For many American film aficionados, Akira Kurosawa belongs to a select cadre of foreign directors, along with names like Bergman, Tarkovsky, and Hitchcock, that has been canonized by cinephiles and written about by film critics for so long that it often seems that there is not much more to say about them or their work. Their oeuvres were each forged from their respective nation’s geopolitical history and from their own larger-than-life biographies.Their continued influence on American cinema (and especially genre cinema) is arguably greater than that of most American filmmakers. And their sheer talent behind the camera — from their novel stylistic choices to their often groundbreaking technical innovations — is still widely cited as highwater marks for the medium.
Because of this type of popular lionization, approaching Akira Kurosawa’s anthology film Dreams (1990) with a “critical lens” is likely the default position for most viewers. In fact, that Kurosawa’s name typically appears prominently alongside the film’s title across most of its posters and other promotional materials, in critics’ reviews, and on the covers of home media releases (where the film is often called “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams”) underscores this idea: from the outset, viewers are being invited to consider the vision of an auteur. Before the film even begins, the viewer knows that this is an Important Film. Before the first frame arrives on screen, anyone familiar with some of Kurosawa’s best-known works (The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Ikiru, Ran, etc.) will also likely know that this is one of the director’s final features — the late-career work of a “mature director.”
This initial framing of Dreams as “of significance” is important for assessing how the film has subsequently been understood. Most of the writing about Dreams, unsurprisingly, spins out in predictable directions: it details stories from Kurosawa’s life to explain how the film’s eight loosely autobiographical vignettes might be interpreted as confessional or therapeutic exercises or, perhaps, as indulgent attempts to restate philosophical or ideological themes that were occupying Kurosawa at the time. Much of it also highlights the role of the Great American Directors (Scorsese, Lucas, and Spielberg) in helping to bring the film to fruition, highlighting the historically tumultuous relationship between Kurosawa and Japanese production companies. In other words, most extant writing about the film assumes that the starting place for understanding something about its cultural value is an understanding of something about the life of Kurosawa himself. Given the personal nature of the film, this impulse makes sense and has often yielded interesting insight into the film. At the same time, however, it is an approach to the film that always puts the images on the screen into relief against Kurosawa’s past work already: we cannot but help but see echoes of the iconic rainfall in Rashomon in the showers that surround the boy’s house in the first scene, or to think about how the subsequent scene’s peach blossoms recall the way that Kurosawa flutters leaves across the street during showdowns in Yojimbo, or to consider the connection between the guilt of the nuclear plant worker in the penultimate vignette and the bureaucratic mentality explored in Ikiru.
I would like to begin our present assessment with an attempt to separate the name and legacy (and weight) of “Akira Kurosawa” from Dreams. Instead, I want to consider what it means to approach the film and its images on their own terms, from the perspective of a (hypothetical) audience that might experience the film not as the creation of a known entity, but rather as a unique creation divorced from its creator’s prior work. By doing so, I argue, the film’s broader value as a type of collective memory work, one that transcends its premise as a series of recollections by an individual to interpolate its audience into a shared past, emerges in sharper focus. That it does this in ways that are less resonant with audiences who might already be familiar with Kurosawa’s past work is both a testament to Kurosawa’s legacy as a director and a caution for how a famous director’s name may work against their films’ ability to meaningfully connect with audiences.
The study of collective memory is, at its core, an assessment of how and why we publicly remember particular moments from the past at particular times. Unlike the study of history proper, which at its best offers us a richer and fuller picture of past events, the study of public memory focuses on questions centered around the strategies of social remembrance: how are our shared public (or “collective”) memories created? For what reasons are these memories deployed? For what reasons do audiences accept, reject, or participate in these shared remembrances? One of the earliest scholars of public memory, French thinker Maurice Halbwachs, explained that “the past does not recur as such…the past is not preserved but is reconstructed on the basis of the present.” This reconstruction’s success in finding an audience, he tells us, is rooted in its ability to adhere to those shifting “collective frameworks” we use to “reconstruct an image of the past which is in accord, in each epoch, with the predominant thoughts of the society.” In other words, collective memory is social, contextual, public and, ultimately, rhetorical in nature: it persuades, it argues, it moves.
Scholars of collective memory often seek to analyze cultural artifacts that are designed to provoke particular kinds of public remembrances. Unsurprisingly, these artifacts are typically visual in nature — statues, monuments, memorials, painting, and photography are common sites of public memory, especially if they offer any kind of political controversy. For example, a scholar of public memory would be interested in analyzing the political motives behind both the erection of statues of Confederate generals in the early twentieth century and those behind their removal by Black Lives Matter protestors in the early twenty-first century. Similarly, public memory scholars have regularly considered representations of the past in visually-oriented entertainment media: there is a growing body of compelling work on how collective memory is created through feature films, on television, in video games, etc. The best analyses are those that attend to the unique technological features and visual grammars of each medium. To analyze the creation of public memory through film, for example, means considering how a director’s creative choices connect (or “articulate”) to established collective frameworks for creating, reinforcing, or challenging an audience’s memories of the past.
