7:54 am Jul. 30, 2011
"Man is a genius when he is dreaming."—Akira Kurosawa
It’s fitting that Dreams is screening in the middle of the I.F.C. Center’s career-spanning retrospective of Akira Kurosawa’s films and not at the end. Though Kurosawa has said, “my films come from my need to say a particular thing at a particular time,” and Dreams was one of his later films, it’s also sort of an ur-text. It speaks to very specific issues about reflecting on one’s past but it also is all about the creative drive.
To Kurosawa, creating was living. His memoir, entitled Something Like an Autobiography, largely focuses on his career as a filmmaker and his experiences making movies. The creative process was just that vital to him: “[If] I were to write anything at all, it would turn out to be nothing but talk about movies. In other words, take 'myself,' subtract 'movies', and the result is zero.” By a similar token, Dreams, a series of vignettes based on images from Kurosawa’s own dreams, is his most personal film aand one of his most illuminating.
In Dreams, Kurosawa shows us what he felt was a necessarily filtered version of his creative process. He once said that, “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.” So it’s necessary for him to put an avatar of himself within every one of Dreams’ stories. They remind the viewer that Dreams is a mediated representation of Kurosawa’s life.
As “I,” Kurosawa’s stand-in, actor Akira Terao does a marvelous job of pantomiming his way through various scenarios. His body language does most of the heavy lifting, perfectly conveying an enraptured kind of trepidation upon being confronted with so many startling memories and visions of impossible events.
If you had to classify Dreams using a filmic genre, fantasy would probably be it. Though each story appears to have a moral component to them, they are not fables but rather individual narrative fragments that evoke memories of events both real and imaginary for Kurosawa. The two kinds of experiences are interchangeable, according to Kurosawa. He says in Something Like an Autobiography: "Perhaps it is the power of memory that gives rise to the power of imagination."
For example, both “Mount Fuji in Red” and “The Weeping Demon,” segments about what the world will look like on the brink of and after a nuclear apocalypse, evoke images from Something Like an Autobiography of the 1923 Tokyo earthquake. Already in this passage, one can see Kurosawa’s impulse to expand on and explore through his art his fears of leaving familiar places and ideas behind. Just by looking at what remains of the city and its inhabitants, Kurosawa was witnessing something raw that would stay with him.
Amid the expanse of nauseating redness lay every kind of corpse imaginable. I saw corpses charred black, half-burned corpses, corpses in gutters, corpses floating in rivers, corpses piled up on bridges, corpses blocking off a whole street at an intersection, and every manner of death possible to human beings displayed by corpses. When I involuntarily looked away, my brother scolded me, "Akira, look carefully now.”
You can see reflections of this jarring encounter with death in “Mount Fuji in Red,” in the way that I must choose between dying a painful death from exposure to carcinogenic gasses or kill himself by jumping into the sea. Likewise, the inhuman cannibal orgies in “The Weeping Demon” reflect a primal fear of life after humanity.
Similarly, the above passage from Something Like an Autobiography foreshadows the importance of looking in Dreams. So much of Dreams revolves around the necessary act of breaking taboos. It allows the viewer to see something that they either know that they should not or something that they will never see or experience in the same way ever again.
As a boy, I (Mitsunori Isaki) in “Sunshine through the Rain” is warned by his mother to stay indoors so that he doesn’t disturb a nearby wedding procession of foxes. He disobeys her and gets caught. When he returns home, his mother insists that she can’t let I come home.
“You went and you saw … something you shouldn’t have,” she murmurs.
The image of her carefully closing the doors of I’s childhood home in his face is devastating.
Kurosawa’s film comes full circle later on in “Village of the Watermills,” a segment that reveals just how firmly Kurosawa believed that every emotion has its season. As a child, I is not ready to be confronted by the passage of time (cf. “The Peach Orchard,” the second segment in Dreams). But later, at a more advanced age and after having seen many bewitching and unsettling things, he accepts that all things must end. I happily joins a funeral parade in “Village of the Watermills,” singing and dancing merrily with the townsfolk as they say goodbye to one of their own. Every event has its context in Dreams or more accurately, every experience has its moment.
But at the same time, to see something like Dreams before seeing seminal films like Throne of Blood or Ran is a wonderful notion, too. One should visit Kurosawa’s summation of his creative life in the middle of exploring his oeuvre. After all, I is consumed by the need to create art in “The Crows,” the middle segment in Dreams. In “The Crows,” I meets Vincent Van Gogh (an unforgettable Martin Scorsese) and sees his mania to create reflected in the Dutch impressionist. “It’s so difficult to hold it inside,” Van Gogh says and the same is true for I. "The Crows" ends with an uncertain shot of I as he decides whether to continue chasing after Van Gogh or to go his own way. Like Dreams, "The Crows" can and maybe should be watched in the middle of Kurosawa’s filmography. It’s a summation of a life in pictures and as such is a great portal to Kurosawa’s other works.