Nature and Eco-Poetics in Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Dreams’

In the early 1990s, The Hollywood Reporter saw an emerging trend of “cinema vert” — films about green issues. Kurosawa’s Dreams, though not financed by the American studio system, fits well in this cohort, albeit as the most formally distinct example of this miniature film movement.

Akira Kurosawa's Dreams
Akira Kurosawa

In his monograph about Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line, a work that is equal parts war movie and nature meditation, film scholar Michel Chion eloquently makes a common observation about movie-going, rather than watching a film on the TV or computer screen, at home. “When we grow up,” writes Chion, “something happens that adults don’t talk about or don’t remember: the world gets smaller…Cinema returns objects to a larger scale.” Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams achieves this with a certain degree of simplicity. Cinema screens have an unmatched power to remind us to remain awestruck at the world, intensifying thought and feeling. More pertinently, films have provided stories about the ways in which we embrace and escape nature, seeking to flee from its mysteries, immensity, and terror. In Kurosawa’s film, these horrors are mostly prompted by human action and the absence of human thought.

Inevitably, cinema’s treatment of the natural world is varied and finds expression with varying degrees of subtlety. One of the grand narratives that many feel compelled to engage with turns on our relationship to the natural world of which we are a part, and our often uncomfortable connection to it. Dreams is the most clear and emphatic example of this filmmaking drive in Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic legacy. As such, the work remains startlingly contemporary, with more recent titles such as The New World and Mighty River coming to mind as exemplars of eco-poetics at work in movies.

One the most useful definitions of eco-poetics comes to us from the British poet, scholar and educator Peter Abbs. “About eco-poetics, my basic proposition is that we need to address the pathology that has been instituted in our relationship to nature since at least the Industrial Revolution,” says Abbs. “The terrible predicament we are in does require a re-orientation of consciousness, nothing less than a new covenant between humankind and nature. This is a profound challenge to our imagination and, therefore, to all artists — and, of course, poets. It is a further and quite necessary amplification of the Romantic Movement.”

Back in the early 1990s, The Hollywood Reporter picked up on an emerging ‘trend’ of what it called cinema vert — films about ‘green issues’. At the time, one could cite At Play in the Fields of the Lord, The Mosquito Coast, The Emerald Forest, Medicine Man and Ferngully as some examples from this era. Kurosawa’s Dreams, though not financed by the American studio system, fits well in this cohort, albeit as the most formally distinct example of this miniature film movement.

Film historians like Donald Richie and Troy Rayns have been key to our ‘western’ understandings of Japanese and East Asian cinema. Richie wrote in One Hundred Years of Japanese Film that “In Japanese film the compositional imperative is so assumed that it is the rare director who fails to achieve it.” The ‘compositional imperative’ sits readily with Kurosawa’s highly designed and organised framing, frequently making miniscule the human in the context of the wild. We might look to the example of Seven Samurai as offering images that pit human bodies, and all of the strengths and weakness of heart and mind that they contain, against the elements. The film’s climactic, rain-soaked battle reduces the actions of both samurai and the bandits; in a sense rendering their intensely fought opposition as constituting nothing in the context of nature’s power. Later in Kurosawa’s career, Kagemusha brings viewers a dream sequence in which the protagonist works through their trauma and anxiety against a vividly, violently painted ‘wilderness’.

Kurosawa’s paintings were often conceptual art that he developed in experimenting with approaches to a given film project. For Kurosawa, the work of Vincent Van Gogh was a major frame of reference, while Van Gogh himself took visual influence and inspiration from Japanese art. Cinema is particularly well suited to recognizing and revealing specific qualities of nature that connect this modern world with older world fascinations. As Darivd Bordwell has often pointed out, Kurosawa’s films have an elaborate, calligraphic quality to them, a unique visual flourish that sets Kurosawa’s work in stark contrast to the domestic, quotidian dramas of his contemporaries like Yasujiro Ozu.

