Dreams (1990)

Class: Staff
Author: Miles Imhoff
Score: (4/5)
January 13, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Wow. Ok, that was cool. When I started to watch Dreams, I was a little skeptical about how much I'd actually draw from the film. The second and fourth "episodes" were the only ones with which I was forming any personal connection, and even then, it wasn't very deep for me. And then, the movie came to the sixth episode, Mount Fuji in Red, and for the remainder of the movie, I was sold on this very deep look into sin, consequence, redemption, and our need to harmonize with nature. Dreams is, at its heart, a very experimental film. There are, in fact, eight separate episodes that comprise the movie, based on the real dreams of Kurosawa, each one giving a deeply personal message about the director's view on our vice, though perhaps only a few will really click with each individual viewer. Almost like a filter, where one may lose you, another will surely catch you. It is, in this way, that Dreams, one of Akira Kurosawa and Ishiro Honda's final movies, is by far one of their deepest and most intriguing masterpieces to date.

The dreamer, that main character appropriately dubbed "I", starts out his journey as a young child in the sequence entitled Sunshine in the Rain. Walking outside his house one day, he is suddenly stopped in his tracks by a freak storm. His mother warns him that during a rainstorm on a sunny day, foxes hold their wedding processions. Curious, the boy ventures out into the woods, where he comes across masked humanoid foxes, marching in formation. With ceremonial music playing, the foxes occasionally stop to survey the area, and when they see the child, they become absolutely furious. Running home, the child finds his mother, who hesitantly hands him a sheathed dagger, and informs him that the foxes demanded that he commit seppuku. His mother would not allow him to come in, but instead warned him that he must beg the foxes for forgiveness, although the odds were slim. He would locate their domain under the rainbow, and so he journeys to lovely field of flowers under a glowing rainbow...

In The Peach Orchard, "I" is a little older. During the Festival of Dolls, a holiday which represents the blossoming of the peach trees, the young boy brings rice to his sister's friends, but appears to have misjudged the number of guests. Perplexed, he again notices a strange girl as she runs through the house and out into the green steps of what was once a lush peach orchard. The spirits of the fallen trees appear in a form similar to the dolls, and severely scold the boy for the destruction of the peach trees. It becomes apparent however, that it was he who was not responsible; in fact, he had protested the clearing of the orchard. The boy had understood the beauty and harmony of nature where others did not. The spirits understood, and for a brief moment, they kindly revealed to the boy the sight of the wonderful trees and the windswept blossoms once more.

The Blizzard features a grown "I" and a group of men, who all struggle to survive a harsh storm as they traverse cold, snowy, and treacherous mountain terrain. Despite the fact that they only travel for a few hours, the daylight begins to dim, and the severity of the storm continues to increase. Panting heavily, three members of the team begin to give up, for the physical strain is too much. They fall into potentially fatal slumber in the snow, and "I" too succumbs, as a mysterious woman personifying the storm wraps him in sheet after sheet of warm blankets. But "I" struggles to survive, and he fights off death; the blankets of snow and ice and the temptation to give up. Finally, he manages to fend off the snow fairy, rise, and waken his team. The storm subsides, and they find themselves at the camp from which they had set out.

In the fourth episode (directed by Ishiro Honda), dubbed The Tunnel, "I" continues his trek to the home of Private Noguchi's family, to break the news of his tragic death at war. As "I" emerges from a dark tunnel, guarded by a fierce wolf, he suddenly hears footsteps behind him. Pale and blue, Private Noguchi appears to greet his commanding officer, unaware of his death. Heartbroken, "I" reveals to him, and the men who follow shortly thereafter, that they were in fact all dead... and that while he could blame the idiocy of war, it was in fact his own reckless ambition in battle that led to their demise. When they finally understand, "I" orders them to turn and march into the tunnel from whence they came, as the wolf again appears to ward off entrance into that mysterious gateway between life and death.

In Crows, "I" arrives in Europe and inquires about the whereabouts of Vincent Van Gogh. He arrives at his home, where Van Gogh is deeply admiring a beautiful landscape. His eccentricity noted by his reasoning for the removal of his ear, his profound deepness shows as he reveals to "I" the bond between nature and art. "I" follows the man he respects across a landscape of surreal paintings, and finally comes to a field where crows begin to scatter as the famous painter walks through. "I" returns to "reality", gazing at a painting, the very landscape depicted by the journey through his own imagination; the vivid dimension and depth.

