When Akira Kurosawa unveiled his magnum opus Ran in 1985, a collective sentiment emerged among audiences and critics alike, perceiving it as the culmination of the illustrious seventy-five-year-old director’s cinematic journey. Understandably, many believed that the film marked Kurosawa’s farewell to the world of filmmaking, a sentiment reinforced by the director himself, who spoke of the project during its production as if it were his cinematic swan song. To the surprise of many, however, Kurosawa defied expectations by making a poignant return to the silver screen in 1990 with Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. This film, a departure from his previous works, presented an unusual and contemplative series of vignettes purportedly inspired by Kurosawa’s dreams over the years. The stark contrast between this introspective project and the high-intensity action of his earlier career left audiences intrigued and captivated.
Throughout his distinguished career, Kurosawa had been synonymous with dynamic narratives and characters driven to extremes, finding nobility in the face of adversity. However, Kurosawa’s Dreams marked a departure from this established pattern. The director bid farewell to the familiar terrain of dramatic conflict, crafting a film intentionally stripped of overt tension and confrontation. Despite its purported serenity, the impact of the film today is unexpectedly disquieting. Far from a tranquil exploration of dreams, it emerges as a meditation on helplessness—an exploration of humanity at the mercy of a capricious world and the repercussions of its thoughtlessness. The prevailing mood of the film is not one of calm introspection but rather an unsettling sense of vulnerability, portraying humans navigating a world where the consequences of their actions are hauntingly inescapable.
Commencing with a joyous celebration of matrimony and concluding with the solemnity of a funeral, the film unfolds as a cinematic biography, tracing the contours of Akira Kurosawa’s life and artistic evolution. The 1980s marked a pivotal era for the venerable director, encapsulating a period of profound introspection that would shape the thematic essence of his later work. At the outset of this transformative decade, Kurosawa embarked on a literary endeavor, penning the memoir “Something Like an Autobiography.” This literary venture served as a precursor to the cinematic journey that would unfold in the film. As the pages of his narrative turned, Kurosawa found resonance in the thematic tapestry of Shakespeare’s King Lear, an influence that would manifest prominently in his subsequent masterpiece, Ran. Through the lens of this Japanese reinterpretation, Kurosawa identified not only with the historical resonance of the narrative but also with the introspective struggles of an aging leader grappling with legacy and sanity.
Dreams, therefore, emerges as the culmination of Kurosawa’s contemplative odyssey through the 1980s. A notable departure from his earlier collaborations and adaptations, this film marked a significant milestone as the first screenplay entirely authored by Kurosawa himself in nearly four decades, since The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail in 1945. Collaborating with Takashi Koizumi, the film’s assistant director, for valuable insights, Kurosawa crafted the screenplay in a remarkably brisk two-month period. In a symbolic act of personal revelation, Kurosawa aptly named the film’s main character “I,” a deliberate choice that laid bare the deeply personal nature of the narrative. The use of the first person not only underscored the autobiographical elements but also accentuated the director’s introspective exploration of his own life and artistic legacy.
Despite Akira Kurosawa’s status as a living legend in the cinematic realm, with a string of successes including the acclaimed Ran, the Oscar-winning Dersu Uzala in 1975, and the Palme d’Or–winning Kagemusha in 1980, securing financial support for his projects proved to be an arduous undertaking. His remarkable track record, far from easing the fundraising process, paradoxically posed challenges in finding willing financiers, especially within Japan’s film industry. In the eyes of many stakeholders in Japan’s cinematic landscape, Kurosawa became a perceived financial risk, his projects often failing to generate substantial profits despite critical acclaim. The lingering skepticism among potential backers was palpable, creating a challenging environment for a director of Kurosawa’s stature. Even Toho, a studio that had been a steadfast partner throughout much of his illustrious career, dealt a surprising blow by rejecting the script for the film.
