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Review of “Dreams,” directed by Akira Kurosawa

The film, “Dreams,” is a series of eight short narratives that compose a complete film. Each story could stand by itself and at first glance it seems that these stories are disconnected, but there is a theme that runs through them and that theme is the overarching concern for the future of the environment and mankind. Unlike many of the reviews I have read of the film, I don’t think one of the downsides of the film is that is too didactic, rather I think that it is necessary for parables or allegories to be didactic. And these stories are parables teaching us to respect nature, each other and our environment, otherwise the consequences will be dire. Films shouldn’t just entertain, but instruct and this one does both, without being heavy handed. There are two types of stories here, nightmares and dreams, but in the end both kinds can be seen as cautionary tales emphasizing respect for nature and all mankind.

The first two stories deal with childhood dreams and fantasy. Both of the boys in the stories are disciplined by nature for being disrespectful, one for witnessing a fox wedding and the other one, when his family cuts down an orchard. The boys must ask for forgiveness and in the same way we should ask for forgiveness for intruding on nature. The first two dreams have elements of fantasy and are visually stunning. On ends with a boy staring at a giant rainbow underneath a mountain and other with a boy staring an empty orchard with one small peach tree growing in defiance. They both end on a hopeful note for humanity. Continuing with the idea of respect for nature, the next story is a nightmare that deals with four men who are trying to survive in a blizzard. They are reminded that nature (who appears in the form of a female spirit) punishes those who feel they can conquer it easily, but they manage to survive, but not before being humbled and gaining a respect for nature. The four men struggled and were able to avoid their almost certain deaths, but those who are defeated by death are the topic of the next story, in which a commander must remind his dead platoon that they are dead. Of course, one can also see this as a testament against the futility of war and man’s continual defiance and disrespect towards nature. The theme of death continued into the next story and features a man with hat that is reminiscent of the hat the director’s wears himself (and most likely is a stand in for the director) and it is from his point of view that we enter into the fanciful world of Van Gogh’s paintings. Nature inspires the painter Van Gogh to paint beautiful and vivid paintings and according to the film, he even suffers for his art by cutting his ear, so he can paint better and this story ends with him fleeing into his last painting.

We then accompany the hat wearing character into the next three stories. There are two nightmares that involve nuclear destruction and its impact on society. In one a power plant blows up behind Mt. Fuji and a red cloud slowly envelopes the survivors and in the other survivors become wailing mutants. In both, there are regrets from the characters about destroying the environment, but at this point it is too late for them and nature. These nightmares are bleak and can be considered warnings aimed at those who continue to destroy the environment without regard to their consequences. In the end, the last story finishes on hopeful note, but it is the most directly didactic of all Kurosawa’ stories in the film. In it Kurosawa shows us the right way to live. He reminds us that the right way is a more traditional way of living (embodied an old wise man), in which we live in harmony with nature and turn away from everything that has destroyed nature, such as modern technology and if we do this we will be happier and live longer.

The film contains also contains elements of Romanticism and Magical Realism. The Romantic idea of the sublime is at the heart of the movie. The sublime is a form of expression in literature in which the author refers to things in nature or art that affect the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power. It is calculated to inspire awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion, by reason of its beauty, vastness, or grandeur. Kurosawa is both inspired by the beauty of nature, but understands it is powerful and can punish those who are arrogant enough to challenge it or take it for granted. In the film, he encourages to respect nature and not destroy it as a result of greed, war or just plain old arrogance. The film is also rife with Magical Realism, which means when an author or filmmaker uses magical elements and blends them with the real world. The “real” and the “fantastic” exist in the same narrative, but this would be expected in a film titled dreams, because our dreams are a mixture of the real and the fantastic. I will cite some vivid examples of Magical Realism. In the three of the stories, the people encounter supernatural beings from nature, for example the foxes, the living orchard and the visiting spirit in the blizzard. A platoon leader talks to his fellow soldiers who are dead. My favorite story features a man walking through Van Gogh canvasses while meeting Van Gogh and some of the subjects he painted.

Kurosawa’s film is worth seeing, not just because it is directed by one of the most talented directors ever in world cinema, but also because it is beautiful and each story is engaging in different ways. I highly recommended it. Enjoy.

Summary of the film, “Dreams,” directed by Akira Kurosawa

The first segment is titled "Sunshine Through The Rain.” It starts with a boy whose mother warns him not to go outside because the sun is shining through the rain. During this type of weather is when the foxes have their weddings and dislike being watched. The boy finds the procession and unfortunately for him, the foxes see him. When he arrives home, his mother informs that foxes came by and left a knife for him, which he supposed to use to kill himself. He soon leaves to find the foxes to ask for forgiveness at their home in the mountains under a rainbow.

