#15 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
This might be the most interesting autobiographical films I’ve seen, and that is in no small part because it’s not strictly autobiographical. A collection of dreams, obviously, that Kurosawa supposedly has had throughout his life, touching on real places and people he knew, it seems to show a psychological evolution of the man up to the early 90s from his childhood in the early twentieth century. This anthology’s only throughline is the author, telling stories of himself, his fears, dreams, regrets, and nostalgia.
Dreams are often far too literal in film, used as vehicles to present information in a dumbed down way so that the audience can understand and get the plot moving. Kurosawa leans fully into the concept and only has them as isolated moments from certain times. They don’t feed each other directly (though there are certainly relations between some). There is no overarching plot in order for them to inform. They’re just snapshots of Kurosawa’s subconscious mind from throughout his life. One is to imagine if Hitchcock had decided to make such a film. These also feel very dreamlike. They’re quiet. There’s often a disassociation between sight and sound. People drop into and out of dreams without explanation, and the mind just continues on whatever path its on without question. These really do feel like actual dreams.
It begins with a dream of him as a young boy, told by his mother that a rainy but sunny day, just like that one, is the kind when foxes have their weddings. So, he immediately finds himself in a forest, witnessing anthropomorphized foxes in a wedding march down the path. He feels guilty at witnessing that which he should not have seen, runs home, and listens to his mother tell him to take a knife into the woods and beg forgiveness from the foxes, for they have killed for less. His march leads to the famous image that was used in the poster of the rainbow over the flower field with the small boy marching forwards. I’m sure there’s room to psychoanalyze Kurosawa about this. The wonder of the natural world combined with a fear of doing the wrong thing that could lead to terrible consequences, and you can do something similar across all of them, digging into the symbols and hidden meanings of everything. However, I don’t really see the point in that level of analysis. What I see is a portrait of a boy that’s one small piece of what ended up making the man. All eight dreams together can’t fully paint the portrait of the man, but they are interesting views into what he’s trying to present.
The other seven episodes follow him as he grows up. There’s one more with him as a child as he follows a young girl into the peach orchard where the spirits of the cut down peach trees demand that he pay for his family’s sin of cutting down the trees. When they see that he is truly sad at their passing, they sing and dance for him. He grows up in his next dream as a mountain climber, getting lost in a blizzard, and fighting off a snow spirit in the form of a woman that tries to get him to go to sleep and die, but he fights her off and finds his camp. The next dream has him, in military dress, walking through a tunnel and discovering a lost platoon of Japanese soldiers who march in perfect order and fill him with guilt at their deaths since he was the only one to survive the action that killed them all (Kurosawa never saw military action firsthand).
He moves on to an art gallery displaying the works of Vincent van Gogh, and he transports himself to 19th century France with his easel and paint to wander the countryside looking for the disturbed painter, played by Martin Scorsese. Van Gogh is dismissive of the young Japanese painter, insisting that the sun is calling him to paint, and Kurosawa pursues him into his paintings, eventually ending with crows flying across a field, which draws him out of the painting and back into the gallery.
Then, we get nuclear power. It becomes obvious watching the next two dreams that the concerns of the main character in I Live in Fear were not just a dramatic exercise. It was an outgrowth of his own fears, if these two sequences are to be believed. The first has Kurosawa appearing amongst a frantic and panicked bridge full of people as huge fires rages behind Mount Fuji brought on the explosion of several nuclear reactors, eventually melting the snow and crumbling the natural monument itself. The crowd disappears, and all that’s left is himself, a woman with two small children, and a man in a business suit who explains the effects of different byproducts of the nuclear process and their deleterious health effects on the human body. There’s no hope in this vision of nuclear power gone wrong.
The next dream is the closest we get to a direct follow up. It shows Kurosawa wandering a black, volcanic desert, the result of a nuclear war, and encountering a demon with one horn who explains the workings of the afterlife, where those who were vicious and cruel and on top in the original life are the same in the afterlife, being granted more horns. And yet, the place is terrible. The only plant life are overgrown dandelions that tower over a man, and every night the demons are racked with pain from their horns.
The final dream is idyllic, with Kurosawa finding a remote town on the water that has no modern technology where he speaks with an old man who says that the modern world has lost sight of many important things in life. It ends with a funeral procession and celebration for a woman, ninety-nine years old, who has died, in an almost Fellini-esque display.
The portrait that Kurosawa paints of himself across all eight episodes is fascinating. I don’t think it presumes to be a complete portrait, but in its unconventional form, I think Dreams shows us the mind of a great artist in a very interesting way. His concerns with the natural world, his terror of nuclear power, his pursuit of great artists, and his fear of natural forces that he can’t explain or overcome all come together to give us a complex look at a man nearing eighty years old.
What can we take from all this? Well, first and foremost, like most of Kurosawa’s work, it’s often very beautiful to look at. From the fox marriage procession through the funeral procession, from the mountains to the destruction of Mount Fiji, the movie is aesthetically pleasing in both happy and terrible moments. Secondly is the Kurosawa’s effort to somehow bare himself for the cinematic world. It feels something like a coda to a life’s work, capped with Ran. “I have accomplished everything, and here I am.” He would, of course, go on to make two more films, but this feels like the perfect place to stop. I’m not going to, obviously, but much like Ginger and Fred felt like Fellini’s last movie despite making a couple of more, Dreams feels the same way for Kurosawa.