The rejection hit Kurosawa on a personal level, considering his long-standing relationship with Toho. However, he harbored an understanding of the broader industry sentiment that thwarted support for his visionary endeavor. The reluctance of Japanese companies to invest in Dreams stemmed from a deeper concern, one that resonated with the corporate decision-makers—the film’s perceived criticism of the country’s nuclear power program. Kurosawa, despite the setbacks and the apparent reluctance of financiers, remained resolute in his commitment to bring the film to fruition. The rejection served as a testament to the complexities of merging art with societal sensitivities, as Kurosawa’s vision clashed with the pragmatic concerns of those responsible for financial backing. His unwavering determination to pursue a project that delved into controversial themes demonstrated his steadfast dedication to artistic expression, even in the face of industry skepticism and financial challenges.
In a fortuitous turn of events, Akira Kurosawa’s persistent financial challenges found a resolution through the unwavering support of his Western admirers. This pattern has proven instrumental in his recent projects. This time, it was the acclaimed director Steven Spielberg who emerged as the cinematic ally, casting a lifeline to the revered Japanese filmmaker. Spielberg, known for his iconic works such as Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark, had harbored a profound admiration for Kurosawa’s oeuvre for an extended period. The symbiotic relationship between Spielberg and Kurosawa had been established earlier when Spielberg cast the legendary Toshiro Mifune in the war comedy 1941, showcasing the American director’s deep appreciation for Japanese cinema. Furthermore, Spielberg’s close collaboration with George Lucas, a fellow enthusiast of Kurosawa’s genius, provided a link to the past success of securing financing for Kagemusha.
When Spielberg received a copy of Kurosawa’s screenplay for Dreams, he recognized the artistic merit and cultural significance embedded in the narrative. With an understanding of the financial hurdles faced by the Japanese director, Spielberg took proactive measures to facilitate the realization of Kurosawa’s vision. Leveraging his influence and industry connections, Spielberg orchestrated a deal with Warner Bros. to ensure the wide release of the forthcoming film, ensuring it would reach a global audience. George Lucas, once again proving his commitment to supporting Kurosawa’s creative endeavors, played a pivotal role in the project. He mobilized his renowned company, Industrial Light & Magic, to contribute elaborate special effects for the film. In a gesture of collaboration and solidarity, Lucas arranged for the production of these effects at cost, further alleviating the financial burden on the project.
While Dreams garnered its share of appreciative reviews, a notable contingent of critics leveled critiques at what they perceived as overt didacticism and a sense of stasis within the film. In the eyes of some, the main character, portrayed as a child by Toshihiko Nakano and Mitsunori Isaki and as an adult by Akira Terao, was deemed frustratingly passive, eliciting disappointment for what they perceived as a lack of agency. Furthermore, these critics contended that the director’s exploration of themes—specifically his anxieties regarding humanity and nature—was marred by what they deemed simplistic moralizing. However, such criticisms fail to penetrate the nuanced layers of meaning embedded in the film, overlooking the subtleties that lend depth to the narrative. The film’s exploration of the human experience, manifested through dreams, is a delicate tapestry that requires a discerning eye to unravel. The ostensibly passive nature of the main character may be intentional, serving as a conduit for the audience to reflect upon their agency and response to the challenges presented by the natural world. Kurosawa, in his characteristic manner, invites viewers to engage with the film on a more profound level, transcending the apparent passivity of the protagonist.
Furthermore, the film’s stylistic strangeness, an element frequently overlooked in critical appraisals, contributes to its distinctive allure. Kurosawa, known for his masterful command of cinematic language, employs unconventional techniques and visual poetry to convey the ethereal quality of dreams. The gentle surfaces of the film belie the complex emotional and intellectual terrain it traverses, creating an experience that defies conventional expectations. Dreams unfolds with an explicit declaration of its autobiographical aspirations, immediately evident in the very first scene where the name Kurosawa graces the gate leading to the residence of the young protagonist, I. To authentically capture the essence of the director’s formative years, art director Yoshiro Muraki meticulously designed a replica of Akira Kurosawa’s childhood home for the film. This commitment to visual accuracy extended to the performance realm, where actor Mitsuko Baisho received specific guidance from Kurosawa himself on how to portray the director’s mother authentically, adding a layer of emotional authenticity to the cinematic narrative.
