not upset.  He would simply get a room for the night and leave in the morning. Surely, the fishermen’s village had to have a room which he could pay to stay in for the night.  They did not, they explained, however a local resident would surely be able to accommodate him for the evening.  The arrangements were made for him to stay with a woman. 


Sand: an aggregate of rock fragments.  sometimes including loadstone, tinstone,

and more rarely gold dust.  diameter: 2 to 1/66 mm.


He had read that definition in the encyclopedia, but he pondered the definition of sand.  He pondered how it could be the same in the Gobi desert as it is at the beaches of Enoshima.  As an entomologist, he pondered the scientific boundaries of the definition of sand with an almost occult fascination.  Sand.  It was nothing.  It was not suitable for life.  His search for new species living in the sand had not been as fruitful as he had anticipated.  He had seen Orthoptera - small winded cricked and white-whiskered earwigs.  He had seen Rhynchota - red striped soldier bugs.  He had not found new life.  The sand, he decided was not fit for life.  He met the old man he had met on the beach earlier at the collective.  He was fatigued beyond belief, in need of rest; he was grateful a local widow would be allowing him stay for the night.


He was escorted to one of the cavities on the ridge of the dunes at one end of the village.  From the ridge a narrow path went down the slope to the right. 
After they 
had walked a while, the old man leaned over into the darkness, and clapping his hands, shouted in a loud voice,  "Hey!  Granny!  Hey there!”


From the depths of the darkness at their feet, a lamp flickered, and there was an answer. “Here I am!  Here!"?  There is a ladder over by the sand bags. Indeed, without the ladder he could not have possibly have got down.  He would have to catch hold on the cliff with his bare hands.  It was almost three times the height of the house top, and even with the ladder it was still not easy to manage.And so, he descends down a rope ladder, into his host’s home; a woman of about thirty, not an elderly woman at all!  She had very, very white skin - like the color of the sand.  He was grateful as she cheerfully welcomed him, her pleasure obvious.

She was very polite and kind.  She made him feel welcomed, despite the oddity of her environment.


The walls were peeling, matting had been hung up in place of sliding doors, the upright supports were warped, boards had replaced all the windows, the straw mats were on the point of rotting and when one walked on them they made a noise like a wet sponge.

Not wanting to be rude, he avoided comment, but when he realized after sitting down, there were sand fleas, he asked to take a bath before dinner. 

She asked if he could not wait until the day after tomorrow.  He laughed, saying he would not be there the day after tomorrow. 


Seven years later, Niki Jumpei would be declared officially missing and maybe also dead by the Court of Domestic Relations.


A declaration of disappearance concerning the above mentioned party having been filed, the procedure of public notice having been fulfilled, and the unascertainability of either existence or the death of the person in question from 18 August 1955, for seven years hence, having been recognized, the following decision has been handed down.



Niki Jumpei is hereby declared missing.



Seven days after he descended down the rope ladder, he was just beginning to get that he was not meant to ever leave; he did not believe that they could make him stay.  His role in this woman’s home was to, for about twelve hours every day, shovel away the sand that would daily progress towards burying the house entirely. 


There is no radio, there are no books.  There is no food or water without subservience to the work.  There is only the time that passes each day in the home of the woman, and his work maintaining the house from completely dissolving into the dunes. 


It is one home of an entire village that is hidden beneath the constantly approaching sand.  He is one of many outsiders found and lured in to prevent the homes from being destroyed.  He feels this is absurd and futile - Why not move Why not build new homes?  But as the woman calmly explains, it is simply the way that it is.  The stretch he had ascended to go towards the beach earlier in the day, was actually a village covered by sand.



A secret beneath the dunes.


  The only way to go beyond work is through work, it is not that work itself is valuable; we surmount work by work.
 The real value of work lies in the
strength of self denial.


And in denial he would dwell as his intellectual capacity is left to rot, like the house would rot if it were not for assistance in keeping it from drowning in the sand.  There is not much besides the sand, the woman and the man.  The magnificence of this book is the way it forces you to read the next chapter. You would think a book with no change of scenery; no addition of characters; no sensationalized shocking, steamy format climax, that it would grow as dull as counting grains of sand at the beach.  Not at all!


 There is vibrancy and thought provoking elegance to the descriptions of man’s will, and his need for denial when his will is attacked.  There is such a vast world in this small home by the sea.  It is the story of forced labor, of the attack by governments and puppet regimes on intellectuals and creatives - it is the story of realities we, in America, say can not exist; at least not for us!  It is a story about being forced away from what you love and what you innately do, so that you can work only for the benefit of someone and something you do not believe in, but have no alternative to; it is truly very painful to contemplate.  In a surreal, postmodern simplicity, the tale transcends the limitations of the situation to show us how complex a reality the breaking down of human will really is when - near the end of the book - he finally has the opportunity to escape:  He fails, of course, and finds comfort once returned that he no longer is running scared in the dry white sand / dark as the night into which he tried disappearing. 


By the conclusion, he is left alone when the woman is need of hospital care.  He looks at the rope ladder that was accidentally left after she brought up to the ambulance.  He does not bother running for it.  He realizes he could escape again, and that no one would know. But, first - There are things he has to do, things around the home.   He might as well put off his escape until sometime after that.  If not today, then tomorrow....


Niki Jumpei was never seen again.

With Niki Jumpei's decision to stay in the house of sand with the woman to whom he was assigned, The Woman in the Dunes became one of the most unexpected and emotionally charged erotic classics in cinematic history. In viewing this film we are forced to ponder what - and whom - defines our existence, state of worth and points of pleasure;  all exists within each grain of sand.