Reviews and notes
A young man wandering along a beach in search of entomological specimens is kidnapped by villagers and lowered into a sandpit to join a woman who spends her life shovelling sand, ostensibly to prevent the village from being engulfed. He makes several attempts to escape, but is still there after seven years, and when finally the chance does come, he prefers to remain in the pit. The subject has obvious affinities with Beckett, and one can read it as another statement of the hopeless absurdity of existence: the man can't escape because he has nothing to escape to. One can also, if one likes, pick up intimations of social comment in the dialogue, in the man's early complaints about the papers and permits which smother his life, the bitter exchange when the man asks, "Are you living to clear sand, or clearing sand to live?" and the woman later replies, "If there were no sand, nobody would notice me." But these aspects seem to me unimportant. The real subject of the film is the man's descent into solitude and himself.
From normality (lying lazily in the sun, on the beach, being asked by the villagers if he needs shelter for the night), he finds himself in a kind of nightmare in the sandpit, where his world is turned upside-down. At first, he refuses to believe that he is a prisoner; he rejects the woman's warnings about the way sand encroaches, attracting water and gradually destroying everything. Nevertheless, he finds himself absorbed into a world where the ground crumbles under his feet, and sand trickles remorselessly over everything, rotting wooden beams and eating into human skin. The outside world, now reduced to a fringe of faces peering over the edge of the pit, has become equally hostile, and when he does succeed in escaping, he finds only black night before stumbling into another pit and being recaptured.
The climax of his experience comes in the curious scene where the villagers agree to let him out for a little while if he will make love to the woman in front of them. She refuses, so he attempts to rape her, in what can only be described as a vision of hell as drums beat wildly and the ring of villagers chant exultantly behind demonic masks, circling the pit in some horrible primitive ritual. Hell, here, really is other people: the presence of the woman is a constant reminder that he is a prisoner, and the villagers above are a mockery of his futile will to escape. It is only after the woman, now ill and pregnant, is removed from the pit and he is left alone, that he achieves tranquillity. He is allowed out of the pit for a few minutes, during which he stares blankly at an empty, meaningless stretch of sea before being taken back to the pit. There he discovers that the rope ladder has been left in position and nobody is watching, but he turns away. The woman has gone, the villagers have gone, and as he settles down to solitude, he has no need of escape. With them, the sandpit was a prison; without them it is a limitless space in which he has all the time in the world for the fascinating natural phenomena he wants to consider.
Teshigahara's great achievement in this film is that he has been able to convey graphically the idea of a world in disintegration - the way the inside swallows up the outside. The opening images are of an ordinary hot day by the sea. A man wanders listlessly, photographing insects, stretching out wearily on a boat half-sunk in the sand, chatting indifferently to passers-by. Once inside the sandpit, the feeling turns to strangeness - the high, unscalable sand walls, the umbrella held over the dinner table to ward off the steady trickle of sand, the sudden rumbling subsidences, the woman sleeping naked under a thin blanket of sand. Then, gradually, perspectives begin to shift, become distorted or magnified until they have no identity. An insect looms up like a dragon; a trickle of sand looks like a landslide, or a rush of water down a hill; the walls of the pit soar like high mountains; and human skins, pitted with sand and moisture, become like some weird lunar landscape. At the end, however, there is only peace: a man, a sandpit, and an idea which will take a lifetime of contemplation to unravel.
-Tom Milne, Sight and Sound.
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