The second segment is titled "The Peach Orchard.” It involves the Doll Festival, which takes place in spring when the peach blossoms are in full bloom. The dolls that go on display at this time are representative of the peach trees and their pink blossoms. A boy's family, however, has chopped down their peach orchard, so the boy is sad a result. The boy brings one too many treats to his sister because he sees one too many girls. After arguing with his sister over the nonexistent extra girl. He soon sees the girl and follows her to a treeless stepped hill where many people are dressed up like dolls to represent the tress that were cut down. The dolls scold him for his family cutting down the peach trees. He defend himself and tells them of his sadness and the sympathize and allow him one last look at the orchard by way of way of a slow and beautiful Kabuki like dance. After they disappear the boy finds the small girl and a single peach tree sprouting in her place.

The third segment is titled "The Blizzard.” It is about four men climbing up a mountain in a snowstorm. Their hope for survival is diminishing. The men argue and walk more slowly as the snow blows harder and harder. The leader is the only one who wants to keep going until they get to the next camp, but everyone wants to give up. They all fall down in the snow to take a break. The leader is approached by a strange woman perhaps a spirit who appears out of nowhere and attempts to urges the last conscious man to give into sleep and certain death. But finding some heart, deep within, he shakes off his stupor and awakens only to discover that the storm has ceased and that their camp is only a few feet away.

The fourth segment is titled called "The Tunnel." An army officer is traveling down a deserted road at dusk, on his way back home from fighting in the Second World War when comes to tunnel. He then meets an angry demonic anti-tank dog (strapped with explosives) that runs out of the tunnel and snarls deeply at him. He is a dog straight of hell, Cerberus perhaps. Then Private Noguchi whom he had charge over in the war comes out of the tunnel behind him and his face a light blue, signifying that he is dead. He convinces him he is dead and then when he disappears he must convince his entire platoon they are dead. He was responsible for their deaths and survived to be taken prisoner. He tells them they are not alive and apologizes for getting them killed and send them on their way back into the tunnel. Lastly, we see a second appearance of the hellish dog, from the beginning of this dream.

The fifth segment is titled “Crows.” an art student, a character wearing a hat is in a museum studying Van Gogh's paintings when suddenly he is transported into the vibrant and colorful world of Van Gogh's artwork He asks the women washing clothes by the bridge where he might find Van Gogh. They tell him, but warn him that he has been in a lunatic asylum He meets the artist in a field and converses with him. The man asks him (in English) about his ear to which Van Gogh replies he was painting a self-portrait, could not get the ear right, and so he cut it off. The student loses the artist and travels through his other paintings trying to find him. He catches sight of Van Gogh as he walks into his final painting Wheat Field with Crows, which is the last painting he painted before he died. At the end he is back in the museum.

The sixth segment is titled "Mount Fuji in Red.” starts with a scene of total chaos. People are running everywhere and in every direction carrying their belongings.
It appears that Mt. Fuji is about to erupt, but in reality the nuclear power plant behind the mountain has exploded. The man with the hat (from segment five) meets up with a man in business attire and a woman with her two children. The woman is scared for her children and talks about how nuclear power was supposed to be safe. The businessman tells them that he was one of the people responsible for the problem and for lying to the people, and then he jumps into the ocean. The man tries to protect the woman and her children from the red dust blowing everywhere, but they soon realize that the radiation will kill them anyway.

The seventh segment is titled “The Weeping Demon" involves a man with the hat from the previous two segments who is walking across a mountainous wasteland when he meets a man in tattered clothes. This man was turned into a mutated human with one horn. The "demon" explains that there had been a nuclear war which he survived, but that resulted in the loss of nature and animals, enormous dandelions and humans sprouting horns, which causes them so much pain that you can hear them howling during the night, but, according to the demon, they can't die, which makes their agony even worse. The animals are so mutated that they cannot be eaten so the demons have worked out a hierarchy- the demons with more horns eat the demons with less and serve their punishment of immortality. The more horns a demon has, the more pain one feels and the more one has done to deserve the horns. The demon's horn has just started to hurt and approaches the man to become a demon also. This is nightmare sequence is actually a post-apocalyptic retelling of a classic Buddhist fable of the same name.

The last and eighth segment is titled, "Village of the Watermills", a man (the man with the hat from the previous segments) comes into an idyllic and peaceful town on a river, which has many watermills. He finds an old wise man that talks with him about the village. This village has no name, has no electricity or modern technology. The old man explains the good nature of the people through a ritual of putting flowers on a stone where the villagers once buried a traveler who died there. He talks about they only use firewood from trees that have fallen down on their own. This old man criticizes the way people live nowadays and how they treat the environment with no respect, which will end up with their deaths. As the two talk they hear an approaching funeral procession for an old woman in the village. Instead of mourning, the people celebrate the proper end to a good life