Having established a legacy in film making, Akira Kurosawa’s final years as a film maker has been rather mysterious in terms of his cinematic products. He went beyond what was conventionally acceptable as a film during the time and made ‘Dreams’, a compendium of his own dreams depicted in illustrative ways in eight different vignettes. It wasn’t a commercial success, but it has been one of the most discussed movies of Kurosawa. While on one end it has been claimed by many to be a genius compilation of simple dreams written and presented in engrossing ways, on another end is The Washington Post which has had only negative things to say about Dreams.
For a neutral viewer who has only watched Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams with an open minded taste for classics, I have known that the movie does not disappoint. It provides eight beautiful vignettes of varied kinds of dreams, mostly unrelated to each other, other than the underlying moral themes. They’re exactly like what they’re named to be – dreams – as they don’t relate, don’t make the most logical sense and end rather abruptly with not much explanation. Yet, Kurosawa has managed to fit his apparent dreams within frameworks of artistic depiction that make them appealing to people other than himself. You might need some extra amount of patient will power to sit through the complete movie with the same amount of interest; but I dare say it’s definitely a recommendable classic merely for the experimentation that Kurosawa made during his final years as film maker.
The movie has been criticised to be a poor depiction of Kurosawa’s final years of self reflection. It’s also been called didactic and too simple because some of the vignettes address the rather commonplace ideals of the morally astray human intentions in the modern world. The Washington Post called it ‘A lament for the humankind that is at the receiving end of its own miserable decisions’.
It is undeniable that Kurosawa’s legacy has worked against him in this movie since it wasn’t a commercial success. However, it is also true that it is impossible to watch this movie without the legacy of the maker associated with it. If ‘Dreams’ is to be accepted as Kurosawa’s biographic venture, even the common and didactic vignettes are still appreciable because he has done his part in fulfilling his moral obligations as a Japanese film maker. Almost every vignette stands true to his Japanese identity and the stories and instances that he has grown up with. They may be simple; but they’re his.
The protagonist of the eight vignettes represents Kurosawa, but is named ‘I’ to be generalized. The dreams are of the following sequence.
- The first dream, ‘Sunshine through the Rain’, is where ‘I’, as a child, goes into a forest to witness an enchanting procession named as ‘a foxes’ wedding’ while it rains through sunshine. The idea is apparently based in Japanese folklore. He wasn’t supposed to see it; which invokes a penalizing consequence that we do not get to see. The wedding procession, however, is beautiful, synchronized and symbolic of something Kurosawa understands as a wedding of the foxes.
- ‘The Peach Orchard’, the second dream, is said to have been the most auteur of the eight vignettes. Kurosawa lost a sister young and claimed to have repeating dreams of her, which he brought to life in the second vignette where ‘I’ follows a girl through a felled Peach Orchard to encounter ‘dolls’ that lived in the Peach trees. They converse with him and perform an elaborate dance, a rare glimpse to Japanese folklore yet again, to give him one last glance of the Peach orchard in full bloom.
- ‘The Blizzard’ is the third dream where a group of men are seen painstakingly battling an unending blizzard, seemingly heading towards a camp that is nowhere in sight. As they collapse one after another, a Japanese Angel of Death subtly attempts to engulf them in her veil, but one of them manages to fight her. When he wakes up, he finds them to be close to the camp.
- The fourth dream, ‘The Tunnel’ is an epiphany of a Military Commander returning from battle. He encounters his platoon, strangely presented with blue makeup and black marks on their face, for they all had died in battle owing to a wrong decision he made. He has long conversations with them about war and how it effects common life before commanding them to ‘return where they belong’ so they can rest peacefully.
- ‘Crows’, the next dream, is a rather interesting one as it is said to be a biographic representation of Kurosawa’s own mental sanctuary, which used to be Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. ‘I’, a student of arts, begins with exploring Van Gogh’s paintings at a display and ends up walking through his world of paintings consisting thick and perceptive brush strokes. Amidst it, he meets Van Gogh himself, played by Martin Scorsese, and talks about the meanings of his works.
- The next dream, ‘Mt.Fuji in Red’ is the very idea of Japan surviving nuclear attacks in real life, presented at a ground level as a family attempts to save its children from a colourful array of poisonous gases that have apparently leaked from factories. A holocaust like situation has engulfed the proximity of Mt.Fuji that is endlessly erupting in volcanic flames. The family with children encounters a wealthy man who regretfully admits that he is one of the rich people responsible for this disaster before ending his own life and leaving the family desperately fighting coloured air.
- ‘The Weeping Demon’, the penultimate dream, has been said to be a didactic one where ‘I’ walks a post-apocalyptic world that has been taken over by demons. One of the demons explains to ‘I’ that they used to be the elite of the former world who exploited the poor. They are now cursed to wander the moral wasteland as demons, whose horns hurt as the dusk sets in and makes them wail in frustration. It was their eternal punishment until they ended up consuming each other of hunger; so ‘I’ was asked to flee before any of the other demons finds him.
- The last dream of the series is hands down the most beautiful – ‘The Village of the Water Mills’. Here, ‘I’ visits a village and has a long conversation with a hundred year old man fixing a broken water mill about life and how modernity sways from the natural way of it. The village has its unconventional way of life where they celebrate death. This dream has yet another procession like the one in the first dream, but is much more colourful and happier. This is the only dream where ‘I’ leaves the place with a complete experience. Kurosawa ends his dreams with a utopia here.
‘Dreams’ was made after everyone thought that Akira Kurosawa had retired from film making. Clearly, he took a few years off and this movie is a compendium of his internal and external reflections. Kurosawa had mentioned it in his memoir that as a child, he was a simpleton; he hardly understood everything that went on around him. The abrupt endings and the lack of logical explanations in the vignettes could as well be the reflection of this self-realization; validating that ‘Dreams’ is more of a biographical venture than a creative experiment. It is difficult, at least for me, to conclude if the movie is too simple or too intricate. And for a common viewer, therein lies the beauty of it. Dreams of ‘Sunshine through the Rain’, ‘The Blizzard’ and ‘The Peach Orchard’ are too symbolic and logically challenging; while the rest are too obvious; which is an interesting challenge for critics.
You might end up categorizing Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Dreams’ as a biographic movie, a social commentary, a compendium of self realizations, a didactic cliché, a project of self indulgence, or an unconventional movie experiment. You’d be right in your own way. If he intended to or not, Kurosawa left the critics battling over this one, which in itself is an arguable victory.