Very beautiful and poetic short segments depicting dreams centering around man's relationship with the Earth. Mythical and symbolic imagery abounds. Actors in beautiful costumes and masks represent a peach orchard that is about to be cut down, a man returning from war encounters the spirits of his dead comrades, angels and demons weep over the destruction we have caused and finally there is a glimpse of the simplicity of paradise, of what life could be like if we were not so dominated by technology and our passions (realities that are deeply intertwined).
Parts of the film are especially harrowing in light of the aftermath of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Kurosawa shows strange, horrifying images of Mt. Fuji turning red and spewing forth poisonous gases in the aftermath of a nuclear meltdown, a symbolic representation of what is now a harrowing reality with the meltdown at the Fukushima reactor. Kurosawa offers no alternatives or a philosophical dialogue on the matter and he should not be faulted for this. He is, rather, showing us an almost child-like view of nature and man's potential for causing suffering to himself and the environment. It is a plea - or, perhaps, an invitation - for us to view the environment with the eye of an artist like Van Gogh (played with little skill but great zest by Martin Scorcese), or a child who cries when his favorite tree is cut down, or an old man who lives in simplicity in a little village, giving thanks with every breath he takes. Kurosawa is echoing the basic precepts of most of the world´s great spiritual traditions who understand man's relationship with the environment as being primarily Eucharistic, that our role is not to exploit nature but to humbly give thanks for her. Nature is the realm of spirits and gods, the temple of the divine, and it is only by seeing this sacredness that we can view her rightly. As the mystical prophet Jacob said after his theophanic vision in Genesis: "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of Heaven." Kurosawa is both celebrating such a vision - whether that of the Starry Nights of Van Gogh or the sight of an angel as one sees death approach in a blizzard - and opening up an invitation to it.
Van Gogh's "Wheat Field under Threatening Skies"
There are moments of indulgence in the film and the different parts are of varying quality. Yet the overall work, though no masterpiece, is a wonderful meditation by a master filmmaker in his autumn years who can contemplate life in the light of death. Kurosawa holds the shot for great lengths of time and when the composition is strong, as it often is, the effect is beautiful and calming. The editing is very much indicative of the wonderful tonality of classic Japanese filmmaking, very different in effect and intention from the forceful editing of the Russians that so deeply influenced American filmmakers. Here the focus is not on synthesis or even rhythm but rather on space. Kurosawa is, in some ways, much more "Transcendental" in Dreams than in many of his other films, more in tune with masters like Ozu and Tarkovsky. The shots are not centered on character or plot but rather on environment and space.
The film is a very beautiful and in some ways humbling reminder of our relationship to the environment. We can either bring forth the inherent beauty of nature through our presence or we can deny her completely through our ugliness and our destructive technologies. Our rate of consumption and spiritually and physically destructive lifestyles demand ever more energy and the depletion of natural resources, as well as our reliance on such monstrous technologies as nuclear power plants. We try to isolate ourselves from nature and to overpower her rather than to live in harmony with her cycles and gifts. It is important in the wake of the horrors of natural disasters such as the earthquake of March 11th that we not only grieve and heal but also that we repent. There is increased discussion in Western countries about building more nuclear power plants, even though we know full well (now more than ever) how dangerous and irresponsible this would be. As we offer prayers for our brothers and sisters in Japan we should also meditate on our lifestyle, our reliance on technology and energy and the possibility for a renewal of our relationship with nature, a relationship that is largely determined by our spiritual vision, our ability to see her as something to be celebrated and cherished. It is the renewal of this vision that Kurosawa offers us in his dreams.