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Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams

Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams

What is a dream? Some might call it a reflection of one’s subconscious. Others might call it a deep seeded regret, want, or desire. Others may even cite it as a vision of the future, or explanation of the past. Akira Kurosawa once said that “Man is a genius when he is dreaming.” Nobody will ever agree on what a dream is or what it means. Its basis is too complex, too vivid, and too abstract for a conscious human mind to understand.

With that in mind, the visions presented in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams are a veritable pool of possible meanings, some in grand scale, and others in specific denoted tones. As the film representation of a progressive dream world, Dreams presents a series of eight shorts representing various positions and markers in the life and morals of Kurosawa himself. Great deals of recurring themes present themselves throughout the film, transcending all the shorts and tying his seemingly random images together. Of these, one in particular stands out as a depiction of the struggle of identity. This identity struggle, a common thread in Kurosawa’s films for the entirety of his career, more specifically attaches itself to the role of cultural and natural identity.

Kurosawa is able to depict, more specifically in five particular shorts of Dreams, the manner in which cultural and natural identity can shroud or shape the personal identity of an individual. This is accomplished through the specific act of defiance. As seen in the four scenes to be discussed, Kurosawa uses the act of defiance, both by the individual and by society as a collective to one’s cultural and natural identity as a manner of losing one’s personal identity. His concurrent theme of death throughout the film helps to exacerbate the manner in which cultural defiance is a catalyst to losing one’s own identity.

The first of the eight films in Dreams is that of “Sunshine through the Rain.” Kurosawa, the protagonist throughout the eight films is but a boy in this piece, still dressed in a child’s kimono. He steps into the archway in front of his home and watches as rain begins to fall profusely. The sun shines brightly as his mother warns him of the meaning of such weather. She tells him to stay inside as Fox’s hold their wedding processions in such weather. The child ignores the warnings of his mother and sets out for the woods. While there, he watches the steady procession of the fox wedding. The camera works from behind his back the entire time, rotating around the backside of the tree he hides behind, helping to greater establish the voyeuristic thrill of watching the forbidden procession.

As soon as the foxes notice him, he runs, heading for his home. His mother meets him at the entrance to his home and immediately knows where he’s been. She hands him a wooden sheathed tanto that one of the foxes brought to her and instructs him that his punishment is to kill him self. She offers the alternative to find the foxes and beg for forgiveness, instructing that they are located under the rainbow. The short ends with him searching under the rainbow in a colorful field of flowers. The world that this child is coming from is one of superstition and reverence. The child makes the bold decision, in the midst of the fox-wedding-weather to venture forth, ignoring his mother’s warnings and attempts to see what he isn’t supposed to see.

He is thus shunned from the world he knows, ostracized from his previous identity by his act of defiance from the world he knew. In acting out against the cultural barrier that his mother warns him of, he is destroying the link he has with the world he knows. He, left with the tanto that he’s supposed to kill himself with, must search under an intangible object to find the keepers of his identity. The foxes, located where he could never realistically reach, hold his key to life, his identity, which he now searches for.

In the next sequence of the film, a similarly youthful Kurosawa, dressed up in a child’s kimono brings refreshments to his sisters “Doll Day” party with her friends. He asks where the sixth girl is, and when his sister states that there is no sixth girl, he persists in his inquiry, eventually running outside to find her. He runs through the woods and comes upon a hill lined with life size versions of the dolls from his sister’s party.

They explain that they will no longer visit the “Doll Day” ceremony because the peach orchard was cut down by the boy’s family. The blossoming of the orchard is supposed to be a marker of the ceremony. The boy cries and explains that it is not his fault the trees were cut. He cried when they cut them down, not wanting to see them be cut. The dolls relent and allow him a last look at the trees, after which the hillside is covered in the cut forms of all but one sapling. The aspirations of the child in this piece and his outlook on the world are unique to him in that he has been denied a piece of his own identity.

The culture represented by the dolls was destroyed by the boy’s family when they destroyed the peach trees. They made the conscious decision to defy their traditions and remove part of their culture. In doing so, the child is denied a piece of his identity and is forced to live with that loss. Because the world around him changes without his consent he is left feeling lost, unsure of his own place. The dolls on the hill mock him for his participation as a part of the human race. He counters by detailing his love of the peach blossoms and the sadness he felt at their loss. The final shot, with the peach sapling is one of revelation, in which the boy learns the true value of that part of his culture, and his ability to endure beyond the destruction wrought by his family.

