My Film Criticism class during my last year as an undergrad student introduced me to, I believe, most of the key figures and movements in world cinema. There was Truffaut and his lot promulgating the auteur idea and its accompanying techniques and aesthetics, Eisenstein and the Soviet Montage’s emphasis on discontinuities, Italian Realism which can be best identified in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and many more. In my continuing legwork in the field of world cinema, one of the personalities which I really consistently find interest in is Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.
In my Film Criticism class, we saw his film Rashomon, which is highly regarded as a classic not just under Kurosawa’s name but under the entire field of world cinema. My positive impressions on Rashomon, both in terms of form and content, sort of drove me to look for more of Kurosawa.
After downloading two or three of his films, I finally opted to watch one of them just last October, amidst an aimless Sembreak night. The title of the film was “Dreams.” It was made in 1990, spanning almost two hours and features Akira Terao as the traversing protagonist.
True to the film’s title, it features eight dreams, and this – its state of being a set of dreams — is where I would like to begin my take on the film. About the film being composed-of-dreams, it must be important to note that it won’t renounce this until it ends. That is to say, the film started by announcing a dream sequence and did not end showing a non-dream sequence. In other words, the film is all dreams, no non-dream. Coming from this, I deem it vital to probe this appellation – why did Kurosawa has to rely on the employment of a sequence of dreams in this film?
My first surmise is that it’s a technique used in building the truth value we are going to attach to the movie. Recent theories have delved into the way we view films in relation to our realities; that is, supposedly, the world outside the film. Like plays or creative literatures which are supposed to be “fictional,” (in contrast to our reality), films are likewise not exempted from this designation of “fiction.” However, psychoanalysis, especially the one branded by Slavoj Zizek in his infectious and biting analysis of pop culture has something else to say. In its sort of response, or critique to the popularizing technique in so-called postmodern plays or literatures where a self-reflexive scene or remark disturbs the organic unity of the fictional work, as if to call the attention of the readers or viewers and remind them that what they are engaging with is only a work of fiction (hence: not real), Zizek proposes that these acts are, in contrast to what the Brechtian principle avows, is not a return to the real, but escape to the real.
Following Zizek’s approach on literatures and other creative, supposedly fictional works, like films, it can be argued that these pieces of art are not entirely fictional and do not only resemble reality but captures something that is more real about ourselves and the society we are living in, i.e. its repressed contents, its secrets, its taboos. It is in these works that the repressed thoughts and ideas of individuals, as forced upon him by the Symbolic Order, effuse uncontrollably and with much ease. In that sense, films and literary works operate like jokes and euphemisms, too. These are “fictions” we create to ventilate the truths we keep to ourselves primarily because of the caution forced on us by the Symbolic Order.
From this point, I must problematize: why Kurosawa has to use a sequence of dreams as an enduring motif for his film. Notably, the title of the film itself invokes the idea of the dream. Could it be his way of making the presentation seemingly farther from the viewers’ reality, and hence, far less credible? Could it be a way of highlighting the “fiction-ness” of the film and hence, subduing and shrouding more effectively the “truths” encapsulated in it? But I thought at this point, the “dream-ness” of all the dreams presented in the film does not exactly correspond to our sense of a dream. For us, a dream is a departure from reality, our lived experiences. So for instance, a character in the film is suddenly shown to be just dreaming, we are likely to dismiss his preceding experiences shown to us as only part of his dream and hence, not real. This valuation of being not real is common to all of us although that does not hinder some of us from giving some other value to that dream sequence, i.e. that it manifests the wishes and desires of the character and so on; or although it is not real, it still tells something relevant and perhaps central to the character. In Kurosawa’s “Dreams,” we have seen nothing but dreams; there is no non-dream from which we can fully declare the dream-ness of these dreams. So in this sense, we can say that what we are confronted with are not exactly dreams.
