For his first ever film, Brendan Cohn-Sheehy brought us one of Akira Kurosawa’s late films, the 1990 episodic film Dreams (often referred to as “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams”). The alternative moniker is certainly appropriate, not only because Kurosawa directed it, but also because he claimed that the film was born out of visions in continually recurring dreams he was having.
Dreams does not have a structured plot of any kind, but is rather presented as a sequence of unconnected vignettes. The first two dreams feature a young child, and the last four feature the same adult, providing us a possible thread of a single maturing dreamer running through the film. I have seen the claim that the third segment has an adolescent character that might correspond to the dreamer (though there were only four characters there and none stood out to me as a candidate) but the fourth segment does not neatly fit into that structure. Let’s go through the segments, shall we?
Sunshine Through The Rain
A mother tells her child that he must stay inside for the day, because the sun is shining through the rain – these are the days when the foxes hold their weddings in the forest and this is something he must not see. The child, of course, sneaks away into the woods against her command and manages to witness the slow procession of a fox wedding. However, when he comes home his mother bars his entry to the house. She explains that because he has seen the fox wedding he cannot return home and further gives him a ceremonial knife that the foxes have left him with the intent of the boy committing hara-kiri. She tells her son that the best he can do is to seek out the foxes’ home (beneath the rainbow) and to beg for their forgiveness. The segment ends with a scene of the boy walking towards a rainbow positioned over a meadow that is commonly used as the cover art for the film.
The Peach Orchard
A ghostly young girl (who may represent Kurosawa’s elder sister, who died as a child) leads a young boy out of the house and to the remains of a peach orchard that his family has cut down. The spirits of the peach trees confront the little boy over their fate, but he protests that he was not in favor of the orchard being cut down because he loved the trees and their blossoms and fruit. On realizing this, the spirits of the peach trees perform a dance which allows him to witness the orchard in bloom one last time before disappearing and leaving the boy alone with the mysterious girl, who is replaced by a single peach sapling.
Four mountain climbers are lost in a blizzard. At the end of their strength, they begin to succumb one by one to exhaustion. Finally the leader, who has reluctantly allowed them to stop and rest himself begins to succumb, and he sees a vision of a Yuki-onna (sometimes known as a snow maiden) who is tempting him to fall asleep, which would mean his death. Finally, he resists her charms and he finds that the storm has cleared. He wakes his companions, and they find that their camp is nearby, previously hidden from them by the blizzard.
A military officer, walking alone, comes to a lonely tunnel. He hesitates to enter the tunnel, but is forced through by a snarling, explosive-laden anti-tank dog. Once he gets to the other side, he is confronted first by the blue-faced ghost of a subordinate soldier who had died in his arms, and later by an entire company that had been wiped out by one of his command decisions. He convinces all of these men against their convictions that they are in fact dead and must return into the tunnel before the dog again forces him on.
Our dreamer, as an aspiring artist at a Vincent Van Gogh exposition steps into an oil painting and finds himself in a colorful, oil-painted world of Van Gogh. He eventually encounters Van Gogh himself (played by Martin Scorsese), still wearing the bandage from famously having cut off his ear, and spends a good deal of the segment chasing Van Gogh through some of his most famous paintings.
Mt. Fuji In Red
It is a scene of chaos, with the Japanese people fleeing while numerous explosions flank Mt. Fuji. It is explained that six nuclear reactors (apparently all located on Mt. Fuji?!?) have melted down and the entire populace is fleeing the magma-glowing mountain. The scene cuts to the seaside, where our dreamer has arrived with a few other escapees, the rest having evidently thrown themselves into the ocean to their deaths. One admits to being a nuclear engineer and feels responsibility for the disaster, explaining that although they had found a way to color the various radioactive isotopes, allowing him to ascertain which is present in the palette of clouds that roll past them, they didn’t do anything to avert the disaster itself.
The Weeping Demon
Our dreamer finds himself in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, confronted by a one-horned demon. The demon explains that he was once a human, but the greed that has destroyed the world has also brought him to this state. He is not amongst the worst off – those with two horns were the greatest offenders and are tortured by the pain in their horns at dusk. The demon leads the dreamer to a mountain where they can overlook the tortures of the two-horned demons, then announces that his own horn is starting to hurt, chasing the dreamer off in warning.