The ensuing portions of the film jump into the future and focus on a more modern world in which Kurosawa’s identity crisis is with the modern world and its amenities, not the transition to that modern world. He takes a particularly strong stance on the idiocy of the human race in the manner of atomic technology.

In two separate shorts, “Mount Fuji in Red” and “The Weeping Demon” he condemns the nuclear aspirations of mankind, depicting the feared world that would ensue from nuclear fallout. When looking at the manner in which culture plays into this reworking of identity, the issue of altering cultural identity arises. Ultimately it becomes a matter of how the greater powers responsible for the nuclear age have defied their cultural roles.

Kurosawa depicts this well in the former of the two by using Mount Fuji as the initial image. He sees the mountain turning red and believes it is erupting. He then learns that the five reactors are exploding. This realization heightens the fear, but also heightens the inevitability. The realization that the natural icon of Japan, Mount Fuji, isn’t the cause is a powerful strike to him. The fact that the aspirations of mankind, represented by the nuclear reactors, have built a force more powerful than the volcano itself is a horrible thought. The older man, one of the men responsible as described by himself states that going against nature was a great folly. Mankind’s defiance of its cultural and natural role in the world is the destructive force of all of mankind, rewriting the identities of all those that remain. The next short approaches the same message, depicting the world as a nuclear wasteland, inhabited by cannibalistic demons, the remainder of mankind.

Kurosawa ventures into this world not knowing where he is or why. The world has been destroyed by the ambitions mentioned in the previous short and the identities of mankind stolen and redefined in the context of demons. Because of the defiance of mankind, they are forced to live out eternity as these demons, forever in pain. The protagonist himself is left by these forces to wonder his own identity. When the demon he is speaking to asks him to go away, his response is “Go Where?” His role in life has been nullified by this new cultural definition in which men are now demons. He runs down the hill aimlessly, trying to escape such a fate.

The theme of death and destruction that follows all of these shorts would not be complete without a funeral, and Kurosawa depicts a scene of perfect contrast to the rest of film. The “Village of the Watermills” is a brilliant example of the struggle between cultural identities in defining ones self. Kurosawa as a seemingly modern man from a city enters the village and witnesses the quaintness of it all. He meets a one-hundred and three year old man mending a watermill and asks him about the village. “Do you have electricity?”

The old man responds by saying it is unnecessary. He asks about various other modern amenities and the old man explains their goal to live as men used to, with nature. He explains that modern man has defied nature and redefined the culture they live in to meet their mechanical needs. Kurosawa’s character seems amused by it all, while at the same time interested. His questions are incessant, pondering the manner in which these people could live so base, peaceful lives. Kurosawa is depicting an ultimate defiance of culture here. He does it in two ways though.

He depicts, as he did before, and from the old man’s perspective, the modern man’s defiance of nature and the development of technology as a fault. He also depicts the people of the watermill village as defying the culture of modern man, choosing to live in a world long removed from the way the world currently works. His beauteous, harmonious depiction of this world, almost utopian even in the midst of a funeral, helps to declare his ultimate message in the film.

The defiance of the man against nature, and the natural culture that has been man’s identity for thousands of years is folly. As seen in the four previously mentioned shorts, when one defies the world of nature and original culture, the result is death. The boy who witnesses the fox wedding is faced with the option of suicide or eternal searching. He is left no choice for a new identity. He must search for his old one.

The world of the boy in “The Peach Orchard” is one of regret. The dolls will no longer grace the house because of the boy’s family’s defiance of nature and the culture they belonged to. The identity to which the boy was born is lost because of the folly of his elders. The shorts regarding nuclear fallout depict singular survivors left to struggle in a world of destruction. They must question why such a world was created and the purpose of their leaders’ defiance of nature. Their identity is stolen from them by the defiance of their elders and they are left with destruction. The final short then, is the ultimate clincher of defiance. It depicts defiance from the opposite angle, a group of people defying the culture they are being born into and returning to the world that was safe and peaceful before them. The world of nature harbors long life and prosperity for the Village of the Windmills’ inhabitants.

Because of the consistency of defiance in the film, it is made possible to see the purpose of such a utopian village at the end of the film. The act of defiance, pulling away from the natural order and trying to recreate a new identity for one’s self is rendered a foolish notion. Instead, the presence of one’s original cultural and natural identity is necessary in retaining a strong personal identity. Such is one of the many messages relayed in Kurosawa’s Dreams.