Or perhaps it is Kurosawa’s heinous manner of subtly forcing us to deal with our real realities. He made this encounter all the more terrifying by doubling the structure of fiction (the film, and the dreams within the film) needed to transmit the reality of his messages yet still being able to transmit that reality. As if Kurosawa is sort of ingeniously safeguarding us from having a direct confrontation with our haunting realities by capturing hem first via a film and then via sequences of dreams within that film.
What is that haunting reality? Looking at the film from bottom to top, from the last dream to the first will allow us to answer the question easily: the 103-year old man in Watermills Village essentially captures the seeming point of the movie with his pithy statements: Man have exploited nature so much, destroying it by using it in his desire to make something supposedly better; that man has departed from the natural way of life when this way of life is already enough to provide for his needs. Electricity is no much to firewood and linseed oil; it only mars how “nights are supposed to be.” Jumping back to the first dream, in “Sunshine through the rain,” a little boy disobeys his mother perhaps in his eagerness to see the marriage of foxes. Straying into the forest, what he saw is a procession of sorts of masked individuals, eventually being caught by then and being condemned to die, as his mother told him. I see this as a depiction of man’s waywardness, his forcing his way through or meddling with supposedly natural events, i.e marriage of foxes. At the onset, this meddling with nature is shown to have a greatly hazardous consequence – death. Although meddling with nature is not absolutely bad in itself, it is always inviting of risks and cannot be assured as always positive.
The second dream, “The peach orchard” begins to show some more ill effects of man’s behavior towards nature: an entire peach orchard that used to blossom beautifully has completely gone.
In the third dream, nature has its way, inflicting snow storms at man. Man called this a blizzard, only to give name to what he will eventually triumph upon. However, the fourth dream “The Tunnel” introduces an interesting conflict. Now, it is no longer man versus nature, it is already man versus himself. Warfares primarily caused by greed over greater wealth and occupied territory and power have caused the lives of many. These lives came back to haunt the commander in the scene. As the soldiers die like dogs, the savage dog returned to go after the Commander. In “Crows,” the man visits an art museum only to magically traverse from outside the paintings to within these paintings themselves, meeting Van Gogh , travelling across the paintings he was just marveling at earlier and lastly being in a scene of crows flying over the fields that eventually becomes the last painting he look at from outside once again.
Here we are reminded bitterly again of our spoliation of nature although in a more subtle manner, and in more arguable terms – artworks. The man had actually tasted and experienced the landscapes, the surroundings he first saw as just paintings, which as mere representations are not exactly at par with, and do not fully capture, only represent the real experiences. Then Mount Fuji turns red and the demons weep to hammer out the sad point. We see in these two dreams an atmosphere of abandonment, which again is primarily attributed to human destruction.
A short additional note on the seventh dream, “The Weeping Demon,” one of the demons whom the protagonist was able to talk to said that they (the demons) were once humans too. We can see this as a way of showing the negative consequences of human’s destruction of nature. More glaringly, the demon said that they cannot die even though they want to. Here, immortality becomes a punishment; the demons, the former humans will be forever nagged in that depressing condition, forced to pay for their sins.
It is quite a relief that the film ends with Village at the Watermills, offering us a more pleasing environment after Mount Fuji turned red and the demons wept.
However, this is also the point when we had to confront the revelations of the film. Man has been destructive blah blah blah because of his greed, his discontent at what is already there, his desire to accumulate more, to invent more, to do more. Most of the time, this has led to the pollution of nature. As if acceding to that moral of the story, the protagonist did what he found out to be a common practice in the village – offering a flower on the sick traveler’s womb. As if capitulating to the tradition being lived whole-heartedly in the village, he offered his own flower just as they do.
And so we reached a Kurosawa ending, the end of all the dreams. The dream, the fiction that is the movie itself and the dreams within this film, this fiction, which is perhaps not happenstantially, is entitled “Dreams.” Kurosawa played with our notions of dream and fiction, with utter skill and the appropriately twisted mind, in, well, revealing to us one reality we ought to confront and not escape from, or keep silently to ourselves.