In the sixth episode (directed by Ishiro Honda), entitled Mount Fuji in Red, Japan's six nuclear reactors all simultaneously erupt in flames. A massive atomic explosion envelopes the nation, and all the populace can hope for is to run for safety near the ocean. "I" arrives at the ends of the nation, and becomes aware that those who escaped did so at the cost of their own life, having plummeted into the sea at the base of the cliff below. A former nuclear plant worker grimly explains the horrors of the visible radioactive fallout, and the preference of a quicker demise to the terrors that lie in the fatal radiation. In no time, he too leaps to his demise, as "I" attempts with futility to wave away the fallout from a handful of survivors.

As episode seven, The Weeping Demon, rolls around, "I" finds himself on a deserted terrain. Coming face to face with a ragged, single-horned man, he soon learns of the perils of all-out war. Mammoth dandelions grow on the rocky terrain, and in their presence, the "demon" reveals that a horrible nuclear war had altered the physical anatomy of the reckless humans responsible. They had become horned "demons", doomed to a suffering immortality. The strong-willed survive off the weaker, and the starving wither away. The demons with several horns are revealed to "I", writhing as nightfall burns searing misery in their horns. The single-horned demon begins to feel the pains too, and warns "I" to escape, lest he too fall victim.

Finally, in Village of the Watermills, "I" crosses an old bridge, where a group of children oddly leave flowers on a nearby stone. Perplexed, "I" journeys into the quiet community and discovers an old man, who reveals that the beautifully natural village that he calls home is often and appropriately called "The Village." The old man, a centenarian, reveals that a simple life free of technological convenience is satisfying and fulfilling. The inventors and scientists of the world were ever proud of their inventions, but they never brought good. This village, free from electricity or modern outside influences, is unspoiled, and many live long, healthy lives working hard and enjoying the fruits of their labor. Upon inquiring about the children's tradition near the bridge, the old man answers that it honors the death of a sick stranger as he arrived in the village, whom the villagers promptly buried and marked with that very stone. In fact, a funeral procession for a woman, well into her nineties, is about to take place that very day... a former love of the perpetually content old man. Because people rarely die young here, the funerals are always happy, because passing is always welcome. The cheers and instruments of the procession ring through the forest as "I" leaves a flower on the stone near the bridge, leaving this tranquil paradise behind.

So, what does it all mean? The meaning of Sunshine in the Rain is probably among the most abstract. The symbolism escaped me when I first viewed the film. Although, I guess it could be a warning toward humans not to intrude on nature. The main character's curiosity got the better of him, and he interrupted a natural event that he should not have. In this way, when nature rebelled against him, it was symbolic of the repercussions humans face when we intrude on nature.

The Peach Orchard is a little clearer in this regard. It is quite obvious that it is a moral story against the ravaging of nature. However, it also points out hypocrisy. Despite the fact that the family of the main character had destroyed the peach orchard, they still observed the Festival of Dolls. Furthermore, the innocence and understanding of the youth who met the spirits symbolizes a character trait we too should follow in matters observing natural balance.

The Blizzard has the most obscure message. Perhaps it is easy for others to draw, but as I write this, I do feel as though I'm winging it a little. It seems to be, again, following the prevailing theme of the first: man vs. nature. However, no matter how hard the main character tried to overcome, he only overcame death. In the end, he found himself back at his original camp... his mission defeated, but his resolve still strong. He had won a personal victory, but his defiance of nature was in vain.

The Tunnel is a protest against war, and the utter insanity of war. The main character holds back tears as the spirits of those he sent into death remain loyal from beyond the grave. That these soldiers had been under the mad glare of the war machine was one thing, but the fact that he too took these people into grave danger for his own blind and worthless ambition was another. In the end, all he could do was tell them to pass on into rest.

Crows has a unique message about the prevailing theme of nature. Not only does it concern an artist whom Kurosawa deeply respects, but it also concerns his view of Van Gogh as a man of nature, eccentric to the end, but with a beautiful grasp of the surreal. It shows a prevailing love of nature throughout the course of time, a shared view of the normal and abnormal; a different perspective among all of us, the root of which is a constant.

