Analysis of Dreams (Yume)
Dreams (Yume, 1990) is a film of the latest stage of the film director Akira Kurosawa. In this period, his latest movies were not the most acclaimed, but the most intimate and personal works, due to the situation in which they were created and the low support they had. Nevertheless, the great artistic and technical value that they have does not detract the endeavour that the author put in this film creation, as we analyse in this article, also available in Spanish version.
Akira Kurosawa has a very long filmography (30 works) that led him to become a famous director, in the “Contemporary cinema’s Shakespeare”, as Augusto Martínez Torres says in an article of the journal El País. Not only because he adapted to the silver screen Shakespeare’s artworks, but because of his great humanistic titles, such as Rashomon (Rashōmon, 1950), To live (Ikiru, 1952), Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954) or Dersu Uzala: The hunter (Dersu Uzala, 1975), which were overshadowed by others, thing that happens to Dreams, although for Kurosawa no one detracts from the others: “I make movies; movies are my real medium. I think that to find out what happened to me after Rashōmon, the most reasonable procedure would be to look for myself in the characters of the movies I did afterwards. The human being is incapable of speaking about himself with total honesty, but it is much more difficult to avoid the truth by pretending to be someone else. Often with this posture you reveal a lot about yourself in a very direct way. I am sure that I have done so. There is nothing that says more about a creator than the work that he does” (Kurosawa, 1981: 199). In this way, based on the words of Akira Kurosawa, we can find aspects of his personality in each of his films, without exception.
Kurosawa decided to materialize the film we’re studying as a result of some memories of different dreams that he had enjoyed (or suffered) throughout his life. This way, he was able to reflect through eight short stories some dreams from his childhood, others from Japan contemporary to the author, and others about a dark foreboding future, which reflected his most intimate obsessions. The reason that led him to turn his dreams into a cinematographic work is explained by Kurosawa himself: “I don’t try to impose my philosophy on the cinema. If I had the need to communicate a message that I can express in words, I would write it on a banner, and I would hang around. It would be faster and cheaper. My intention is very simple: I have read in a Dostoevsky passage that dreams express fear and hope in unimaginable ways in real life. So, I tried to transcribe on paper a dream I remembered from my childhood. I did not succeed, but instead I saw the memory parade through my memory. Complete set of my life. No description of dreams in mere words can capture their expressive power. That is why I have made this film” (El País, 1990). In this way, the obtained movie has the director’s special attention to details, because the images that appeared in Kurosawa’s mind, as he mentions, had to be faithfully interpreted.
By 1968 Kurosawa was going to direct the Japanese section at 20th Century Fox, but he did not finish adapting to the Hollywood system and was fired. He tried to continue independently but was unable to obtain financing. According to an article of El País, “its stormy relations with Japanese industry, always pending profitability, would be definitively broken in 1970, as a consequence of the commercial failure of the film Dodeskaden. From then on, Akira Kurosawa would never get the money he needed to shoot a film from his compatriots without a substantial American investment” (Ibid).
For this reason, he later managed to bring forward Dersu Uzala (1975), Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1986). Despite his success, he later had financial problems to carry out his proposals. Furthermore, no one from the film industry predicted him a good future. However, thanks to his friendship with the two American directors Spielberg and Lucas, they would cooperate in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams and, although his new idea did not attract the interest of Japanese producers, it was financed by the producer Kurosawa Production K.K. Unfortunately. His latest films were less acclaimed.
Kurosawa wanted to be a painter rather than a filmmaker, and one of his most admired painters was Vincent Van Gogh. As the director himself confesses in his autobiography: “I had begun to doubt my talent as a painter. After looking at a monograph by Cézanne, I left the house, and the streets, houses, and trees seemed to me like a painting by Cézanne. The same thing happened to me when I looked at a book of paintings by Van Gogh or Utrillo; they had a different way of seeing the world. It seemed to me that it was a completely different world from the one my eyes saw. In other words, I did not have, nor do I still have, a personal and completely personal way of looking at things” (Kurosawa, 1981: 67).
In the present essay we will focus our attention on the analysis of “The Crows”, a specific dream inside the movie The Dreams of Akira Kurosawa. In this integrated short film, we see a young artist and student (Akira Terao) analysing Van Gogh’s paintings in an art gallery, and he is suddenly immersed in one of his paintings, The Langlois Bridge of Arles (1888) [see Figure 1]. From there, he literally habits the space of the painting [see Figure 2] and starts looking for Vincent Van Gogh (played by Martin Scorsese) in order to talk to him. After a persecution in which the student transits several pictures of the famous painter, turned into tableaux vivants [see Figure 3], he finally arrives to the one which gives its name to this dream: Wheat Field with Crows (1890) [see Figures 4 and 5].
Analysis and Découpage
The beginning and end of this story has the same setting: the art gallery where Van Gogh’s paintings are exhibited. The difference is that at the start we observe the author’s most significant paintings in a way of appointment, but at the end we stop at the most relevant one to Kurosawa, Wheat Field with Crows. Thanks to the rhetorical structures, at the end we can interpret the meaning of the paintings, since the film has helped us to get into them, with the importance of the last one previously mentioned, with which Kurosawa wants to close the story, transmitting its psychological burden and even metaphorically explaining to us why this work slipped into his dreams.
