In 1990, Akira Kurosawa released Dreams, consisting of vignettes based on his personal nighttime visions. Though the film currently holds a Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of 59% from critics, due to reviews written during its initial release, it has enjoyed renewed interest and acclaim over the years. As of July 2017, it holds an 86% audience score on the website, and in 2016 became Spine#842 in the Criterion Collection.
One thing that film critics, connoisseur, and fans of Kurosawa and the film have puzzled over since its debut is what the overall meaning of it is; what is the through line message. In each vignette, eight in total, the audience is guided by a protagonist known as “I,” portrayed by three different actors who act as a surrogate for Kurosawa, at various stages of his life. The fact there are eight segments is by design, as the “etymological meaning of the ideogram of the number eight, hachi, is the division of an object into two parts…comment on contrasting themes and aesthetics, such as life/death, human/superhuman, and fiction/reality.” (Serper 84-5) In Japan, this is known as yin and yang; in literary theory, it is known as a binary.
Heinzekehr states that, “Of these eight segments, the last three pertain to the future of society.” (4) It is here that the film comes to having a distinct significance. The individual vignettes-“Mount Fuji in Red,”” The Weeping Demon” and “Village of the Watermills”-all have their own meaning. The first two complement each other, and act as the thesis. While the third offers a different point entirely, the antithesis of them. Yet, like the yin and yang, they combine to form a balance, and with it an overall message. It is from this binary of thesis/antithesis that the final portion of the film presents a balance, the synthesis.
Thesis- “Mount Fuji in Red”/” The Weeping Demon”
“Mount Fuji in Red” sees the citizens of Japan panicking as the nuclear power plant’s six reactors all explode at once. People, desperate not to perish from the radiation, jump to their deaths from a cliff overlooking the ocean. A young man ("I"), an older man, and a woman with her two children make it to the shore. The older man hints that he is from the plant, informs the others how the different colors of the radiation signify the various health consequences, and jumps to his death. Afterwards, the other four are engulfed in the radiation.
“The Weeping Demon” sees “I” traveling a barren wasteland. He comes across a one horned man, a “demon”. The demon says when he a human, he was only interested in increasing his wealth, and is this way due to the radioactivity left over from what is believed to be a nuclear attack. He shows "I" the giant mutated flowers as proof of this. Then the demon shows him, from a distance, other demons with two and three horns, formerly government officials and millionaires. He says that they survive by eating the one horned demons. At night, the demons howl in pain because of their horns, which represent their sins.
The consistent theme in these two vignettes is nuclear decimation. Being 35 years old at the end of World War II, this would be a subject very much a part of Kurosawa’s psyche. Heinzekehr states, “As the only country as yet to sustain a nuclear attack, Japan has had to wrestle even more than others with the implications of nuclear destruction” (2). Both the nuclear plant meltdown and the attack from the two parts is attributed to greed and arrogance. What the director is presenting here is his “counter-apocalyptic vision” and shows the audience “the hopelessness of materialistic apocalypse” (3).
Antithesis- “Village of the Watermills”
“I” comes across a village within a beautiful forest. After crossing a bridge, he sees children placing flowers upon a rock by the river. The traveler then comes across a 103-year-old man. “I” asks him where they are, and the old man simply replies that the village has no name. They talk, and the old man reveals that the people there came here to get away from technology and all the complications of the modern world. They live off of and respect nature. He goes on to say the reason the children were placing the flowers is that long ago a traveler came to their village, and died. They buried him there, and placed the rock as a headstone. Placing flowers has now become a tradition. A funeral precession is heard coming; they are celebrating the life of a woman who passed at 99 years old. The old man says that the woman was his first love, then joins in the celebration. As the young man leaves, he lays a flower at the traveler’s grave.
Heinzekehr says it well by stating, “The clearest anti-technological statement can be found in ‘Village of the Watermills’… Technology is especially harmful when it is linked to excessive hubris. Not only do scientists create unnecessary and destructive inventions, but they also place excessive value on them” (10). Kurosawa’s message for this vignette is summed up by this quote from the old man, "People today have forgotten they're really a part of nature. They always think they can make something better. Especially scientists ... They only invent things that in the end make people unhappy… are so proud of their innovations. What's worse, most people are, too. They view them as if they were miracles. They worship them”
Synthesis-or Bringing It All Together
Just because we can do a thing doesn’t mean we should do it; man must find a balance between nature and technology. “’There's no electricity here?’ he asks. The old man responds, ‘Don't need it. People get too used to convenience. They think convenience is better. They throw out what's truly good.’ After witnessing the complete destruction of nature two scenes before as a direct result of demand for electricity, this statement is especially striking” (Heinzekehr 9). Thought the villagers have rid themselves of more modern technology, they still use older tech like the watermills, instruments, and what they would consider “the good” in the world.
The contrast of nature versus destruction is at its most jarring during “Mount Fiji in Red,” as Serper points out, “Mountains in Japan have been regarded as holy places since ancient times, because they are believed to be the dwelling places of ancestral spirits and gods… Fujisan (Mt. Fuji) is the highest and most beloved mountain in Japan... The sight of the mountain has a major influence on the consciousness of the Japanese, and Fujisan is worshipped as a sacred place” (90). To see such a major natural landmark in distress due to technology gone amok reinforces the message from all three vignettes.
We should try to remember to take time to enjoy and celebrate life, and not be so involved in the day to day of modern life. Before you know it, it’s over and you missed it. One should strife to live life that will make it long a joyous, and not shorten it and make it meaningless. So spend time enjoys a walk on the beach. Visit a museum or library. Play video or tabletop games with your family. Go for a hike. Balance your life well between the natural and the man-made.
Dreams. Dir. Akira Kurosawa. Perf. Chishu Ryu, Martin Scorsese, Akira Terao. Criterion Collection, 2016. DVD.
"Dreams (1990)." Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango, 2017. Web. 1 July 2017.
Heinzekehr, Justin. "The reenchantment of eschatology: religious secular apocalypse in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams." Journal of Religion and Film 16.2 (2012). Fine Arts and Music Collection. Web. 1 July 2017.
Serper, Zvika. "Kurosawa's Dreams: a cinematic reflection of a traditional Japanese context." Cinema Journal 40.4 (2001): 81+. Fine Arts and Music Collection. Web. 1 July 2017.
© 2017 Kristen Willms