The autobiographical dimension of Dreams takes a poignant turn with the deliberate passivity embodied by the film’s lead character. This intentional portrayal reflects the director’s own childhood experiences, a revelation unveiled in Kurosawa’s memoir. The young Kurosawa, depicted as silent and inert, found himself grappling with a profound disconnect from the world around him. In his memoir, Kurosawa poignantly describes a “foglike substance” that clouded his young mind, rendering him uncomprehending of the events transpiring in his surroundings. Such was the extent of his apparent detachment that his family, gripped by concern, feared he might be grappling with a mental disability. The film’s lead character serves as a poignant reflection of the director’s early struggles with communication and comprehension. This deeply personal dimension of the film adds layers of complexity to the narrative, inviting audiences to empathize with the internal turmoil that characterized Kurosawa’s formative years. The film becomes a canvas upon which the director paints a vivid self-portrait, exploring the challenges of navigating a world that seemed elusive and enigmatic to a young Kurosawa.
Cultural Roots of Passivity
The roots of I’s passivity, as portrayed in Dreams, delve beyond the personal and extend into the cultural fabric, with notable influences from Noh theater, a traditional Japanese dramatic form. Scholar Zvika Serper sheds light on the profound impact of Noh theater on the character of I, a thematic undercurrent that also surfaces in Kurosawa’s earlier works, such as Ran and Kagemusha. Serper elucidates the dynamics of Noh theater, where a central figure known as the waki, often a traveler, embarks on a journey to a renowned location. There, the waki encounters a local inhabitant, the shite, who narrates a story associated with the place. In the context of the film, I’s character unfolds through the lens of the waki, each dream presenting a distinctive shite who performs a unique narrative. The waki’s role in this theatrical structure is characterized by minimalistic acting, a deliberate choice that aligns with the conventions of Noh theater.
This cultural influence not only shapes the passivity of I but also dictates the narrative structure of Dreams. The deliberate restraint in the waki’s acting mirrors the subtlety and simplicity inherent in Noh’s theater, inviting the audience to engage with the unfolding stories on a deeper, contemplative level. Kurosawa, drawing from the rich traditions of Japanese performing arts, infuses the film with a cultural resonance that transcends mere character portrayal, adding layers of complexity to I’s passivity. The film, deeply rooted in the traditions of Noh theater, manifests its affiliation with this dramatic form through deliberate and pointed artificiality. This characteristic permeates the film’s visual and thematic landscape. This artificiality becomes evident in the inaugural episode when young I, under maternal caution, ventures into the forest after a sun-shower, anticipating the mystical wedding procession of foxes. However, the spectacle that unfolds is a testament to the film’s theatricality, as the “wedding” is composed of humans adorned with elaborate makeup and artificial whiskers, resembling stylized depictions of foxes commonly found in traditional theater or folk celebrations. Their choreographed procession, marked by synchronized marching and ritualistic turning, transcends reality, becoming a symbolic pantomime that resonates with Noh theater’s stylized conventions.
The second dream further accentuates this theatrical and surreal quality as I encounters a group of intricately attired figures in a field, embodying the trees of a felled peach orchard. These figures, akin to living hina dolls, exude an otherworldly presence reminiscent of traditional Japanese celebrations. Hina dolls, typically showcased during Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival), symbolize the well-being and prosperity of Japanese girls and are accompanied by peach blossoms. Kurosawa, in his memoir, vividly recollects playing with hina dolls alongside his beloved sister Momoyo, whose untimely death in fourth grade left an indelible mark on his soul, akin to being touched by a “swift, evil wind.” In the subsequent episodes of Dreams, Kurosawa adeptly manipulates cinematic form, intentionally keeping the audience off balance and subverting expectations. The Blizzard, a narrative centered around a group of stranded climbers, could have easily unfolded as a suspenseful and intense sequence, especially considering Kurosawa’s passion for mountaineering. However, the director chooses a different path, introducing a surreal and unexpected twist by presenting a fake snowstorm and depicting climbers moving in an unmistakable slow-motion style. This deliberate departure from realism, coupled with an elongated sequence that borders on the absurd, challenges conventional storytelling norms.