As an anthology film, Dreams revels in a wider variety of creative choices than are feasible for most films. Across vignettes, there are dramatic changes in setting, color, lighting, the use of special effects, and camera movement. Audiences are taken across time periods, move in and out of realms of fantasy and reality (and of blurred combinations of both), through both rural and urban locations, and are asked to view each story as a separate, standalone dream. While each of Dreams’ eight narratives can offer audiences familiar with Kurosawa’s biography (or even just his films) some potential insight into moments in the director’s own life, they also work independent of this association, functioning as universal morality tales that carefully draw different audiences into their respective worlds, offering a number of visual and audio clues that make the story of the protagonist (a character named “I,” who serves as a kind of on-screen surrogate for Kurosawa) accessible to a broader public audience than the film critics and samurai film fans that remain the film’s most likely audiences.
How does it do this? Visually, each vignette offers a few signs that invite association between the narrative and the audience. In “Sunshine Through the Rain” and “The Peach Orchard,” Kurosawa regularly invites us to consider the mystical worlds and secret rituals that unfold before us from the perspective of a child. Sometimes this perspective is forced by the camera: we watch the foxes dance from behind the protagonist’s shoulder, we are asked to consider the height and weight of the closed gate from the perspective of the boy looking up at its shutting, we are made to stare directly into the child’s face as he twists it into a series of befuddled expressions, or we are provided with landscapes that dwarf him, diminishing his individual significance. If the film hopes to make arguments about the past, if it is to connect to those existing frameworks for collective memory, it is key that, from early on, Kurosawa creates these associations and identifications between the audience and the film.
Subsequent scenes build on some of these ideas to further connect the audience to the action, further closing the distances between “Kurosawa the auteur,” the protagonist “I,” and the audience. The obscured faces of the young mountain climbers in “The Blizzard” allow them to be anyone — you, me, my friends, your friends. A more visually abstracted character is easier to connect to, to sympathize with, to universalize. The slow, sometimes plodding pace of these early segments invites us to linger and look at the details of the scenes; we spend time here, in these places, with these people, developing a fullness of perspective, an attentiveness to each step, each breath, each character. It is also key that these early scenes offer a variety of sound design cues through which various audiences can connect to the action on the screen. Swelling Western classical pieces are skillfully juxtaposed with traditional Japanese music, silence is used regularly to focus our vision, and dialogue is brief, clear, and lower in the mix.
The use of obscured faces and careful sound design continues — with the aid of heavy makeup — in “The Tunnel.” In both that sequence and in the next two (“Crows” and “Mount Fuji in Red”), Dreams relies primarily on effects work to draw its audiences in. Here, again, different audiences will find a number of visual anchor points of interest: zombie films, surrealist cinema, Godzilla movies, science fiction, art-house flicks, animation. The film’s middle sections offer faster paced storytelling and the moral lessons offered in these vignettes are presented more directly and are more specific in their focus (war, art, and science) than those that opened the film. In this way, the earlier sequences work at creating audience identification with the young “I,” setting the stage for the more politically and ideologically charged moralizing found in the subsequent vignettes. The boy’s sense of bravery and wonder in the face of fantastical scenes and frightening visions sets him (and the viewer) up for the tougher and more contextual lessons of adulthood witnessed by Akira Terao as the adult “I.” Kurosawa uses a number of recurring aesthetic cues to underscore these linkages: haze and smoke, Western classical music, saturated primary colors, recurring costuming elements, etc.
The final two vignettes, “The Weeping Demon” and “The Village of the Water Mills,” each offer some broader commentary on the human condition as the film completes its movement from the personal (dreams 1, to 3) to the political (dreams 4, to 6) to the spiritual (dreams 7 and 8). As was the case in the middle sequences, recurring aesthetic cues provide some connective tissue for the anthology’s late segments (e.g., nature sounds, extended musical swells, fog/steam/water, I’s clothing). Here, again, the audience is asked to identify with the protagonist through shots from his line of sight (e.g., in conversation with the village elder), through perspectives that linger on his relationship to the film’s effects (e.g., the oversized dandelions), and through his verbalizing of only the most basic and obvious questions.
Throughout the film, Dreams’ dialogue is concise, its characters are typically reduced to one-note sketches or caricatures, its visual effects and auditory cues are foregrounded over dialogue and character action, and its moral lessons are presented relatively blunt manner. Dreams is not subtle, and the dreams that it presents are not the type that one quickly forgets the next day: each is purposeful, deliberate, and carefully crafted. Its lessons can be summarized easily: be brave, trust in honesty, show determination, accept responsibility, be passionate, act mercifully, be wary of authority, seek simplicity. The film is at its best when the audience is convinced that these lessons are worth learning, that they apply to them and are not simply learned by the character on the screen (or by the director behind the camera). Dreams works hard to create opportunities for this to happen, for the audience to separate the dreams from the auteur, the collective value from the individual experience. When Kurosawa’s film succeeds at this, we recognize our own experiences and our own memory fragments in the form and content, the style and substance, or his eight dreams.