The Village Of The Waterwheels
Our dreamer, out on a hike, comes across a remote village situated on a small river and adorned with waterwheels. He sees some children, who greet him, and then pick some flowers and place them on a stone before running off. He finds a very old man repairing a waterwheel and strikes up a conversation with him about the town. The old man explains that the town’s rejection of modern science in favor of a simple life is responsible for the happiness of its people and their longevity. He explains that the stone marks the simple grave of an unknown traveler who had died there long ago, and that the village had a tradition of leaving him flowers in his honor. Ultimately the old man leaves off his work to join in a joyous funeral procession for an old woman who was one of his first loves long before. The dreamer, as he is leaving, picks a flower and places it on the stone in a symbol of his acceptance of the village’s ways.
Outside of the fact that the film might almost better be titled “Aimless Walking” (seriously, there’s a LOT of walking in this movie), the most notable thing about the film is that it has stunning visuals and great music. The Criterion edition that Brendan brought was from a pristine print and in terms of an audio-visual experience, I think only one film that we’ve shown at Cinema 1544 clearly beats out Dreams, that being The Fall. The costuming is first notch, and the scenery is often stunning (I’m always drawn back to the giant dandelions in The Weeping Demon). The film, however, does suffer from not having a coherent narrative and several of the segment either drag on or really rub me wrong.
If they were excluded I would never miss either the Mt. Fuji In Red or The Weeping Demon segments. The first really truly bothers me as it stands as a hyperbolic anti-nuclear statement. Sure, it’s only a dream so maybe we shouldn’t take it seriously, but even then the fantasy of “oh, nuclear power is going to destroy everything” bears a lot more resemblance to a boogeyman under your bed than an actual issue to worry about. But, but Fukushima, you might say, but we should keep in mind that in comparison to the about 18,500 people killed by the actual earthquake and tsunami, there are as of yet no deaths from the Fukushima reactor incident and most future estimates based on cancer risks range on the order of a few hundred deaths. People note that radiation from the reactor leaking into the Pacific Ocean has reached the west coast of the USA, but fail to note that the levels are so low that if one were to drink a gallon of seawater every day for 40 years, they’d get about the same amount of radiation dosage as from eating one banana. Not one banana a day, one total banana. Ever. Ironically, resistance to the building of nuclear power plants has resulted in the persistence of coal and natural gas plants. So yeah, the hysterical anti-nuclear stance epitomized by Mt. Fuji In Red bugs me. As far as the Weeping Demon goes, I don’t know exactly what it was that had destroyed the world (nuclear holocaust?), but again we were expected to feel bad about our roles in it. One thing I consistently feel is that when you take the narrative out of the morality play it tends to get really heavy-handed (Koyaanisqatsi, anyone?)
The Blizzard and The Tunnel were both (in general) visually uninteresting compared to the rest of the film, and The Blizzard seemed to drag on for a long time without really going anywhere. The Tunnel had a bit more heft to it, with a wartime military commander being forced to come face to face with his demons, but all of the emotions that it stirred up in the first half where the commander convinces one soldier who died in his arms of his death are immediately blunted by the second half, which is nothing but a repeat of the first half with more dead people. This segment needed to develop, but it didn’t.
I really want to like The Village Of The Waterwheels. It’s an absolutely beautiful location – in fact, in terms of “real” locations it’s easily the best in the film (though I do think that the two largest waterwheels may have been constructed as they are usually shown obliquely and from one or two shots it appears they may not in fact be attached to a mill). I can sympathize with the message of contentment in a simple life, I really can. But the old man resorts to what seems to me to be an over-the-top criticism of the modern world. He essentially claims that none of the technology that “the scientists” come up with ever makes people happy, it only makes them sad and sick. I think that we might want to take a look at things like mortality rates and life expectancy before modern medicine as just a first pass before declaring science to be the source of all of our ills. If I could watch this segment without the subtitles on, it would probably be my second-favorite.
The segments that really do stand out to me as the best are those capture the magic of Kurosawa’s dreams without preaching about what Kurosawa felt were the problems of the modern world. The two segments dealing with childhood are masterpieces of wonder. As slow and deliberative as the wedding of the foxes is in Sunshine Through The Rain, the majesty of it and the excitement of the boy watching it from behind a tree and hoping not to be seen are basically perfect, as is the tone of the ending of the segment where his mother sends him away in the wake of his seemingly minor transgression that may cost him his life. Even better was The Peach Orchard, which takes the form of a beautiful dance symbolizing some precious, but lost, trees. The use of peach blossom petals in the wind and the hopefulness of the spirit of the girl turning into a peach sapling make this, from an emotional point of view, the best of the segments. But still my favorite is Crows. From the moment that our dreamer first steps into the oil painting and approaches the pastel bridge the way that the scenery reproduces so many classic post-impressionist paintings is downright stunning. Chasing after Van Gogh is not exactly a narrative, but I could have watched this segment for the full duration of the film, it is that unique and beautiful.