I Saw a Dream Like This...
Since the beginning of time, men have grappled with one of the most mysterious facets of their lives: dreams. Nobody is exactly sure what they are or why we have them, but they are an essential part of the human experience. Few have been as obsessed with the realm of dreams as the artist. For centuries, dreams have inspired some of the most controversial and unique works of art that mankind has ever produced. Works of literature like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan (1816) all originated from dreams. The paintings of William Blake and Salvador Dalí adhere to dream logic and imagery. And, finally, many works of cinema found their roots in the dreams of their creators. Prominent directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky, David Lynch, and Federico Fellini created films based off their dreams. At the very least, they were modeled after the imagery and atmosphere of their respective dreamscapes. But in addition to these cinematic luminaries, there is a curious work by another great film icon that demands attention. This movie is Akira Kurosawa's Dreams. A strange work, it reconstructs eight actual dreams by the legendary filmmaker. Taken from various parts of his lifetime, his eight dreams offer a penetrating glimpse into the inner workings of one of the most important artists of the century.
But before I delve into the film itself, it is important to establish a cultural frame of reference from which to approach these dreams. Ancient cultures had different ways of interpreting dreams. The ancient Egyptians believed that the gods revealed themselves in dreams in order to either demand things, give warnings, or take part in dream rituals. The ancient Babylonians believed that there was a strong religious meaning to dreams. Good dreams were sent by gods while bad dreams were sent by demons. To the Assyrians, they were omens. To the Romans, they revealed the wishes of the gods. But to the Japanese, dreams had a very different purpose. Studies have shown that during the prehistoric Jomon period, dreams were believed to be part of reality. Later, it was believed that dreams were vehicles wherein ancestral spirits made visits and answered pressing questions. However, as time went by and foreign influences increased in Japanese society, dreams began to lose their value as mystic couriers of otherworldly insight and/or advice. However, dreams still have an important part in Japanese society. A prime example is 夢十夜 (Yume Jūya), or Ten Nights of Dreams by Natsume Sōseki, a collection of dreams that take place during the age of the gods, the Kamakura period, the Meiji period, and the future. After reading part of this collection, I noticed several intrinsic Buddhist, Confucian, and even Shinto values and themes woven into the text. This reflected the Japanese zeitgeist of the Meiji period when it was written. Obviously, dreams still held an important place in the Japanese mindset.
So how should we approach the eight reconstructed dreams in Kurosawa's Dreams? It is probably important to remember that while Kurosawa frequently worked with modern themes such as post World War Two reconstruction and the search for the Japanese identity in the modern world, Kurosawa was a director who frequently returned to the past for inspiration. Much of his finest work, such as Rashomon (1951), Seven Samurai (1954), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961), Kagemusha (1980), and Ran (1985) took place in the past. Therefore, it would be safe to assume that he identified with many of the values and beliefs held by the characters in his historical epics. Since this included a deeper respect and appreciation of dreams, it can only be determined that Kurosawa saw dreams as more than just the excess electrical spasms of sleeping brain tissue. With this insight established, now we can investigate the episodes that make up Kurosawa's Dreams.
The dreams can be divided up into three categories: 1) folktales, 2) stories concerning modern society, 3) nightmares. Each category of dreams demands inspection. Therefore the rest of this review will analyze each one separately. There are three dream folktales. Interestingly enough, they are also the first three dreams of the movie. The first is Sunshine Through the Rain, which concerns an old Japanese legend that when the sun shines through the rain, the kitsune (foxes) get married. One day a young boy witnesses a kitsune wedding procession. He is spotted by the kitsune and flees home. However, the spirits have already been to his house. His mother says that they left him a knife to kill himself with. Now, he must try and find the kitsune and beg their forgiveness. The dream ends with him running into the mountains. The next is my personal favorite among the folktales, The Peach Orchard. The plot is rather simple. In Japanese society, Hina Matsuri, the Doll Festival, takes place when the peach blossoms are in full bloom. One boy's family has chopped down the peach trees, so the boy feels guilty during the festival. He spots a girl running out the front door of his house. He follows her to the old peach orchard where his sister's collection of dolls come to life. Since they realize that he truly loved the peach blossoms, they allow him to see them one more time while they perform a slow and heartbreakingly beautiful dance set to etenraku, or music brought from heaven. The final folktale is a retelling of the Yuki-onna Japanese myth. Entitled The Blizzard, it follows four mountaineers who encounter a yuki-onna, or snow woman, while they try to return to camp.