Kurosawa takes this departure further by foregrounding the men’s breathing on the soundtrack in a profoundly unrealistic manner. The deliberate exaggeration of these auditory elements, coupled with the stultifying quality of the images and sounds, plunges the audience into a sense of entrapment. The deliberate choice to extend the sequence, emphasizing its tedious nature, elicits a unique emotional response from the viewers. The artificiality and relentlessness of the scene become poignant, creating an atmosphere where frustration and unease parallel the characters’ own experiences of confinement and peril. Each segment within Dreams occupies a delicate and evocative space suspended between the naturalistic and the fantastical, a terrain that straddles the realms of immersion and alienation. This nuanced balancing act mirrors the inherent duality of dreams—their capacity to feel vividly real while remaining inherently elusive and surreal, always slightly askew. The cinematic vignettes presented by Kurosawa are imbued with a dreamlike quality, where the line between reality and imagination blurs, encapsulating the essence of a state that is both tangible and intangible.
In the realm of dreams, the fluidity between the naturalistic and the imagined becomes a defining characteristic. Kurosawa masterfully captures this dynamic, infusing his sequences with a sense of familiarity and peculiarity. The viewer is led to experience a reality that is just “off” enough to evoke a dreamlike atmosphere, where the boundaries of the plausible are gently pushed to unveil the subconscious currents beneath the surface. Notably, the segments often conclude abruptly, in medias res—an artistic choice that aligns with the unpredictable logic of actual dreams. In the realm of slumber, one frequently awakens at the peak of intensity or threat, leaving actions unresolved and hanging in the air. This deliberate interruption in the narrative not only mirrors the structure of dreams but also serves to underscore the inherent helplessness and impotence of the protagonist, I. As a mere observer within the dreamscapes, I is left suspended in a perpetual state of incomplete actions, echoing the vulnerability and powerlessness often experienced within the realm of dreams.
Fueled by a profound fascination with the inner workings of the human psyche, Akira Kurosawa found inspiration in the existential exploration of dreams, a passion that led him to maintain a journal chronicling his nocturnal visions, echoing the literary influence of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This practice of documenting his dreams became a rich reservoir of creative inspiration for Kurosawa, a visionary director renowned for his ability to meld the realms of reality and imagination on the cinematic canvas. However, the genesis of Dreams is a complex amalgamation, a tapestry woven from threads of dreams, fantasies, folklore, and memories. While Kurosawa’s dream journal serves as a foundational source, the film transcends the confines of his nocturnal musings. It ventures into the collective subconscious, drawing from a vast reservoir of cultural narratives and personal experiences, blurring the boundaries between the director’s dreams and the shared dreamscape of humanity.
Narrative Thread Beyond Kurosawa
Intriguingly, within the intricate fabric of Dreams, there exists a narrative thread that may not originate from Kurosawa himself. In the fourth episode, The Tunnel, a poignant and haunting exploration unfolds as I returns from war, encountering the spectral manifestations of his fallen platoon comrades. This narrative departure suggests that the film, in its complexity, might incorporate elements not directly derived from Kurosawa’s personal dream journal. Instead, it delves into the broader realms of collective memory, folklore, and the universal human experience, amplifying the film’s narrative richness. The Tunnel epitomizes the intersection of personal and collective narratives within the film, as Kurosawa crafts a profoundly moving episode that explores the lingering echoes of war and the spectral presence of the departed. The inclusion of this narrative strand not directly tied to Kurosawa’s dreams exemplifies the film’s expansive reach, delving into the shared human consciousness to create a tapestry that resonates universally.