The short films that comprise Dreams enshrine a sense of tradition and connection and respect for the natural world and its roles as both a place of solace and a place of anxiety. In Dreams, the wilderness is occasionally a place of harmony, but more often a place of trauma. Kurosawa had established himself as a key figure in post-World War II Japanese cinema at a time when it was finding expressions for the relationship between the ancient and the modern, the latter embodied at its worst by the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which remain uniquely understood by Japanese culture. Certainly, the subjects of technological power, science unchecked and the strains of modern and by implication a ‘better’ life are central preoccupations throughout Dreams.

In his book The Warrior’s Camera, Stephen Prince writes that “Kurosawa’s film style stresses the excessive, the transgressive, the flamboyant,” going on to state that “…Kurosawa’s cinema addresses the themes of Japanese experience. His films convert them into challenges of individual conscience…” In Kurosawa’s late film Ran, landscape is central in its metaphorical function particularly in terms of Lord Hidetora’s exile to a wasteland as bereft of life and promise as he feels, the environment and character reflecting and affecting one another in turn.

Dreams, though, truly crystallizes Kurosawa’s painterly style, offering a wilful counterpoint to ‘conventional’ drama. All of the scenarios in Dreams are fanciful. They are presented using long takes and elegant, typically brief movements of the camera body that just slightly adjust our perspective on an encounter. A number of chapters in the movie are built around tableaux arrangements of characters and figures. There is stillness to the moving images of Dreams, the frequent use of the long lens imbuing fantastical situations with an intriguing verité style, masterfully blending the real and the surreal. In each of the short films that make up Dream there is an understanding of the protagonists understated real presence as contrasted with the more vivid physical behaviour of many of the characters encountered.

Dreams revels in the mystery and conflict of the wilderness, in our deeply held connections to it and our often profound disconnections from it. Indeed, the film may be best viewed as a tone poem rather than something more conventionally dramatic, due in part to its dialogue, which is anything but naturalistic and carries a direct, ‘on the nose’ quality reminiscent of Shakespeare or classic Greek drama about it.

Writing about the work of painter John Constable, art critic David Sylvester makes an observation that the painter’s landscapes “often present a contrast between a terrestrial nature that is benign and ordered and on a human scale and a celestial nature that is ungovernable and hostile as well as vast….endowing landscape painting with the moral significance and weight which were traditionally the prerogative of history painting.” This understanding finds an echo in Dreams which, like a trail through a wood, reminds us of our primal fascinations and fears regarding nature, and of the key part that nature stories play in the span of storytelling.

Sunshine Through the Rain, the first of the short films that compose Dreams,firmly establishes the connection between human action and the moral lessons that nature has been constructed to convey. It’s that sense of eminence, of nature standing to correct us and provide an image of instruction that is to be found in every culture. In the piece, a young boy disobeys his mother and goes to the forest to watch a wedding procession of foxes, a common feature in Japanese mythology. The short embeds the boy in the immensity of the forest and there’s a moment in the first shot where this world looks unnaturally luminous but still unmistakably our own. The forest is inviting and menacing in equal parts, and the wedding procession of the foxes loops the film back to Kurosawa’s cinematic investment in the presentation of Japanese ritual that characterizes aspects of his other films, as further evidenced in Ran.

Throughout Dreams, as in previous films like Ran and Kagemusha, Kurosawa makes use of wide shots that make the wilderness environments as expressive as anything that the human presences offer. Thoreau wrote that he who does not have the seasons in himself cannot respond fully to the seasons, and there is a resonance of this sensibility in the Kurosawa film. In Sunshine Through The Rain, a moral lesson is learned by the act of conscious venture into the unconscious forces of the natural world.

Indeed, this unconscious power is a distinct feature throughout much of Kurosawa’s work. Consider Kagemusha and the theatrical color and artifice of its dream sequence, or the vivid, expressionistic color of Dodeskaden. In Dreams, though, one gets the sense of a tangible pleasure taken in the illusion making, whether in the telling of a ‘fairy tale’ for children in Sunshine Through The Rain or relating a stark, horrific cautionary tale in The Weeping Demon.

