For those of us who have experienced a recurring dream- be it a nightmare or something a little more pleasant- few things are more revealing. Recurring dreams teach us about our personalities, our anxieties, and the secrets that lurk beneath the surface of our conscious. For director Akira Kurosawa, these particular types of dreams were not just an exercise in self-discovery, but also the inspiration for one of his most beloved films.
A household name in Japan and abroad, Akira Kurosawa is known as one of the most important Japanese directors in the history of cinema. By the time he passed away in 1998, he had made a 57-year long career in the film industry, directed 30 films, and been the subject of a Google Doodle. His films have inspired visionaries like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas, and explore moral themes like the horrors of war, the fragile relationship between man with nature, and the dangers of human vices. Though juggernauts like Drunken Angel and Seven Samurai are some of his best-known films, it is Dreams that has been called his most personal work. Much like a dream, the film reveals the personality and values of a director whose work treads the line between the mundane and the magical.
Dreams is based on the actual recurring dreams that Kurosawa himself experienced over the course of his life. The film consists of eight vignettes, each based on a different dream, where humans, spirits and nature interact with each other. The film follows a surrogate Kurosawa character through the ages, starting in childhood and ending as a man in the company of death.
The dreams he experiences as a child are mystical and mysterious, while the adult Kurosawa graduates to more human fears, like war and nuclear devastation. Each dream puts Kurosawa in contact with a spirit of some kind: kitsune foxes, eerie snow women, Vincent Van Gogh, and nuclear demons all share their wisdom and horror with him through the ages. By looking into his dreams we not only learn about Kurosawa himself, but also the hopes and fears that defined much of Japan in the modern age.
Sunshine Through the Rain
The first dream begins with a young Kurosawa standing outside in the middle of a sun shower. His mother tells him to stay inside, saying that when the sun shines through the rain the kitsune (fox spirits) have their weddings. The boy sneaks out and goes into the forest anyway, where he stumbles upon a wedding procession. He’s spotted by the kitsune, and runs away in fear. When he tries to return home, his mother tells him a fox had come by the house earlier and left a knife for him. Barring him from the door, she tells him he must go after the foxes to beg for forgiveness or else kill himself with the knife. The boy sets of towards the mountains in search of the kitsune’s home, into a field of flowers where a rainbow stretches over the landscape.
The Peach Orchard
A boy’s family is celebrating Hina Matsuri which traditionally takes place in the spring when the peach blossoms are in full bloom. Known as “the Doll Festival”, families display porcelain dolls in traditional dress that represent the peach trees and their blossoms. The boy’s family once owned a peach orchard, but the trees have since been cut down. After he spots a mysterious girl outside his house, he runs out into the treeless orchard. There, he sees that his sister’s dolls have come to life and stand in the places where the peach trees once stood. They reveal themselves as the spirits of the peach trees, and chastise him for having cut down their orchard. When the boy begins to cry and tells them that he loved the peach trees, they put on a slow, beautiful dance for him. As they dance, the boy sees the peach orchard in bloom for the last time.
A group of mountaineers becomes trapped in a blizzard on the way back to camp. One by one, all the men sink into the snow, giving in to certain death. The leader struggles to keep going, until he too falls asleep in the snow. A mysterious woman with long black hair appears and cloaks him in a shawl, coaxing him to sleep with reassuring words. Suddenly he realizes the eerie woman is a yuki onna (a malevolent snow spirit) and with the last of his strength, the man fights her off until she disappears in the wind. Awake at last, the man rouses up his group and discovers the storm has calmed down and their camp is only a few feet away
A man wearing a military travel coat walks on a paved road towards a large and dark tunnel. Suddenly, a dog runs out from the tunnel, barking and snarling. Hesitating, the man walks into the tunnel and is cloaked in darkness. When he finally comes out, he sees the horrific ghost of one of his soldiers, who had died in his arms in battle. Just as he thinks he's seen the worst, his entire third platoon, led by a young lieutenant brandishing an officer's sword, marches out of the tunnel. They come to a halt and present arms, saluting him as their commander. Heartbroken, the man tells them they were all killed in a single action, and that he was the one responsible for sending them into a futile battle. He orders them to turn back into the tunnel and salutes them in a farewell as they march back. He collapses with grief, only to be roused again by the same hellish dog as before, who has come out from the tunnel again and continues to bark and snarl at the commander.
An art student, presumably Kurosawa himself, walks through a museum exhibit on Vincent Van Gogh. Suddenly he finds himself inside one of his paintings, and after wandering around, finds Van Gogh himself painting in a field. Van Gogh, played by a young Martin Scorsese, says, “A scene that looks like a painting does not make a painting. If you take the time and look closely, all of nature has its own beauty. When that natural beauty is there, I just lose myself in it. And then, as if in a dream, the scene just paints itself for me.”
After watching him work, the student realizes that Van Gogh has vanished. The art student begins to run through his paintings, looking for Van Gogh as Chopin’s “Prelude No.15 in D-flat major-F” plays on. He finally spots Van Gogh heading over the hill into a wheat field, presumably in the moments before his famous suicide. As he runs to catch up to him, a band of crows flies into the sky in a near replica of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows.
Mount Fuji in Red
This dream starts with a horrifying image: a nuclear plant near Mount Fuji has erupted, radiation is filtering into the air, and death is certain. Crowds of fleeing families run from the scene, carrying suitcases and personal effects. After the commotion, a man (again a stand-in for Kurosawa) stands over a pile of ash. The only other survivors are a businessman and a woman with two children. The businessman explains everyone else has drowned themselves into the ocean, and that even the dolphins have swam away. But no matter what they do, the radiation will still get them. The woman recoils at these words, angrily accusing the corporations responsible and the way they had brushed off the potential danger of nuclear activity. As clouds of radiation descend upon them, the businessman leaps into the water, and Kurosawa tries to shield the woman and her children with his jacket.
The Weeping Demon
A man wanders across a desolate, mountainous terrain. He stumbles upon a weeping horned demon, who reveals that he used to be a man before a nuclear holocaust ravaged the land. The demon explains the radiation caused many men to sprout painful horns, which torment them endlessly, as they cannot die. He takes the man to a hellish mountain pit, and shows him other demons howling and crying around a pool of red lava. He explains that these were once millionaires and government officials, who are now (according to the Buddhist tradition) trapped in hell because of their sins towards mankind.
The Village of the Watermills
In the last dream, a man (once again, a stand-in for Kurosawa) walks into a sun-drenched country village. A wise old man who claims to be over a hundred years old explains how his village has avoided modern technologies in favor of a simple way of life. When Kurosawa looks puzzled, the wise man tells him that man has become addicted to convenience. Convenience leads to laziness, anxiety, and a disconnect with the natural world. The village doesn’t need doesn’t need tractors to work the paddy fields because they have cows and oxen, and it doesn’t need electricity because they have candles and linseed oil.
A baffled Kurosawa says, “But the night is dark”
“Yes, the night is dark,” says the old man, “It’s supposed to be dark.”
The scene ends with a colorful funeral procession for an elder who has died at the ripe age of 100 years old. The women, children, and men of the village parade down the road in colorful traditional dress, singing and dancing in an uplifting celebration of death. The wise man separates from Kurosawa to join the procession, commenting, “Some people say life is hard to live. That’s just talk. It’s good to be alive”
If your recurring dreams involve making making your own films, Kurosawa has some advice. “If you really want to make films, write screenplays. All you need to write a script is paper and a pencil. It’s only through writing scripts that you learn specifics about the structure of film and what cinema is”
WORDS BY MAGALI ROMAN