Dreams (1990) by Akira Kurosawa

An anthology of short films based on Kurosawa’s dreams. The first story sees a young boy (Mitsunori Isaki) accidentally stumble across a fox wedding, despite the warning of his mother not to go out in the rain. Later he is told that he must kill himself with a knife, or return to the land of the foxes to hand back the knife. The second story revolves around the “Doll Festival” as the young boy finds a group of living human dolls that promise to restore a devastated peach orchard. The next story is a group of mountaineers trapped in a blizzard attempting to reach their camp. The fourth part sees a soldier returning from war, confronting the ghosts of his fallen companions. In part five, an artist (Akira Terao) enters the paintings of van Gough, conversing with the famous creative (played by Martin Scorsese). Part six concerns an extinction-level nuclear disaster and part seven sees a man speaking with a demon in a post-apocalyptic landscape. The final part has a man come to a rural “Windmill Village”, where he converses with an elderly resident about the importance of living a natural life.

“Dreams” is a peculiarity in Akira Kurosawa’s filmography, seeing him tackle styles and settings that are rarely seen in his other works. It is interesting to see his take on the survivalist drama, disaster movie, war film, science-fiction, fantasy, and surrealism, making you wonder what these could have been if they were each spun into full length stories. It is also novel to see Kurosawa work with greenscreen effects and monster makeup, still showing a creativity after a long career of samurai epics and historical dramas. Each section is around fifteen minutes, with just enough time to establish characters and theme. Kurosawa based these vignettes on dreams he had seen and they have an ephemeral quality, set in unreal environments where logic doesn’t necessarily flow as normal. These stories are adrift in space and time, the characters existing only in that moment, without a wider world around them. This limitation in time allows them to expand on creating a visual and audio spectacular, without worrying too much about character development or twists. There is a focus on the emotional rather than the logical, with elements left to the audiences interpretation. The direction is striking, particularly in the use of colour. Red appears prominently throughout a number of sections, representing both joy and suffering. The operatic score beautifully captures each scene, reflecting the grand visuals, varying from traditional instrumentation to popular classical music. The easiest reference point for the film would be “Kwaidan” (Kobayashi, 1964), with its individual stories imbued with history and tradition. There are also echoes of Andrei Tarkovsky, in the “Tunnel” episode and the final scene of trailing green fronds in the river.

Dream interpretation is a source of endless fascination to many people. While watching “Dreams” there are two questions that come to the fore. Firstly, where the dreams come from; and secondly what they signify. The answer to both of these may be the same. The dreams depicted seem to come from the fears and hopes of Kurosawa, some with a more direct connection to personal experience, and others seen through a metaphorical lens. Several themes appear to tie together certain sections. Tradition and history, and the loss of it, is a major concern. With the fox wedding and Doll Festival, we see Japanese folklore brought to life. The final section in which the elderly villager laments modernity and the death of the old ways, brings things full circle from these earlier sections, old age speaking to youth about the importance of holding on to these “magical” notions and the old ways. Kurosawa is understandably also concerned about his work and perhaps even his legacy. The section about the mountaineers, perhaps the least transparent in terms of interpretation, may be representative of the creative struggle, while also speaking to the fear of death. And the section with van Gough gives us Kurosawa’s idealised creative, a man absolutely committed to his art. Darker concerns also permeate the film, notably death and human extinction brought about by our own stupidity. The military man, one of the most affecting sections, speaks to the senseless waste of life in war; while the sections detailing nuclear holocaust speak clearly to the existential fear prominent in the post-atomic age. However, in the final scene we have again a hopeful note, that humanity might yet save itself from this fate, by embracing the environment, by returning to what we once held self-evidently important, namely living with nature rather than in a desperate struggle against it. “Dreams” is a film that reflects the hopes and fears of many people, a creative, surreal, vision that prophecies two potential futures for humanity.