Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I Have Dreamed a Dream

"Some say life is hard....
That's just talk.
In fact, it's good to be alive.
It's...exciting." - Kurosawa in Dreams

In 1990, one of the greatest directors in cinematic history released a film that followed his life and polarized many critics.

Some truly loved the film. Others called it overly self indulgent and weak compared to some of his other works (Ran, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress).

The film is a set of eight vignettes that follow the life of a character with no name. He is supposed to represent not only Kurosawa but all of us. Throughout the film, his name is never given, but he is essentially "I".

The first two vignettes ("Sunshine Through the Rain" and "The Peach Orchard") deal with the young version of the protagonist. It is also in these two pieces that the audience sees how much the director loves nature and the environment. The sadness of the dolls in "The Peach Orchard" is due to the loss of their trees. The dolls even blame the boy for the clearing and scold him for his part. However, just as the boy shows remorse for not listening to his mother in "Sunshine," he also is able to convince the dolls of his love of the orchard. They reward him by showing him the way things used to be. These two sections have dual meanings. The first is to show the viewer the beauty and tribulations of childhood. For every perfect moment, there is an equal moment of understanding how the loss of naivete can alter memories.

At the same time, Kurosawa is warning the viewer about nature and the environment. Minor abuses, such as clearing an orchard or disturbing the animals' natural courses, can be forgiven, but those occurences do change the course of our lives.

Time passes in life and in the film. "I" becomes an adult and the next two segments of the film become depressing and deep. This is not unlike how humans, as they become adults, no longer meditate on the simplicity of life and concentrate on the dark side.

"The Blizzard" deals with a group of men (one of which is "I") become lost in a blizzard. They are on the verge of death and want to stop. Only "I" realizes they must keep going or be lost forever. It is here that Kurosawa adds a touch of Japanese mythology. After being separated from the other men, "I" runs into a siren on the mountain. This may, in fact, be the Yuki-onna (a woman who attempts to lead men to their death while in blizzards). "I" does not succumb, however, because he knows he must live, and because he answers her call, she lets him live (the spirit is known to do this if the reason is just).

While "The Blizzard" deals with overcoming one's own death, "The Tunnel" deals with overcoming the death of others. "I" is returning home from the war (we can assume it is World War II) and after walking through a tunnel on the way to his village, he is approached by the ghost of one of his men. "I" finds it hard to explain to the man that he is in fact dead. The ghost leaves only to return with the whole platoon. "I" is left with no choice but to live with his survival guilt and send the men back to their graves.

Kurosawa is very careful to change the tone of the film for this section. The vibrant colors of the world are replaced with harsh tones of blue. It is obvious that M. Night Shyamalan borrowed his color ideas for The Sixth Sense from Kurosawa. Blue represents the spiritual world, and in most cases it is negative.

"Crows" enters the middle age portion of the life of "I". Now an art student, he enters into the work of Vincent Van Gogh (here played by Martin Scorcese, who won't win any acting awards) to talk to the painter about his work. As "I" walks through various painting by Van Gogh, he finally finds the painter only to discover what his hero's (also a hero of Kurosawa) drive was.
"I paint," Van Gogh tells him, "because the sun compels me to." Kurosawa's Van Gogh also goes on to explain that he cut off his ear, because he could not get it right in the painting. As "I" chases the artist, he starts heading through the Van Gogh's rough sketches as the painter was approaching the end of his life.

It is here that Kurosawa attempts to use one of his heroes to put forward his own views on life and art. Kurosawa feels he MUST make art. He is, however, also making a commentary about middle age. Humans will begin to feel compelled to do all the things they must before they die. Van Gogh cannot stop because of the sun. Once the sun sets, his life will end. This is what Kurosawa is telling the viewer about life here in the middle of the film. The sequence also returns the viewer to the beautiful imagery before losing it again.

The next two stories return to the grim nightmares of the director. "Mt. Fuji in Red" deals with nuclear meltdown as a power plant on Mt. Fuji goes critical. The director paints the sky red and sets the power plants behind the mountains as if the volcano, not the reactors, are ending lives of the people of Japan. This returns to the directors feelings about the arrogance mankind has about the environment.
"The Weeping Demon" is Kurosawa's attempt to scare those in charge about the dangers of Nuclear war and holocaust. "I" has survived, but he's discovered that nature has been turned upside-down (literally), dandelions are huge, and humans are dead except for those responsible. Those people have become horned demons. The more responsible a person is, the more horns he has. The multi-horned demons must also eat those with fewer horns. Along with immortality, these former humans are now doomed to forever be in this Hell on Earth. While the imagery can be quite powerful and haunting, the director sermonizes a little much. The overall idea of these two sections could also be the time after middle age before old age. The body is unable to work as well as it should (or could), and those unable to adapt may truly live the rest of their life in a difficult landscape.
Kurosawa, however, ends on a positive note. "I" happens upon a village where the people commune with nature by attaching watermills to every home. This way they are not dependent on the nuclear power plants shown in the "Mt. Fuji". By passing on modern technology, the people of the village are happier. "We have chosen to have," the man tells "I", "the health of our spirit instead of convenience." As the film closes, "I" hears joyful music and sees people celebrating. When he asks, he is told that this is a funeral. Living to old age and working hard is celebrated instead of mourned. This is a message from Kurosawa about the end of life. Humans should celebrate what each of us has accomplished in life instead of mourning what will be missed.
The cycle of life begins with the lovely colors and wonder of childhood, and mankind returns to that wonder in the end. The middle may be full of hardships, but the journey is worth it.
While it may not be Kurosawa's best work, Dreams truly gives the viewer an insight into the journey of life as well as the director's mind.
It is exciting to be alive and though the journey may be difficult, it's never boring.

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