‘Once I Had a Dream’: Movie Review of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams

“Man is a genius when he is dreaming”- this is precisely the seed of inspiration and indomitable spirit behind Akira Kurosawa’s successful career as a film maker that spanned 50 years. The 30 films that he directed during this space built him into a revered figure of cinema the world over, astonishing and intriguing film makers and viewers alike. Kurosawa is regarded as one of the most influential directors of Japan who in his lifetime was able to carve out a niche for himself as well as Japan in the world of cinema, firmly establishing his conviction that films are one of Japan’s proudest cultural achievements. For his unique and innovative cinematic accomplishments as well as for enriching the world of cinema on the whole, Kurosawa was awarded the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1989.

‘Dreams’ (1990) is a film comprising of eight sequences of dreams that the director himself is said to have dreamt in his different phases of lifetime. It involves the technique of ‘magic realism’ that gives a perfect voice to his creative ideas and images- blending the romantic with the pragmatic, his idealism with his ever-present concerns of the society he inhabited. The sequences are metaphoric and elusive, and border on moods that are bleak rather than cheerful; it is only in the last sequence called ‘The Village of the Watermills’ that we feel an ounce of humour and peace in an otherwise very depressing string of dream segments. The film involves the use of imagery in plenty and dialogues are precise and well-placed. Packed with powerful performances by the actors, the film speaks through their expressions that convey the myriad emotional textures of the characters. The background music adds charm and completeness to the themes of each dream, making them replete with every element of cinematic beauty and exuberance.

Kurosawa explores in large his fears and concerns of the world he inhabits. He clearly prognosticates the dangers of this world, like nuclear devastation in the dream sequence called ‘Mt. Fuji in Red’ and the horrendous consequences of a nuclear holocaust in ‘The Weeping Demon’. He brings attention to man’s mistakes as is evident by the words of the nuclear scientist in ‘Mt. Fuji….’- “Man’s stupidity is unbelievable’. One gets to see a savagely painted sky of red radiations that consume every life around and induce abnormal mutations like the horned demons and gigantic dandelions in ‘The Weeping Demon’.

In ‘The Peach Orchard’, he explores the threat of environmental destruction as the world progresses on the path of ‘development’ and in the process ruins what is most precious to human life and existence- nature. In this graceful dream sequence, Kurosawa employs the traditional Japanese festival called ‘Hina Matsuri’ or the Doll Festival. The Dolls represent the peach blossoms and are said to visit every household during this spring festival. But man has been ruthless again, for an entire peach orchard has been felled for selfish purposes. Subtlely evocative of his own sensitive childhood, Kurosawa presents a little boy whose sincere love for the peach orchard wins him a reward from the Dolls to witness a glimpse of the orchard in bloom again. They evoke life in the treeless slopes of the orchard by performing a slow dance called ‘Eteranku’, inspired by Japanese classical music. Kurosawa adds an authentic and aesthetic touch to the mood and music of this scene, with the Dolls in their traditional dress, headgears and jewellery.

The last dream sequence of the movie, ‘The Village of the Watermills’, too deals with the theme of nature but in a more hopeful, harmonious and cheerful way. Speaking against the modern trends of materialism and consumerism, Kurosawa builds a world of tranquility and natural existence that is inherent in the human consciousness. Like the traveler-tourist we see in ‘The Weeping Demon’ who finds himself wandering in that bleak mountainous terrain of that sequence, we see him again as a dweller of the cities who chances upon that utopic village of bucolic serenity. The old man whom he comes across explains him some basic philosophies of life that celebrate its cyclical existence, much like the wheels of the watermill that circle in rhythmic fulfillment. And towards the end of the dream, we witness the procession of a happy funeral alongwith the awestruck urban dweller. And once again Kurosawa expresses his conviction in the miracle of a natural life through the words of the wise, old man- “It’s good to be alive. It’s exciting”.

These dream sequences that deal completely with the idea of a better and alternative way of life may appear offensive to people with more mainstream notions. But that may precisely be Kurosawa’s intention, to remind man that he is really “just a part of nature”.

The recurring melancholy in his dream sequences conveys some important messages to mankind. One dream segment called ‘The Tunnel’ shows a Japanese army officer returning home from war who has to confront his platoon of dead soldiers and convince them that they are dead. Packed with powerful dialogues and astounding performances, it makes the viewers reel with shock and horror at the atrocities of conflicts that do nothing but cost the lives of thousands of innocents. . The ‘yurei’ of Private Noguchi does not believe that he is dead; “I went home…I ate the special cakes my mother prepared for me”, he says. It takes the Commander’s brevity to convince him that he was dead indeed, urging him to return to ether for the world has nothing much to give him now. Noguchi’s retreat is followed by the visit of the entire third platoon under the Commander who was killed in action. To face the ghosts of his war experiences is nothing less than a nightmare, for will he ever be redeemed of the guilt he faces on realizing his own role in being instrumental to their death? And so he says, “I could place all the responsibility on the stupidity of war, but I cannot deny my own thoughtlessness”. In a symbolic attempt to turn his back to on his own painful memories and suffering, the officer ‘commands’ the platoon of the blue-faced ‘yureis’ to ‘march forward’.

‘The Tunnel’ is, thus, characteristic of its tremendous charge of emotions and the scar of war.

If on one hand Kurosawa detests the anomalies of war, he celebrates the will of human spirit on the other- the passion of adventure within our hearts to climb the impossible and to explore the heights of the unknown. In the dream sequence called ‘The Blizzard’ we see a group of four mountaineers struggling to climb up a mountain path, caught as they are in a terrible blizzard. The men are dispirited and seem ready to quit any moment, but the leader endeavours to move on. The lull of defeat becomes eminent; the howl of the storm is ominous in its predicament of approaching death. Then appears the figure of a strange woman, possibly believed to be the ‘Yoki-onna’ of Japanese myth who is supposed to reveal her and kill travelers trapped in snowstorms. In other words, she represents the lure of surrender in that difficult situation to which the men seem to have succumbed. In using the figure of the Yoki-onna in its accurate mythical form with an aggressive and ghost-like appearance, Kurosawa’s careful study and perfectionism become evident. When the leader fights off this temptation of false comfort and chooses instead to threat the illusion of defeat, the Yoki-onna soon disappears into mist. With the human spirit and courage in victory, we hear the blow of trumpets that sets our heart to celebrate at once.