Mt. Fuji in Red, my second favorite episode, is a flat out protest against reckless nuclear activity, a common theme for Honda. It shows the horrors of nuclear war and the dangerous consequence of our needless ambition. The shame of those who perfected the deadly technologies is also revealed, only when the worst eventually happens; and the desire, for the innocents caught in the fatal web, to choose their own means of demise is all that remains. A twisted, Godzilla (1954)-style entry in Dreams, the movie is greatly graced by its inclusion.

The Weeping Demon is a hellish portrayal of the future of those reckless enough to pursue the deadly technologies of nuclear war. Feeding off the weak, the strong "demons" survive, only to face perpetual misery for the wrath they wrought on the environment.

Finally, in Village of the Watermills, there is a hopeful message. A life free from the dangers of "progression" is proposed as the most beneficial solution. "The Village" represents a model for society; tranquility, longevity, and purpose. With such a roller-coaster ride of emotions throughout Dreams, it is refreshing to end on a high note such as this.

The acting in Dreams is very even and quite proficient. Mitsunori Isaki and Toshihiko Nakano, the child actors who portray the main character, have a solid grasp on their roles. Both were a little awkward, but far less than one would expect. Akira Terao's range of emotions brought the adult "I" to life; that often-inquisitive observer of man's vice. Yoshitaka Zuchi, as the spirit of the soldier, brought the sense of loyalty, confusion, and pity to his character that accentuated the dramatic dynamic of The Tunnel. Martin Scorsese, while an excellent director, was probably the least powerful actor present. Still, the eccentricity he brought to the Van Gogh character is delightful, nonetheless. Hiyashi Igawa, the regretful, melodramatic nuclear plant worker, brought to his character a sense of deadpan hopelessness that made Mt. Fuji in Red all the more unnerving. Chosuki Ikariya, utilizing an acting style similar to Kurosawa-favorite Tatsuya Nakadai, slides into the character of the tortured mutant with ease. Chishu Ryu, the old man of "The Village", brings such an excellent innocence and charm to the character that it works to bring the movie to such a brilliant conclusion.

For a movie based around human drama, there is actually a superb use of visual effects. The uses of makeup, for example, to create ghastly casualties, creates an endearingly eerie scene, yet shows restraint from common over-the-top methods of presenting the otherworldly. The matting scenes, used in Crows and The Weeping Demon, are minimalist in their execution, but excellent in their respective usage. The matting in Crows is surrealistic, while the matting in The Weeping Demon actually follows a trend of realism when revealing the monstrous dandelions, which had in the story turned out to be an abominable litmus test of nuclear destruction. Mt. Fuji in Red contained the most special effects work, and generally seemed to consist of colored gasses, filters, and superimposed explosions. The low-key approach to these effects didn't detract from the film, and in fact aided to the human drama, which was center focus.

Dramatic. That is the best way to describe the more modern musical pieces in Dreams. Sometimes neatly closing an episode, other times accompanying one (in the case of Crows, for example), they're often chilling and powerful... a score that is reminiscent of the stronger themes in Ran (1985). But, of course, this is Kurosawa, and one always expects some traditional Japanese styles to make their way into his films. The foxes' wedding procession and the Festival of Dolls are a few examples, but the strong, eerie nature of these pieces can sometimes make a scene a little difficult to bear. The final funeral procession theme, of all the themes in the movie (both traditional and modern), is the most fun. It concludes the film with an uplifting atmosphere, and is an excellent earworm. When it comes together, the Dreams soundtrack is a cross-section of the Kurosawa style, old and new, dramatic and uplifting. It is very intriguing to see it all combine in this one beautiful film.

So, what is Dreams? Is it the strangely surreal view of humankind's need to harmonize with nature crafted by two geniuses of film? Is it a reflection of our guilt? Or is it a story about redemption, wrapped up in gorgeous cinematography and an entertaining shell? Dreams is a deep look within our psyche and a review of the recklessness of civilization. Sometimes chilling, sometimes uplifting, Dreams is anything but a forgettable film.