School teacher and amateur entomologist Niki Junpei (Eiji Okada) is on a day trip to a small seaside village, on a hunt for some tiger beetles. But he gets a bit lost amid the dunes, and when he asks a local man (Kōji Mitsui) where he can get the bus back home, he’s told the last bus already left. But don’t worry, someone in the village can put him up for the night; in fact, there’s a local lady, a recent widow (Kyōko Kishida), who’d probably appreciate the company. Junpei is game enough, thinking it’d be a charming “local color” kind of experience, so he’s not alarmed when they bring him to a deep pit with a shack built into the bottom, and urge him to climb down a rope ladder to meet his hostess.
He also doesn’t think anything of it when she heads outside after dinner to dig in the sand, filling up buckets which the other villagers pull up on a pulley. It helps to keep the pit clear, she says, and the village sells the sand to a cement company. Junpei chivalrously offers to help, but she says no – strangely adding that he doesn’t need to work “on his first day.” Junpei reminds her that he’s leaving in the morning, but otherwise doesn’t think anything of it and goes to bed. He still doesn’t question it when the widow is fast asleep the following morning; he dresses as quietly as he can, gathers up his things and tiptoes out the door.
….Only to find that the rope ladder is gone. The whole thing was a trap – the widow is a virtual prisoner in the pit, and the villagers now expect him to live with her, helping her dig sand in exchange for food and water lowered down to them from the pulley. And, in time, becoming her next husband.
This is a weird story. A lot of the elements don’t really make sense if you think about it too hard – where are all the other houses in the village? How does no other tourist discover this pit the whole time Junpei is there? If the sand is so precarious, isn’t their digging just going to make things worse? Isn’t anyone going to look for Junpei? But somehow the story stays just this side of believable, in that gray area between “true story” and “fairy tale”, and gradually you realize those are the wrong questions. You should be asking deeper ones instead – like, does it make sense to try escaping the way Junpei does? Or does it make more sense to accept your fate, like the widow? Does trying to get a peek at the outside world help you or distract you? Should you try to get little luxuries like a radio or just be content with what you have? Junpei himself asks at one point, “Are you shoveling to survive, or surviving to shovel?”
It’s heady stuff that doesn’t really hit you until later. And at the end – once you’ve recovered from the shock of learning just how long Junpei’s been in the pit – you realize that his final actions make a lot of sense.