Dreams (夢, Yume) is a 1990 magical realist anthology of eight stories, written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, inspired by his recurring dreams. An international co-production of Japan and the United States, Dreams was made with assistance from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
Akira Kurosawa (Japanese: 黒澤 明, March 23, 1910 – September 6, 1998) was a Japanese filmmaker and painter who directed thirty films in a career over fifty years. Kurosawa directed around one film per year throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, including a number of classics which were often adapted by other directors. These included Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954) – which was remade in 1960 by John Sturges as The Magnificent Seven, Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961) and High and Low (1963). He is widely considered one of the most important and influential filmmakers in the history of cinema.
Kurosawa’s bold, dynamic style was strongly influenced by Western cinema, yet distinct. In 1990, the year Dreams was released, he accepted the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Dreams is his most personal work, taken from his own life and unconscious mind. He addresses themes such as childhood, spirituality, art, death, and the mistakes and transgressions made by humans against nature. The episodes within Dreams do not have a single narrative, but are the fragmentary adventures of a “surrogate Kurosawa” (often recognizable by the character wearing Kurosawa’s trademark hat) through eight different segments, or “dreams”, each one with a title. Each is more a fairy tale than a dream in the filmic sense.
A child sees a forbidden fox wedding ceremony and is told he must suicide, another weeps as he witnesses the spirits of a peach orchard that has been cut down by his family, reflecting the human war on nature.
The fear of nature fighting back is a bleak dream of men struggling through a mountain blizzard. The horror of war is demonstrated as a Japanese officer is confronted by the ghosts of his annihilated platoon.
Our understanding of nature is questioned in “Crows”, the only dream not made in Japanese, where Vincent van Gogh is portrayed by American filmmaker Martin Scorsese, with a broad New York accent, and the protagonist travels through the images that fill van Gogh’s tortured imagination.
Our abuse of nature comes to its logical conclusion as we see nuclear power points explode behind Mount Fuji, human ingenuity able to create but not control these forces; in the end, all they can do is colour the toxic pollution so people know what is killing them.
“The Weeping Demon” is the seventh dream, and of particular interest in Cannibal Studies. It shows the aftermath of nuclear devastation, a fear that has haunted us all for eighty years, particularly the Japanese, who were the first and only people to experience nuclear weapon attacks.
A man is wandering around a misty, bleak mountainous terrain. He meets an oni (demon or ogre), who is a mutated human with a single horn on his head. Oni are known for indulging in murder and cannibalism when they get the chance. They are typically portrayed as hulking figures with one or more horns growing out of their heads, massive teeth, and occasionally a third eye in the centre of the forehead.
The demon tells him that there was a nuclear conflagration, which resulted in the destruction of nature and animals, the growth of dandelions taller than humans, and horns sprouting on the heads of those humans left. The horns cause them to feel excruciating pain each evening; but they cannot die, so they howl in agony all night. Many of these demons were formerly millionaires and government officials, who are now suffering through a hell befitting their sins.
Even in this apocalyptic post-war world, the social hierarchies continue to oppress – the demons with two or three horns eat those with only one.
“There’s no food! We feed on ourselves. The weak ones go first. It’s about my turn now. Even here we have grades. One-horn demons like myself always get eaten by those who have two or three horns. Before they were powerful and pretentious. And now they still throw their weight around as demons.”
The demon that the man meets is waiting to be eaten, seeing this as an escape from his agony and nagging hunger, but also as a punishment – before the wars, he was a farmer who poured milk into the river and buried vegetables to maintain market prices. He warns the man to flee, but when the man asks where he should go, the demon just asks if he too wants to become a demon. The terrified man runs away with the demon in pursuit.
The film finishes with a meditation on death, the final and irrevocable return to nature. Laying down our technology, our appetites and our bodies is celebrated – peace at last.
Condemned as disjointed by some critics, the film has a logic to it, a dream logic, in which things are out of place yet seem quite natural. It starts with a little boy witnessing the wedding procession of the foxes, a slow funereal procession that is forbidden for human viewing, and finishes in a village that has spurned technology and progress in favour of clean air and water and long, peaceful lives, where we witness a funeral procession that is pure colourful celebration.
Dreams is a sumptuous, thoughtful, dramatic, film from which I found it hard to look away. Although it is one of Kurosawa’s last films, it shows him at the height of his power and creativity, and offers a glimpse into his mind, just as he glimpses the mind of van Gogh.
Dreams is now a classic, as are all Kurosawa’s works, but it currently has only 66% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, proving that a lot of people can’t be bothered listening to (or even watching) other people’s dreams. The New York Times critic called it:
“…a collection of short, sometimes fragmentary films that are less like dreams than fairy tales of past, present and future”
But dreams, like the evening news, are always fragmentary – narratives jump from tragedy to kitsch to humour. Dreams often reflect and amplify our repressed emotions and fears, and fairy tales are mythic versions of dreams. Many, perhaps most, fairy tales include cannibalistic giants, wicked step-parents, witches and ogres, such as Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel or The Juniper Tree. Children wander, lost and hungry, through brooding forests and come across strange and fantastic creatures. Dreams reveal our repressed fears about the human attacks on nature and each other, the struggles and conflicts that lead to monsters or demons.
In dreams, we lose our rational sense of causality – anything can happen. We get lost, like in fairy tales, in forests or snowstorms or in the mind of Vincent van Gogh, seeing the world the way he had to, consuming it and reimagining it before he could paint it. We meet ghosts of people who don’t know they are dead. Nuclear power plants explode, a fear on everyone’s mind in 1990, four years after The Chernobyl disaster. In dreams, ethics become aesthetics, to quote from Hannibal. Dreams, like fairy tales, are episodic and disjointed, and the film captures this brilliantly.
Although fairy tales date back centuries, they remain ever popular, with new versions or completely new stories released to reflect the fears of each historical period. In our modern period, the growing and changing presence of media makes us all aware of the bloodshed on the battlefields and in the death camps and slaughterhouses of modern industrial societies, images that we desperately try to forget or repress. It is no wonder that dreams are full of cannibals.