What does one of the greatest directors of the twentieth century, who witnessed a devastating earthquake, several world and regional wars and the use of the world’s first atomic bomb, dream about? Perhaps unsurprisingly, devastation–in its most absolute and anxiety-ridden forms. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S DREAMS imagines the existential questions humans must face as a consequence of their capacity for annihilation, and the answers are remorselessly pessimistic. Though the oneiric segments of DREAMS may contain glimmers of beauty, particularly in the earlier episodes, ultimately, they leave the viewer as unsettled as the mind of Kurosawa.
Cinematically, AKIRA KUROSAWA’S DREAMS upholds the auteur’s status as one of the pre-eminent filmmakers of his time, even if it is not necessarily his best work. Flashes of brilliance in DREAMS include the montage during “The Peach Orchard” segment, in which a shot of vibrantly blooming peach trees abruptly cuts to a shot of the chopped stumps. The suddenness of this transition reinforces the sense of loss in the viewer, especially after one has witnessed the colorful and dramatic ceremony that preceded it. Nature, Kurosawa is overtly hinting at here, is a celebration, and its destruction at the hands of man is a cruel and wholly unsatisfactory act. This theme will resurface in many of the film’s “dreams” through even more extreme manifestations.
There is little doubt that the compositions of the first two “dreams” are indicative of Kurosawa’s ideological trajectory. Both “Sunshine Through the Rain” and “The Peach Orchard” are resplendent in their vividly hued depictions of life, but their palettes belie the darker tone that pervades the sequence of events in each. “Sunshine,” for example, begins innocently enough. A young boy is warned by his mother not to explore the nearby forest when it’s raining, as foxes have their wedding ceremony that humans are not supposed to witness. The boy disobeys his mother and naturally stumbles upon this clandestine, bizarre ceremony. One would tend to think that the boy might be chastised for this transgression, yet the result is much more extreme. The boy’s mother greets his return by telling him that he must kill himself for what he has seen, or else go back into the forest and ask the foxes to spare him.
This tale is clearly more of a veiled metaphor than later dreams that explicitly condemn the violation of nature, yet perhaps for this reason it is more effective. Kurosawa seems to be challenging our predisposition to sympathize with the boy. After all, most can relate to the curious figure that finds out more than he/she bargained for, but what if this discovery disrupts an ancient ritual that far precedes mankind as a species? Should man bend to nature or should nature bend to man? These questions haunt Kurosawa’s dreams, and as we will see in future episodes, Kurosawa argues for the triumph of nature over man.
Two more of Kurosawa’s dreams in particular reinforce the theme of man reaping the fatal consequences of his corruption of nature. “Mount Fuji in Red” and “The Weeping Demon” both take place in post-apocalyptic worlds, in which the fate of humanity is at the precipice of extermination through its own doing. The composition of both dreams is ashen and gray, save for some errant streaks of wind colored by toxic chemicals in “Mount Fuji in Red.” Both tales contain characters that lament the harm that man has inflicted on his environment and consequently, on himself, as a result of sheer arrogance. The tone once again is fatalistic here, with neither Kurosawa nor his characters offering any escape or redemption from an already prescribed fate. If “Sunshine” at the very least offered a faint glimmer of hope for man, “Mount Fuji” and “The Weeping Demon” seem to say that man is doomed.
The other segments of DREAMS continue to explore how mankind reconciles its conceited attempts to conquer nature. Even though Kurosawa shows through his dreams that this is not possible, he does present one escape for man in “The Blizzard,” and that is through the act of grace, or supernatural intervention. In this episode, three men are surely about to be obliterated by a fierce snowstorm on the side of a mountain, until a snow fairy protects and revives them one night. It is vital to note that the men here cannot save themselves and are consigned to death, essentially. Only through the interference of an otherworldly being can these men survive and go on to coexist with nature, at the very least.
The anxieties that Kurosawa felt while making this film are ones that persist to this day. The struggle between man and nature is timeless, and while concerns of nuclear holocaust may have been more prevalent for one who had lived through the deployment of the atomic bomb, they still have not been completely eradicated from today’s society. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S DREAMS serves as an important warning for future generations about the balance between man and nature, and how respect for this balance is the ultimate tool for survival.