The sequence to analyse is integrated in the dream of The crows. It is about the moment in which the student meets the famous painter Van Gogh, talks briefly with him (in fact, Van Gogh utters a monologue) and observes how he gives free rein to his artistic instinct.In the following decoupage we will analyse the most important aspects of each shot in the sequence, sequentially numbered and illustrated with screenshots:
… (C) 1. Student reaches the wheat fields. Two-shot, normal-angle shot, but with a little bit of high-angle shot. About lighting, the key light is a natural lighting (provided by the same brightness of the day). High-key-lighting, but with a fill (because it is difficult to identify the shadows. The direction of the key lighting is side direction (from left) and from the sky. Polychromatic, with a predominance of warm tones (browns, yellows…) on the ground and cold tones (blue, green …) in the sky and the background. Pictorial colour, because it tries to evoke the colour that Van Gogh used in his paintings. Soft piano music that increases the intensity.
(C) 2. Van Gogh painting on a wheat field. Establishing shot, high-angle shot that can correspond with the student’s view (POV shot). High-key-lighting, with a fill. The direction of the key lighting is side direction (from right) and from the sky. Polychromatic, warm range (yellow) in the wheat field and cold (green and blue) both in the sky and in the vegetation in the background. Pictorial colour. There is no extradiegetic music, but the echo of the last note that sounds in the previous shot is maintained.
(C) 3. Van Gogh painting on a wheat field. Long shot. The rest of the values remain as 2.
(C) 4. Student approaches the painter. Long shot, somewhat shorter because feet cannot be seen. Normal-angle shot, but with a little bit of low-angle shot. All lighting and colour values remain as 2, but they use a fill (probably a light reflector) so that the shadows produced by the sun are not so pronounced. There is no camera movement until Van Gogh begins to move around the shot, then a pan is produced from left to right, following the character, and changing the shot to a two-shot to link to the next shot.
The student meets Van Gogh, then the painter explains him what he does when he sees such an unbelievable landscape, which is to work as a locomotive.
(C) 5. Van Gogh painting. Close-up of Van Gogh’s face, normal-angle shot, but with a little bit of low-angle shot. We continue with natural key lighting, high-key-lighting, use of light reflectors as fill and key lighting is side direction (from left) and above the character. Pictorial colour, yellows and oranges of the warm range predominate in the character, while they contrast with the blue of the cold range of the background. Soft piano music in crescendo.
(C) 6. Locomotive wheels. Close-up of locomotive wheels, normal-angle shot. Artificial lighting, low-key-lighting, with a side direction (from right). Achromatic (evokes ancient times). Tilt from bottom to top. The piano music becomes more intense and increases its speed.
(C) 7. Van Gogh continues painting. Shot exactly the same as 5. Intense piano music.
(C) 8. Locomotive wheels. Close-up of locomotive wheels, normal-angle shot. Natural lighting, low-key-lighting. Lighting direction is from the sky and backlighting. Achromatic. Tracking shot from left to right following the movement of the locomotive. The piano alternates louder and weaker sound beats for drama.
(C) 9. Van Gogh painting. Same characteristics as 5. Music continues as in 8.
(C) 10. Locomotive chimney. Close-up, low-angle shot. Natural lighting, high-key-lighting and backlighting. Achromatic. Tracking shot from left to right following the movement of the locomotive. The music continues the same as in shot 9.
(C) 11. Van Gogh painting. Same shot characteristics as 9, until van Gogh moves, then the camera follows it with a pan to the right.
(C) 12. Van Gogh changes position. Two-shot and normal-angulation with a little bit of low-angle shot. Natural lighting, high-key-lighting and fill (light reflector). Lighting both from the sky and backlighting. Pictorial colour, warm range with yellows and oranges in the characters and wheat fields, contrasting contrasts with the blue and green of the cold range in the background. The piano music begins to relax.
(C) 13. Van Gogh observes the landscape. Medium shot and normal-angle shot (a little bit of low-angle shot). Natural lighting, high-key-lighting and fill (light reflector). Lighting direction from the sky. Colour is the same as 12. Piano music continues, but at lower intensity.
(C) 14. Van Gogh collects his material. By camera movement of a tracking shot from right to left, it is at the beginning a two-shot, then a long shot and finally a medium shot, always with a normal-angle shot (with a light low-angle shot). Lighting and colour continue as in 13. The music disappears with a fade off and leaves room for dialogue. It is worth noting the reflection of the sun on the camera lens after a tilt upwards.
Van Gogh: I have to hurry. Time is running out. So little time left for me to paint.
Student: Are you alright? You appear injured.
Van Gogh: (pointing to his ear) This?
Van Gogh: Yesterday I was trying to complete a self-portrait. I just couldn’t get the ear so, so I cut it off and threw it away. Silence. The sun … It compels me to paint. I can’t stay here wasting my time talking to you.