The fourth episode of Dreams, known as The Tunnel, takes an intriguing turn that diverges from Akira Kurosawa’s personal experiences, prompting speculation among critics and scholars. Kurosawa’s biographer, Stuart Galbraith IV, astutely observes that the narrative within this episode seems more aligned with the life experiences of Kurosawa’s close friend, Ishiro Honda. Honda, a renowned director celebrated for his work on Godzilla and other monster movies, holds a notable “creative consultant” credit on the film. Honda’s profound connection to military service and his unrealized project centered around the ghost of a soldier returning from war draws parallels with the thematic content of the episode. His extensive military service in the Japanese Imperial Army, which included fighting in Manchuria during the 1930s and enduring six months as a prisoner of war at the conclusion of World War II, offers a striking contrast to Kurosawa’s military history.
Kurosawa’s journey into the Japanese Imperial Army took a different trajectory. In 1930, a sympathetic officer spared him from mandatory conscription during a physical examination. Consequently, Kurosawa’s initial attempt to serve in the army was thwarted, and it was only at the end of World War II that he was eventually conscripted. However, by this time, it was too late for him to participate in the conflict actively. While the fourth episode, The Tunnel, in Dreams, may draw inspiration from Ishiro Honda’s memories, this does not diminish the deeply personal nature of the film as a whole. To appreciate the personal dimension of the film, it is crucial to trace the trajectory of the narrative thus far. The initial episodes unfold as a chronicle of young I’s gradual revelation of the forbidden knowledge that lies beyond the confines of his family’s gates. The colossal rainbow marking the conclusion of the first dream serves as a symbolic threshold, signaling the commencement of an epic coming-of-age journey.
In The Blizzard and The Tunnel, subsequent chapters in I’s odyssey, we witness his attempts to confront and, in some cases, conquer the formidable forces of nature. In the former, I grapples with a yuki-onna, a mythical “snow woman,” resisting her allure to prevent succumbing to sleep and the peril of freezing to death. This episode underscores I’s resilience against the harsh elements, positioning him as a protagonist engaged in a fierce struggle with nature itself. The segment takes this elemental confrontation a step further as I, now a returning soldier, commands a spectral platoon back into the realm beyond the living. The narrative, laden with themes of survivor’s guilt, accentuates I’s evolving relationship with the forces that transcend human understanding. Here, Kurosawa weaves a tender yet disturbing tale that delves into the psychological aftermath of war, infusing the film with a nuanced exploration of I’s emotional landscape.
Transformative Power of Art
In the episode titled Crows from Dreams, the convergence of I and Vincent van Gogh, portrayed by Martin Scorsese, serves as a poignant exploration of humankind’s ability to transform nature through the medium of art. The thematic core of this episode resonates with Akira Kurosawa’s aspirations and reflections on artistry. In his formative years, Kurosawa harbored the desire to become a painter, a dream he ultimately relinquished upon recognizing that he lacked what he describes in his memoir as “a completely personal, distinctive way of looking at things.” The meeting between I and van Gogh becomes a cinematic metaphor for Kurosawa’s journey of artistic self-discovery. The director candidly recounts in his memoir the transformative power of viewing paintings by masters such as Paul Cézanne or Van Gogh. For Kurosawa, these encounters had the extraordinary capacity to momentarily “change the way the real world looked” to him. This nuanced revelation aligns seamlessly with the thematic essence of the episode.
In the narrative, the episode unfolds as an exploration of the transformative power of art, wherein I encounters van Gogh in a landscape filled with vibrant crows. The painterly hues and the expressive power of van Gogh’s art become a lens through which the natural world is reconceived. Kurosawa, through this allegorical encounter, illustrates the profound impact that artistic expression can have on the perception of reality, echoing his own experiences with great works of art. I’s encounter with Van Gogh in the episode Crows orchestrates a profound transformation in the very fabric of his reality. The artistic prowess of Van Gogh, brought to life by Martin Scorsese, imbues the mundane landscapes with an otherworldly quality, elevating everyday beauty into the realm of transcendental paintings. However, the presentation of these artworks undergoes a captivating evolution throughout the episode, serving as a visual metaphor for I’s perceptual journey.
