Man is a genius when he is dreaming.
What better way to interpret this abstract film than by looking through the morality and symbolism that each of Kurosawa’s dreams holds.
The film is a collection of eight ethereal stories based on Akira Kurosawa’s recurring dreams, most of which sprang up from his childhood anxieties. Some of the themes were woven from Japanese folklore while others, if not all, were drawn from strong emotions and states like guilt, fear, death, and destruction that made most to the nightmare segments of the film.
He expressed, in a “magical realism” approach, his disappointments in the society he inhabited where man’s greed and innate propensity to immorality could potentially ruin the building blocks of civilisation. The movie is a representation of his dismay and failures in the real world that manifested themselves through his dreams.
Kurosawa’s scenarios open and close much like your eyes as you drift off to the REM stage of your sleep. At the beginning of each dream, a sudden noise or movement rouses you as a signal that a new world is about to be introduced.
The ghoulish characters, although cartoonish in form, act as significant symbols in the short stories. Just like in dreams, these symbols parallel the realities and emotions experienced in real life. Viewers must take the time to recognise the meanings of these symbols. Only through this that we can appreciate how compelling the film is rather than indicting it for its unorthodox style. However, “highbrow” movie critics would rather call the movie bland than giving it credit for its uniqueness and deep meaning.
There are plenty of imagery involved that give off an unwelcoming mood, except in the last sequence wherein viewers can appreciate the humor and light atmosphere that oppose the earlier dark segments.
The dialogue is written to juxtapose the powerful performances by the actors. The only downside I can draw from the film are its so-called “dragging” scenes which can bore anyone who is unfamiliar with Akira Kurosawa’s works.
The first sequence “Sunshine Through the Rain” explores Kurosawa’s curiosities and anxieties as a child. Out of the child’s forbidden curiosity and disobedience, there was a dire consequence resulting from his actions that he needed to face. He must then seek the forgiveness of the foxes to prevent this consequence from happening, but his mother grimly told him the foxes seldom forgive. Maybe in the awakened life, Kurosawa as a child disobeyed an elder’s order and that he carried this guilt into his dream. The dream didn’t put him into a favorable position; that’s what Kurosawa wanted us to think when the boy’s fate was left unknown in the end.
“The Peach Orchard”, which is the second sequence, explores how nature is threatened by man’s greed and destructive behavior. Ironically, most of the civilization thinks these technological advancements can lead us toward the path of so-called progress, not minding that we are losing one of the most important elements in human existence — mother nature. We wonder how would anyone dare destroy such beauty for a price of something so small. The child’s innocence and devastation at human’s destruction prompted the spirits to give him a chance in seeing an orchard bloom. This is yet a symbol of hope emphasizing that as long as someone cares enough, there’s still a chance.
The third segment which is entitled “The Blizzard” is one of the most memorable segments of the film. It taps man’s desires in reaching his goals no matter how hard the challenges may be.
The snow spirit, who appears in the form of a woman, symbolizes the temptations that may lure us along our journey. By resisting the comforts that the spirit offered, the man survived the horrors of the storm and reached his destination successfully.
Another powerful sequence of the film can be found in the fourth dream entitled “The Tunnel”.
The segment exploits anti-war idealism of Kurosawa. It shows how the crimes of war could claim the lives of thousands of people who have also aspirations of their own. The scenes were so heavily dramatic that you can feel the horror and atrocities war could bring. The scene also showed the commander’s guilt in his role of the platoon’s death. In a symbolic attempt to turn his back on his own painful memories and suffering, the officer commands his platoon to march forward. “The Tunnel” is a tremendous charge of emotions about moving on from the scars of war.
“Crows” features the famous painter Vincent Van Gogh. It studies the soul and obsessions of an artist by looking through his inspiration and style. It also connotes a generic phrase ‘Art is everywhere’ and that it takes a whole lot of contemplation to appreciate the things around us.
“Mount Fuji in Red” and “The Weeping Demons” have a similar traumatic message about the vile effects of nuclear plants and potentially, Nuclear War to humanity. It’s a realization that man’s worst enemy is himself. A chain of reaction from man’s greed and ambition can be seen starting from the explosion of a nuclear reactor causing the eruption of Mount Fuji, to the mutation of humans and plants because of the radiation from the mentioned explosion. In the end the only one we can blame for those events is ourselves. The only demon we should fear is our own kind.
The last dream is the “Village of the Watermills” wherein we are taken into a place of tranquillity and natural existence; free from technology and consumerism; and villagers only taking from nature no more than they need to live. It’s a big shift from the nightmares encountered in the previous dreams. The people in the village live so long that when someone passes away, they treat it as a time to celebrate and rejoice. The overall mood of the final story is one of comfort and healing.