While all three folktales are original stories, they are all based on established parts of Japanese culture. Sunshine Through the Rain deals with native folklore. The Peach Orchard deals with Japanese holidays and spirits. Finally, The Blizzard concerns itself with legendary Japanese creatures and spirits placed into modern day society. I have always supported cinema as a method of cultural expression. Movies have the ability to transmit great cultural stories and values. Kurosawa is no stranger to this. Movies such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo have entered the Japanese zeitgeist. While tales of kitsune and yuki-onna may have derived from poems, stories, or legends, they all share a common distinction of being established centuries before the advent of cinema. Here in Dreams, Kurosawa has created new stories concerning these subjects that could easily pass as ancient legends or myths. That is one of the reasons why I believe that Dreams is such a powerful movie: it creates stories that could one day be accepted into traditional Japanese society. At least, that is my opinion.
The second category of dreams concern modern society. Village of the Watermills concerns a young man, who may or may not be Kurosawa, coming across a peaceful village. An old man explains that this village rejected modern technology a long time ago. This has led to the entire village having greater spiritual health. The young man then witnesses a joyous funeral procession for an old woman. When asked why they are so happy during a funeral, the old man answers before joining the procession that it is proper to celebrate a good end to a good life.
The other modern day story is Crows. While it may not be the best dream, it is certainly one of the most fascinating. It concerns a young art student (wearing Kurosawa's trademark hat) who wonders into the world of Vincent Van Gogh's artwork. He eventually meets the artist who brushes him off saying that he needs to focus on his work. The dream ends with the student wondering through the universe of his most famous paintings. What makes this dream so interesting are the implications concerning the people involved in its production. Van Gogh is actually played by director Martin Scorsese. The visual effects were created by George Lucas and his special effects group Industrial Light and Magic. Those who know the history of Kurosawa's career will instantly recognize the importance of these directors. While Kurosawa was recognized as one of the greatest film directors of all time, he could almost never get funding for his later movies. It was only after American directors (who he had influenced) signed on as producers or supporters was Kurosawa able to make his films. For instance, one of the only reasons why Kurosawa gained financial support for Kagemusha was because Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas signed on as producers. The segment Crows represents a kind of cosmic return of karma for Kurosawa. His films like Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress directly influenced American directors. After they became popular, they were able to return the favor by supporting their sensei. As someone once said, “The circle is complete...”
But to really delve into Kurosawa's psyche, we must delve into the third category of dreams, the nightmares. There are three of them, and they are all devastating. Two of them deal with the nuclear bomb. Mount Fuji in Red concerns the meltdown of a large nuclear power plant on Mount Fuji. Millions flee into the ocean, but five survivors are left behind to face the realization that they will be dying from the radiation. The Weeping Demon concerns a man meeting an oni, or a horned demon from Japanese mythology. It turns out that the oni is a real man who had been mutated by nuclear fallout. He points out a pit where many other horned people writhe on the ground, doomed to suffer for eternity. But the nightmare that I want to focus on is The Tunnel. It concerns a Japanese army officer traveling home after World War Two. As he exits a giant tunnel, he realizes that someone is following him. He turns around to notice the ghost of Private Noguchi following him. Noguchi wants to return to his home because he does not know that he is dead. But the officer convinces him that he is dead and forces him to return back into the tunnel even though he literally can see his house. Horrifically, he then witnesses his entire platoon come out of the tunnel's darkness. They too want to return home and proudly report that they have suffered no casualties. The officer breaks down and confesses his guilt over dooming them all during the war. He tearfully orders them to about face and march back into the tunnel.
The Tunnel is a powerful story because it could become an actual folktale. I wish that Kurosawa had identified which tunnel it was inside the story. If he did, I wish I could visit it in Japan. I would expect to hear stories from the locals about a military man who had a vision over by the tunnel. That is the power of this story, and all of the stories in Kurosawa's Dreams. They transcend simple stories and become the prototypes for a new age of mythology. The stories here may one day enter Japanese culture the same way his film Seven Samurai did. Regardless of whether or not they do, Dreams remains one of Kurosawa's most intimate and personal movies. They explore his hopes and fears for himself, society, and his native Japan. While it may not be the most popular film that Kurosawa made, it is the most important for those who wish to understand the man behind the movie camera and what drove him to make masterpiece after masterpiece.