Initially, I traversed through flawlessly reproduced renditions of Van Gogh’s landscapes, each canvas a meticulous replication of the artist’s vision of nature. Following his conversation with Van Gogh, the episode takes a mesmerizing turn. The landscapes cease to be mere reproductions and transform into tangible artworks. The progression begins with black-and-white sketches, a departure from the vibrant colors of Van Gogh’s signature style. As I continues his journey, the canvases evolve into colossal paintings where he navigates against giant brushstrokes, each stroke as substantial as towering trees. This shift marks a departure from the authentic replication of the natural world into a realm that is both manipulated and awe-inspiring—an artistic metamorphosis that is beautiful, strange, and fearsome. This visual narrative reflects the opening of I’s eyes to a new dimension of perception. The transition from immaculate reproductions to larger-than-life paintings mirrors the expansion of I’s consciousness, emphasizing the transformative power of art. The canvases, once faithful reflections of nature, now become dynamic expressions of Van Gogh’s creative vision, inviting I—and, by extension, the audience—into a heightened realm of visual and emotional experience.
The layers within Crows extend beyond the visual transformation of landscapes, and a subtle but significant hint lies in the casting of Martin Scorsese as Vincent van Gogh. Kurosawa’s decision to cast Scorsese carries a nuanced symbolism that transcends the immediate narrative, delving into the director’s artistic journey. At the point when Kurosawa was contemplating giving up painting, he was concurrently captivated by the allure of cinema, a passion that would ultimately define his illustrious career. In a documentary exploring the making of Dreams, Kurosawa candidly reveals the significance of the Chopin piece, the Prelude in D-flat Major, also known as Raindrop, featured during the Crows episode. This musical choice serves as a deliberate homage to Abel Gance’s seminal work, La roue (1923), a film that profoundly impacted Kurosawa during his formative years. Through this cinematic reference, Kurosawa alludes to the transformative power of film that he experienced as a youth, using it as a touchstone to understand the expressive potential of the medium.
Dreamlike Canvas of Artistic Expression
In essence, Crows encapsulates a dual narrative—one of artistic disappointment and another of boundless possibility. The casting of Scorsese, a luminary in the world of filmmaking, becomes a symbolic bridge connecting Kurosawa’s disillusionment with painting and his burgeoning love affair with cinema. The episode becomes a dreamlike canvas where the director grapples with both the challenges and the expansive possibilities inherent in the pursuit of artistic expression. In the subsequent two sections of the film, Dreams, a prevailing sense of despair unfolds as nature unleashes its revenge upon the human world. The most despondent sequences are unveiled in Mount Fuji in Red, where I finds himself amid a harrowing mass evacuation as the iconic volcano erupts, triggering the catastrophic release of energy from the six encircling atomic reactors. The ensuing chaos paints a grim portrait of humanity’s vulnerability in the face of a vengeful natural force. Following this apocalyptic scenario, The Weeping Demon thrusts I into a postapocalyptic landscape, a desolate realm where the consequences of human folly manifest with chilling clarity.
Within this ravaged world, I encounters a grotesque creature that unravels a nightmarish truth: the corrupt are condemned to an existence of immortality, transformed into cannibalistic ogres perpetually writhing in agony, compelled to consume one another in a grotesque cycle of suffering. The landscape is further marred by giant plants distorted by radiation, their unnatural appearance mirroring the eerie artificiality seen in the massive paintings of the Van Gogh episode. The surreal and unsettling effects deployed in these sections, reminiscent of Honda’s creature features from the 1960s, might seem counterintuitive. While the tacky spectacle of Mount Fuji’s explosion could easily be associated with the visual style of Honda’s creature-centric films, the deliberate use of unreal effects takes on a disquieting quality. The sickly hues dominating Mount Fuji in Red, accentuated by color-coded clouds of radioactive materials drifting towards the helpless protagonists, evoke an unsettling beauty that recalls the multicolored, surreal armies of Kurosawa’s earlier work, Ran.