In The Weeping Demon, the protagonist ventures into a stark, ashen, apocalyptic landscape where he is confronted by a modern-day demon, a man mutated and horribly afflicted by radiation poisoning. While his appearance is grotesque, it’s the crazed behaviour of this poor creature that is the most haunting, not the physical difference. This speech-heavy short revolves around a long take in which the hero sits quietly listening to the demon curse humanity, his statements resounding with a connection to the kind of utterances found in Greek tragedy. In its dark, lavish imagining of tomorrow, the film’s setting focuses on “monster dandelions, simple flowers grown past our ability to control.”

It culminates in a very theatrical moment when the demon takes the protagonist to a ridge overlooking blood red pools of water surrounded by dozens of other demons. The creatures writhe and wail in slow motion, the sound not tied to particular entity, but instead representing the collective, haunted mass. The short concludes with the pathetic weeping demon succumbing to true rage and hopelessness and turning on and pursuing the protagonist of Dreams the on-screen representative of the audience. The manic manner and spasmodic movements of the weeping demon have in them something of the hopelessness of the self-exiled Hidetora in Ran.

Perhaps the two most vivid shorts in Dreams, though, are Village of the Watermills and Mount Fuji in Red. These pieces could not stand in starker contrast, offering imaginings of nature as solace and nature as terror. Mount Fuji in Red is a horrific pseudo-prophecy of a nightmarish apocalypse, while Village of the Watermills, offers a prayer of sorts to living in harmony with nature and its rhythms.

In Japanese cinema at its most traditional, film has long been given the function of granting some form of salvation to the audience. Film goes beyond the distraction of something that is just entertainment carrying a sense of something approaching spiritual responsibility about it. Dreams represents Kurosawa at his most polarizing and didactic, and while it is perhaps not the subtlest work in his filmography, it is arguably consistent with a greater tradition.

Mount Fuji in Red explores the moment when a nuclear power plant becomes an inferno throwing out deadly chemicals and fireballs from behind the famed volcano In this singular, powerful image the ancient and the modern collide, portraying stillness and anxious movement in conflict. The film’s first image is of people fleeing the area in a chaotic stampede. One man, the protagonist who connects each short film in the Dreams anthology, runs against the tide of people, eventually encountering a middle-aged businessman and a young mother protecting two young children. The world is shown at its most apocalyptic. Standing on a cliff side, the hero, businessman and young mother debate the cause of the terror and its moral implications as three differently coloured bands of poisonous chemical mists ride in around theme, as clothes, bags and empty prams litter the barren terrain.

Once again, Kurosawa transports us to a world that is at once eerily familiar and utterly alien. From the way the majority of the film’s action is staged, it becomes clear that the characters are literally at the edge, or end, of the world. ‘Japan is so small, there’s no escape.” rages the businessman. The film ends with the hero character making an utterly pathetic attempt to beat back the silent, monstrous force of the chemical vapors. Humans have despoiled nature and there is no comeback or possibility of redemption in this film. The landscape has been torn asunder, and humankind is fading fast is amidst an emerging hellfire of its own creation.

The film’s concluding chapter expresses hope in harmony. Contrasting with the stark horror and fury of Mount Fuji in Red, Village of the Watermills presents a serene, placid vision of humanity at peace with the world around it. The protagonist enters a village where he sees a group of young children each lay a flower on a rock by a river as he continues walking, he encounters an ancient-looking man tending to a waterwheel. As the young man listens to the elder, the action cuts away from them to images of water and the wheels of the mills turning slowly. The sound of water babbling underscores the episode and the lyrical pace of the film, moving gently though undeniably a force of nature, is established by the opening shot that lasts just over one minute and plays out in a sustained long shot.

Like many other Japanese films, and certainly Kurosawa’s and other filmmakers of Japan’s ‘classical era’ of cinema, the film emphasizes the relationship of the individual to the community. The colors of the film reinforce this sense of peace with natured, keyed as they are to greens and browns, river silvers, and sky blues. Told with perfect symmetry the film concludes with the young man at a new point of understanding and willingness to connect to tradition and community, albeit in a small but beautiful way. As it returns to the film’s roots, Dreams offers viewers an ultimately hopeful glimpse of the past as future, a hint of a grace that lies in nature and may yet save us from ourselves.

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