Plot Points: Precipitation and Death in Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams”
Akira Kurosawa knew that his colleagues admired his depictions of rain. The great German director Wim Wenders told him so in the mid-1980s. Torrential downpours, heavy enough to soak the ground and the actors but light enough to see the action, mark key moments in Seven Samurai (1954) and Rashōmon (1950). “How do you shoot it?” Wenders had asked his directorial sempai. The question flattered Kurosawa, but the discussion quickly became too technical for the magazine reporters on hand to cover the conversation.
Nature, or at times the conspicuous absence of it, is perhaps the most basic subject of Japanese art and the one most highly refined through centuries of haiku and painting. But for Kurosawa, precipitation seems to have held a special fascination.
In Dreams, Kurosawa’s 1990 collection of brief, surreal vignettes, only two of the eight “dreams” do not prominently feature something falling from the sky or riding on the wind. They are the two that are most explicitly about death. All eight dreams are about death, but in most of them, the ones that include rain or fog or flower petals, there is the possibility of life, of continuation, of saying “mada da yo” — “not yet.”
Dream 1: Rain on a sunny day
The movie begins with rain on a sunny day. A young boy (Mitsunori Saki) in traditional dress and sandals stands in the wooden gateway of an old-fashioned Japanese house. His mother warns him that on days like these, when the rain falls and the sun shines, fox spirits hold their wedding ceremonies. It is forbidden for humans to witness such a thing, but the boy goes to an impossibly beautiful forest — the first of many impossibly beautiful settings in the film — and sees the theatrical, nō-like spirits with painted faces perform a stylized dance. As punishment for his transgression, the boy is commanded to commit ritual suicide. But there is an alternative, and the pursuit of it takes him to another gorgeous vista beneath a full rainbow. If the rainbow disappears, it will be too late. Rain is sacred, the first dream seems to say, and the end of rain is the end of life.
Kurosawa himself attempted suicide in the early 1970s. What pain caused him to want to do so is a matter for speculation, but it is known that at that time he was less than loved by the Japanese film establishment. He had made enemies among actors and financiers, burned bridges with studios, been too successful among foreign critics. It was his Western admirers, in part, that saved him, as directors like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg became producers in order to get Kurosawa the money he needed to make his sprawling sagas.
Dream 2: Plum blossoms in the wind
Even as Kurosawa’s career revived and reached new peaks in the 1980s by dint of foreign cash, he did not adulterate the essential Japaneseness of his art. The second segment in Dreams references the hinamatsuri dolls that decorate Japanese households, schools, and storefront windows every March on “Girl’s Day.” Kurosawa creates a life-size doll set on the tiered slope of a green hillside. It’s the Japanese equivalent of a giant chessboard come to life, like in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, or the army of anthropomorphic playing cards from Alice in Wonderland. As the brightly-robed “dolls” do their symmetrical dance, captured through the powerful zoom lens that Kurosawa and his latter-day cinematographer Takao Saito previously used for the verdant hillsides of Ran, millions of plum blossoms cascade into the frame like snow. The aesthetics of Japan were never more perfectly conveyed.
Dream 3: Snow on a mountain
Other dreams are less rooted in a specific place and use more universal tropes. In the third dream, men climbing a mountain in waist-deep snow and a blinding blizzard nearly succumb to the cold just meters from their campsite. A woman in white, immune to the cold and speaking with a booming voice from beyond, comes to the expedition leader as he drifts into a sleep from which there is no waking. The scene is almost Arthurian, reminiscent of the healers from Avalon who bear away the dead or dying king. In Japan, though, white is the color of death, not angelic purity. The woman and the snowstorm she personifies are to be resisted.
In this scene, as he did throughout his career, Kurosawa keeps women at a distance. Like the sculptor Michelangelo, but unlike his own male compatriots Yasujirō Ozu and Hayao Miyazaki, Kurosawa’s interests are with the world of men as he perceives it. Partly that’s a bias of his age, his culture, and the male tilt of film generally, but it’s also innocently come by: Kurosawa makes art about himself, a man descended from samurai. To emphasize the personal nature of the film, in half of the vignettes the dreamer (Akira Terao) wears the same kind of fishing hat that Kurosawa often wore.