If Dreams is to be regarded as a memoir, then these episodes might indeed be construed as Akira Kurosawa’s prophetic visions of atomic doom, possibly serving as a cautionary tale. The specter of nuclear annihilation loomed prominently in the director’s consciousness, evident in his earlier exploration of the theme in I Live in Fear (1955). Kurosawa would later revisit this haunting subject in his subsequent film, Rhapsody in August (1991). The thematic recurrence underscores the director’s deep-seated concern and contemplation regarding the devastating potential of nuclear catastrophe. However, amid the prophetic undertones, there exists a nuanced layer of allegory in these episodes. Mount Fuji in Red emerges as more than a cautionary vision—it serves as a symbolic portrayal of the atomic nightmare that Japan had already endured. The episode unfolds as a dream, and within the surreal landscape of Kurosawa’s vision, echoes of the actual events of August 1945 resonate. The vivid portrayal of Mount Fuji’s eruption and the ensuing release of radioactive materials becomes a dreamlike reflection, blurring the lines between past and present. In this allegorical representation, the film suggests that the atomic nightmare experienced by Japan during World War II remains an indelible part of the collective consciousness, persisting as a haunting vision that transcends the boundaries of time.
War Beyond Traditional Themes
Intriguingly, despite its setting in a desolate, postnuclear world, The Weeping Demon in Dreams transcends being a narrative focused on war. The character engaging in conversation with I, rather than a soldier or general, is revealed to be a farmer—one who, tellingly, resorted to drastic measures like “dumping tank trunks of milk into the river to keep prices up.” This narrative choice introduces a layer of complexity as the episode veers away from traditional war-related themes and instead delves into the realms of economic dynamics and societal values. The farmer’s desperate act, driven by economic considerations and the manipulation of market forces, becomes a potent metaphor. It could easily be interpreted as a poignant portrait of postwar Japan, grappling with the complexities of runaway capitalism characterized by a tangle of shame and hubris. Kurosawa, through this narrative thread, directs attention not only to the hypothetical aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe but also to the immediate moral wasteland that he perceived when observing his own country.
While the physical landscape may be a postapocalyptic tableau, the underlying themes in The Weeping Demon resonate with Kurosawa’s observations of Japan’s contemporary socio-economic and moral challenges. The depiction of a farmer, symbolizing an individual caught in the web of economic pressures, reflects a broader societal commentary. The moral ambiguities and ethical compromises depicted in this postnuclear world may mirror the director’s critical reflections on the ethical compromises prevalent in postwar Japanese society. The original ending of Dreams, as scripted and initially planned during production, carried a striking narrative twist. In this envisioned conclusion, I was to awaken in a foreign city to the disconcerting sounds of artillery fire and airplanes overhead. The initial suggestion was that another world war had erupted, instilling fear and apprehension in the protagonist. However, as the narrative unfolded, I would discover a surprising and uplifting truth—the sounds were not harbingers of destruction but rather celebratory noises. The world had unexpectedly embraced an era of world peace, prompting jubilant announcements from reporters worldwide. The momentous news conveyed that all nuclear weapons, without exception, would be dispatched to a lifeless planet in outer space, never to return—an imaginative and optimistic resolution that held the promise of a harmonious global future.
Contemplating this alternative ending, one can only imagine the reactions of critics who had earlier criticized Dreams for its perceived didacticism. The stark departure from the film’s earlier tone would undoubtedly have sparked varied interpretations and responses. While Akira Kurosawa, known for his cinematic prowess, could have undoubtedly crafted a visually captivating representation of this elaborate scenario, circumstances intervened to reshape the film’s conclusion. The decision to abandon the original ending was attributed to various factors. Producer Mike Y. Inoue, at the time, explained that the change was made to enhance continuity and prevent the film from becoming overly protracted. The logistical challenges and associated costs, particularly with a vast cast and shooting scheduled in the United States, were additional considerations. While the scrapped conclusion may have been a missed opportunity for a grand spectacle, the fortuitous outcome ensured a more cohesive and economically feasible conclusion for the film.