Dreams and Memory
Of course, dreams are not memories and the sharing of dreams is not the same thing as creating collective memory. What, then, does it mean to suggest that Dreams might “interpolate its audience into a shared collective past”?
Halbwachs discusses the relationship of memories to dreams in the first chapter of On Collective Memory, explaining that “our dreams are composed of fragments of memory too mutilated and mixed up with others to allow us to recognize them…in order to remember, one must be capable of reasoning and comparing and of feeling in contact with a human society that can guarantee the integrity of our memory.” Furthermore, he adds, “there never appears in dreams an event accompanied by all its peculiarities, without a mixture of alien elements.” In our dreams, for Halbwachs, we are the most removed from the collective: “The dream is based only upon itself, whereas our recollections depend on those of all our fellows, and on the great frameworks of the memory of society.” In other words, dreams are notable for both their close link to our own subconsciouses and for their corollary departure from those shared forms of social understanding we use with others: they are individual, obtuse, confusing, and tenuous in their fidelity to our actual past experiences.
A film about recalled dreams is not, of course, a film in which we see actual dreams in all their internal, individual, original nuance. The experience of a dream cannot be represented in full through any existing visual medium, and even if it could, dreams’ personal and fragmentary nature would make them unintelligible to most audiences. Thus, Kurosawa’s efforts to link his individual dream recollections to larger social frameworks — through genre tropes, references to popular culture and political events, strategically placed visual and audio cues, symbolism, etc. — all of this works together to render his individual, personal experiences into a coherent, connected series of stories that push towards greater universality. As an audience, we must believe that these dreams could be our dreams, that these vignettes offer connections for us, that they transcend the life of their creator and hold value for us: we must see enough of ourselves and the symbolic fragments from our own memories in these dreams if the ideas are to stick and if the moral lessons are to take.
The act of separating Akira Kurosawa from Dreams, then, is primarily about recognizing that the film’s brilliance is first and foremost in its ability to function independently of its legendary director’s oeuvre. Most significantly, Dreams can be read as autonomous from those many particular biographical moments that a viewer who is more knowledgeable about Kurosawa and his life’s story and work might otherwise latch onto.
Dreams and Akira Kurosawa
Thus far, I have suggested that Dreams can work independently of the weight of Kurosawa’s name, especially as a vehicle for imparting moral tales to an audience that can see their own memories and dream fragments in the segments that the director brings to the screen. I wish to end by putting Akira Kurosawa and his Dreams back together.
As is clear from marketing materials, most audience members probably come to Dreams with a pre-existing familiarity with Kurosawa, whose name is likely their chief motivator for watching it. This connection is likely even more true for those who have written about the film, as most every critical review and scholarly essay published on Dreams highlights many of the same key biographical tidbits: Kurosawa’s childhood was marked by tragedy (the death of a sibling), he liked mountain climbing, he faced hardships with Japanese studios and often sought foreign investment for his films, he was good friends with Godzilla director Ishirō Honda (whose influence can be seen in the “Mt. Fuji in Red” sequence), he attempted suicide in the early 1970s, he had had a late-career renaissance in the 1980s. These beats can certainly be read into the film, deepening our appreciation of the personal nature of each segment. On the other hand, knowledge of these events works against the kinds of audience identifications that Dreams otherwise provides: it is harder to see ourselves in “I” if we keep thinking of him as a surrogate for Akira Kurosawa, famous director.
Further complicating the film’s ability to connect to an audience’s own memories, Dreams can easily be read as a kind of “greatest hits” of Kurosawa’s past works. Some scenes offer visual reminders of some of his best-known techniques (stylized weather effects, sprawling feudal landscapes, idyllic villages). Some scenes reinforce the moral themes that anchor many of his past films (for example, we learn about honesty and honor in Dreams, but we also did that in Rashomon and Kagemusha; similarly we learn about the impact of the political and military classes on both the social and the personal in Dreams, but in a less complex way than we may have encountered in Ikiru or Ran.) For existing Kurosawa fans, this film offers a series of too-quick segments, each of which is reminiscent of the work that established his name. Unfortunately, it offers only short stretches of time to explore the complex ideas that the director might typically take an entire film to consider. The traditional “gravity” of a Kurosawa work — its ability to inspire repeated viewings, continued consideration, or careful study — is often found in the director’s slow, deliberate pacing. In contrast, Dreams offers audiences a comparatively disjointed pacing with more uneven material. Thus any “gravity” that the film provides must come as a result of their cumulative effects, in the value created by the connectedness of each segment.
Reading Akira Kurosawa’s life and work into Dreams creates a very different (though not necessarily a preferred) appreciation for the film than a viewer without this prior knowledge would be able to develop. While a greater understanding of the film’s historical value as the late work of a famed director’s is possible when we understand something about the weight of the name and the experience it implies before the lights go down, that same knowledge works against the film’s potential for its surreal visions to remind us of our own dreams, to resonate as personally as they might otherwise, or for audiences to leave the film considering what its morality tales mean for their own ways of remembering moments in their own life.