Dream 4: Dead soldiers
The concept of Dreams comes from a set of short stories by Natsume Soseki, an author so well-regarded in Japan that his face was for many years on the common 1000-yen (roughly $10) note. Kurosawa had drawn on Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-26) era fiction before to good effect, most notably for Rashōmon, but in Dreams only the framing device is taken from the original text. Each of Kurosawa’s dreams, like Natsume’s, begin with the phrase “Konna yume wo mita” — “I saw this dream.”
But the visions themselves belong to the 20th-century director, not the 19th-century writer. Kurosawa did not fight in the war, but like all Japanese people alive in the 1930s and 40s he observed its effects. The fourth dream sees a haggard young commander meet his troops, dead but unaware of it, at the mouth of a tunnel. The tenor of their conversation is agonized, apologetic. But the outcome is inescapable: they are dead and must accept it. Their colorless, lifeless, concrete surroundings and the absence of any precipitation echoes the stillness and emptiness of their condition.
Dream 5: A flock of crows
The best dreams are more personal. In addition to the first two, which seem to derive from Kurosawa’s childhood memories, the highlight is the fifth, in which the dreamer visits Vincent van Gogh in the wheat fields of France. While visiting an art museum the dreamer literally enters van Gogh’s paintings and walks down their swirling yellow lanes in search of the man. When he finds him, working feverishly on the oil composition that would become Wheatfield with Crows, they speak in French. Then van Gogh switches to English, still a foreign language in the otherwise Japanese film. Van Gogh is played by Kurosawa admirer Martin Scorsese under a red goatee, straw cap, and ear bandage, and he explains to the dreamer his obsessive need to make as much art as possible while the daylight lasts. One artist talking to another artist through an artist: a hermetic, self-absorbed conversation, some might say. But for all the 80-year-old Kurosawa knew, Dreams could have been his final film, and in this sequence one feels his urgency, his need to finish saying what he has to say even as he reconciles his death. The dream ends on a smash cut when a large flock of crows comes up from the golden wheat and peppers the blue sky.
Dreams 6: Nuclear fallout on Fuji
The sixth dream returns to Japan, to the foot of Mt. Fuji, tinted red in a popular style known as “akafuji.” A red Fuji (the mountain appears blue from a distance but is actually covered in red soil) is usually a symbol of good luck, but here the mountain is red because it is bathed in the glow of nuclear Armageddon. A fleeing crowd tells the dreamer that Japan’s power plants have all gone critical. In light of 2011’s Fukushima disaster, this dream now seems prophetic. But Kurosawa was probably looking backwards to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to articulate one of postwar Japan’s greatest anxieties: that it might happen again.
Dream 7: Fog on Fuji
The next dream continues the story, with unnaturally-colored wisps of radioactive wind giving way to an eerie white fog. The ruler-edge slope of Fuji now teems with howling mutant cannibals. This pair of dreams is rather polemical, but in Japan nuclear hellscapes are not hypothetical, they’re history. Kurosawa’s colored smoke suggests a smoldering world of chemical refuse, and his colorless fog is a veil separating the human world from the dream-world of monsters.
Dream 8: Making peace with death
Death is, inevitably, at the center of the final dream, which like the third lacks anything whirling in or falling from the sky. But here death is not a cold, painful, unnatural thing; it is an opportunity to celebrate a life well-lived. A very old man (Chishū Ryū, the gentle patriarch of many Ozu pictures) sits beside a flowing stream in the garden of an idyllic pre-industrial town and expounds on his rustic philosophy. Clean, natural living was the key to his 100+ years, he tells the dreamer. A funeral procession for a nonagenarian, the woman he loved, passes by, and they go in good spirits to watch the procession. With bright flowers and pleasant songs, the funeral parade is a lively event. Kurosawa turns his camera down rather than up for the final shot of weeds beneath a clear current. The sky, the air, and all the stuff within it are reserved for the living.
Dreams contains moments of darkness, as all lives do. But its overall impression is one of curiosity, awe, and finally contentment. It is a graceful bow from a man for whom contentment was more dream than reality.
How Dreams fares on Flickchart:
- Ranked #1181
- 617 users have ranked it
- 1 user has it ranked #1 (not me)
- 25 users have it in their top 20 (including me)
- Wins 50% of matchups