Optimistic Subdued Conclusion
Instead of the originally scripted conclusion, Dreams concludes with the equally optimistic yet notably less fantastical and more subdued vignette, The Village of the Water Mills. This final segment presents a stark departure from the prior scenes of horror and surrealism. As I arrives in this picturesque village, a serene atmosphere prevails, devoid of the nightmarish visions that have characterized earlier dreams. In this idyllic setting, I engages in conversation with a 103-year-old man, portrayed by Yasujiro Ozu, regular Chishu Ryu. The elderly sage imparts a wisdom reflective of a simpler, more harmonious way of life. He shares that the villagers have intentionally forsaken the conveniences of the modern world, eschewing electricity and only utilizing wood from trees that have naturally fallen. The old man reflects on the disconnect between scientists and nature, lamenting how many, while intelligent, remain deaf to the beating heart of nature. He observes that the relentless pursuit of inventions often leads to unhappiness, a poignant commentary on humanity’s relationship with the environment.
Notably, The Village of the Water Mills stands out as the least marked by artifice in the entire film. The village exudes authenticity, devoid of strange effects or fantastical elements. It offers a stark contrast to the preceding dreams, characterized by blood-red skies, comically oversized plants, and larger-than-life brushstrokes. This shift places the viewer firmly in the realm of the real, creating a sense of groundedness and authenticity. One could even argue that the transition mirrors the sensation of waking up from a dream—a return to the tangible and the ordinary after a journey through the surreal and extraordinary. Upon closer inspection, the segment in Dreams reveals a profound undercurrent of mortality. Amid the pastoral beauty of the village, I encounters a poignant symbol of death—a stone adorned with flowers, marking the grave of a stranger who had succumbed to illness while passing through. This subtle reminder of mortality introduces a somber note into the idyllic landscape, underscoring the inevitability of life’s transience.
As the narrative unfolds, the old man, a repository of wisdom and longevity, participates in a carnival-like funeral procession for a ninety-nine-year-old woman. The juxtaposition of the lively and celebratory atmosphere during the funeral starkly contrasts with the forbidden and forbidding wedding procession of foxes that opened the movie. This duality of celebrations—a joyous funeral and a forbidden wedding—echoes the film’s exploration of the cyclical nature of life and death, evoking both the vibrancy and inevitability of the human experience. Simultaneously, the viewer grapples with uncertainty regarding I’s place in this world. Positioned as a perpetual outsider, I eventually departs from the village, and Kurosawa captures his exit in a manner that sets him apart from the lush surroundings. This visual departure emphasizes I’s perpetual status as an observer, never fully immersed or integrated into the worlds he traverses. It reinforces the overarching theme of isolation and detachment that runs through many of the dreams, highlighting the complex relationship between the individual and the environments they inhabit.
The Village of the Water Mills, while not the originally intended finale for the film, unfolds as a beautifully ambiguous note on which to conclude. As viewers contemplate the possibility that Dreams serves as an autobiography, the segment raises intriguing questions about whether this idyllic village represents Akira Kurosawa’s idealized vision of his death or if it is a contemplation of a utopian ideal that he acknowledges will forever elude realization. The nuanced layers of interpretation invite reflection on the director’s innermost thoughts and aspirations. When the director’s stand-in, akin to Kurosawa himself, walks out of the frame at the conclusion of the segment, set to the strains of Russian composer Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov’s In the Village from his Caucasian Sketches, it marks a significant departure. It is the first time the director’s surrogate has been permitted to leave the scene, symbolizing a moment of liberation. Kurosawa acknowledges that his journey will persist, characterized by wandering and dreaming. Despite laying bare his fears and uncertainties throughout the preceding two hours, he opts to leave the audience in a gentle, happy reverie for a little while longer.
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