Kurosawa and His Trinity of Human, Spirit, and Nature
Akira Kurosawa, the legendary film director, likes triangles. I’m not an expert in his work, or enough a fan to know how much he’s talked directly about geometric shapes, but having seen a few of his movies, I believe he enjoys the the three-cornered formation.
Kurosawa’s fascination with triangles seems most obvious in the most concretely aesthetic way: characters in his films often appear, in groups of three, triangularly positioned towards each other, for the viewer’s benefit. Having recently seen his Dreams (1990), however, I felt like the shape took on a more metaphysical appearance, as a triumvirate in which three elements — humans, spirits, and nature — interact with each other as the vertices and sides of a triangle would: separate, but connected to each other.
The film consists of eight vignettes, each based on Kurosawa’s dreams. In each, a protagonist has some sort of experience — positive or negative — with both spirit(s) and nature. One way to read the sequence of dreams is as a traveling through the ages, from the child’s experience with mythical fox weddings and peach blossom dolls, to the adult’s with worldly toil and world war, and finally to the human race’s with nuclear devastation or… salvation? The relationships between the three elements continually change and transmogrify, but remain always in play.
The spirits take on a striking variety of forms. From the aforementioned foxes and living dolls, Kurosawa visits a succession of ghosts: the Yuki-onna (“snow woman”) of Japanese folklore, dead WWII soldiers, the living Vincent Van Gogh, and the post-nuclear “Weeping Demon.” The last vignette sees death itself, simply from old age, as something to be celebrated. This is different from the other films we’ve looked at which celebrate immortality.
Finally, through a combination of breathtaking natural locations, astoundingly realistic sets, and paintings — Van Gogh’s and Hieronymus Bosch’s in particular — Kurosawa offers a glimpse of dreams come to life. Like another memorable Japanese ghost movie, Kwaidan (1964), the production design of Dreams transcends the boundary between the natural world in reality and its appearance in the cinema. Interestingly, for me at least, this hyper-reality only serves to reinforce the beauty seen outside of the silver screen.
The first four vignettes evoke dreams of the past, connections with spirits, and entities of former times. With the fifth, the Van Gogh segment, acting as a segue, the last four feel more like premonitions of possible futures.
Buoyed by the very real threat of nuclear disaster and its post-apocalyptic results, the final vignette, “Village of the Watermills,” hints at a possible utopia. A wise man explains to the protagonist how his village has avoided modern technology and its conveniences in favor of a simpler way of life. The certitude with which he answers the young man’s questions may come off as smug — especially to those who find some value in electricity — but dreams are dreams, in all their subjective glory and faults. And when the communion of nature and spirit with the human race finds such an ideal visual outlet, it can be a joy simply to behold.
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