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Revisit:

Dreams

Dir: Akira Kurosawa

1990

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

Dreams is a collection of vignettes based upon Akira Kurosawa’s own recollected visions that artfully conveys the complexities – hopeful, horrible, humorous and beautiful – of humanity’s relationship with nature and art, life and death. While each segment could easily stand alone, the combination of vignettes and the manner in which they are arranged creates a cohesive trail that viewers can use to follow the trajectory of Kurosawa’s process. At once ethereal and richly human, timeless and urgent, Dreams constitutes a departure from the master director’s usual repertoire. It is also, looking back, an eerie yet lovely reminder of his all-encompassing and prophetic awareness as an artist.

From fairytale dreams of children and rainbows, anthropomorphic foxes and personified peach trees, to the strange unison of danger and fantasy that sometimes slips into our subconscious as we sleep – Kurosawa’s dreamscapes run the gamut without ever over-indulging in unnecessary effects. This may be due in part to lucky timing, for despite his collaboration with Steven Spielberg and Industrial Light & Magic, Dreams was made before the temptation to over-saturate the screen with computer imagery had fully infiltrated the Hollywood psyche. The film is thus lush or dark, cartoonish or elegant, haunting or playful as the director sees fit – no more, no less and never pandering to audience preference or a more bearable vision of the apocalypse.

In some cases, this effect is poignant and stunning. Take, for instance, “The Peach Orchard,” the second tale in Kurosawa’s series, in which a little boy convinces the spiritual protectors of a destroyed orchard to reveal his beloved trees in bloom one last time. The rich pageantry of traditional costume and dance stands in for nature’s majesty, conveying the awe-inspiring power of the orchard even as it humanizes the plight of trees cut down in their prime. And when the dream ends, cutting from the dance to a shot of full, bright, transient blossoms, it evokes all the mingled regret and elation of the moment. Scenes like this, along with those in “Sunshine Through the Rain” and “Village of the Watermills,” show man in concert with nature, for better or for worse. But all of them end with a sense of hope for greater connection, understanding and respect – even if achieved as recompense for transgression.

Of course, there’s also the fallout of human blunder – the times when nature is not so forgiving. Occurring after the first two lush and dreamy vignettes, scenes like “The Blizzard” and “The Tunnel” startle with their sudden harshness, with the human suffering that man in nature brings upon himself – or, in some cases, on other men and earth alike. But viewed in the context of 2011, none of Kurosawa’s nightmares are more frightening, disturbing or prophetic than “Mount Fuji in Red,” a vision of nuclear holocaust in the same country once shattered by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and once again experiencing the very real terror of nuclear crisis and inescapable, deadly radiation.

Shot with colors so bright and plumes so extreme as to recall an anime explosion, the Japanese nuclear meltdown of Kurosawa’s imagination is that much scarier for its cheerful color, its seeming cleanliness – a science-fiction scenario that nearly did occur. Juxtaposed with “The Weeping Demon,” a post-apocalyptic telling of a Buddhist fable that reveals a world of mutant humans and distorted flowers in the wake of the nuclear crisis, “Mount Fuji in Red” sucks all the brilliance and color from the trees, flowers, water and even people, everything that makes art full and pleasing to the eye, and concentrates it in the implosion of engineered power, leaving the earth parched, dry and colorless beneath an unnaturally, horribly bright red sky.

Perhaps now, more than ever, the environmental message of Kurosawa’s Dreams deserves a focused revisit. As difficult as it is to witness the exaggerated but otherwise uncanny replay of last month’s Japanese nuclear crisis, or to see the director’s vision of our world reduced to giant dandelions, dust, ash and demonic mutants, it couldn’t be any more critical to our times. Then again, it was just as critical in 1990, 1945, or any other post-industrial era for that matter. The relative timelessness of Kurosawa’s film, in setting and theme, in costume and context, reinforces this position and demands consideration. Dreams takes the position that fears and fables and subconscious meanderings are the stuff of human palimpsest, to be told and re-told, written and re-written throughout the passage of time…and that this film is just one in a string of such stories, intended to provoke and delight and to urge us – but not necessarily to define anything in particular.

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