(C) 15. Student looking at the sun. Medium shot, normal-angle shot with light low-angle shot. Natural lighting, high-key-lighting and fill (light reflector). Lighting direction from the sky. Colour continues as before.
(C) 16. Student looking for Van Gogh. Long shot, hight-angle shot- Movement of the camera is a pan from right to left following the character movement. Natural lighting, high-key-lighting and fill (light reflector). Lighting both from the sky and backlighting. Pictorial colour, the colours of the warm range of wheat fields prevail. Short nondiegetic sound of a train horn.
(C) 17. Student leaves. Establishing shot, high-angle. Natural lighting, high-key-lighting and fill (light reflector). Lighting direction from the sky. Pictorial colour, the yellow of the wheat fields coexist with the green and blue of the background.
Looking at the editing, it is a chronological montage throughout the dream, there are no jumps in time, except for one resource that is of great interest: the parallel montage, by juxtaposition, that Kurosawa uses when combining shots of running trains that are intermingled with those of the painter executing his work, all this in order to suggest third ideas to the viewer. In this way, the filmmaker establishes a relationship between a running locomotive and Van Gogh working, as an intellectual montage typical of Eisenstein’s amusement cinema, as we will see later.
Kurosawa uses analytical edition, alternating the stablishing shot with others of smaller size, giving continuity to the scale, as it does not go from very short shots to very long shots, and this way he avoids raccord problems. He doesn’t use the normal-angle shots at eye level, rather they are light high-angle or low-angle shots, probably to convey instability, referring to the painter’s own mental imbalance.
Regarding shots, at the beginning of the sequence we find a shot (shot 2) that provides a false sense of a “Point of View” shot, because we believe we share the student’s vision. However, in the next shot (almost the same as its predecessor, although a little shorter) Kurosawa breaks this feeling of POV shot when the character whose view we thought we were using appears.
The space is so well created that the direction of the lighting is carefully looked after in every moment to build the imaginary space of the staging. In addition, the camera position is very well studied to emphasize what is important at every time. An example of this can be seen in shot 14, when he wants to make the figure of the sun important, and the camera moves so that we can see the sun reflecting in the lens.
It is important to highlight the repeated use of fill lighting (probably created thanks to light reflectors) to avoid the loss of information in the darkest parts, because without the reflectors the shadows would be completely black as they have natural lighting (which usually generates very strong shadows).
About the colour, it is worth noting the use of pictorial colour throughout the dream, that is, it tries to evoke the colour of the author’s paintings and even their composition. In some shots of the dream of The crows we can see faithful recreations of the works of Van Gogh, while the student walks through them. In addition, yellows predominate, whose psychological meaning is usually madness and instability, with which Kurosawa tries to refer to Van Gogh’s madness. It is also interesting how black and white achromatic images (locomotive) and polychromatic (Van Gogh painting) are mixed in the parallel montage of the analysed sequence.
On the other hand, it highlights the fact that the music is very well integrated. It transmits the psychology of the characters at every moment. Similarly, the silences fulfil their function by underlining the images shown to us. The use of nondiegetic sound is also important, for example, at the end of the analysed sequence, where the whistle of a train can be heard, making the viewer remember the relation between the locomotive and Van Gogh without either of them present.
Finally, in terms of composition, he uses the three-thirds rule, as we can see in the image, combined with how he uses textures and colours.
In general, Kurosawa’s works have the mark of other authors and draw on various arts, as well as hey serve as inspiration for later authors; as Ángel Fernández-Santos assures (2007: 410), “It is not a secret that Kurosawa cinema has greatly influenced modern Western cinema, such as The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960) or The Outrage (Martin Ritt, 1964). Specifically, this film lays its foundations in Japanese mythology, especially in man’s relationship with nature and its aesthetics.
Dream themes are omnipresent, so it seems that there could be an environment at the time that led artists to create this type of representations, which could later have led to surrealism. In fact, some aesthetic aspects of the film may remind us of Salvador Dalí, the highest representative of surrealism. It would not be difficult to think that works such as Los relojes blandos or Cisnes que se reflejan como elefantes could have been devised by Kurosawa himself.
Finally, it is worth noting the relationship of this film with others of the author’s filmography. Above all, I want to highlight the link with Dersu Uzala, due to the great naturalistic and ecological content that both share. In this feature film, the union of man and nature is permanently present and plays an important role, as does old age. Similarly, in Dreams we find this element in each of the dreams, both in those of childhood (plums talking to little Akira) and in premonitories (giant plants that mutate by radioactivity). ); “The town of the watermills”, inhabited by long-lived elderly people who face death grateful for having enjoyed a good life, connects again with another of Dersu Uzala‘s famous themes.We cannot forget the clear reference to Van Gogh in the dream The crows. In this case, the painter is taken so much that the protagonist ends up habiting his works (thanks to the special effects of George Lucas), which is an aesthetic delight for the senses.
According to the modes of representation of Noël Burch (Burch, 1968, Praxis du cinéma), in this Kurosawa film we do not find the continuity editing typical of the Hollywood institutional mode of representation, insofar as there are author marks in the montage, in the placement of the camera and even in the plot of the film itself.
Moreover, as we have previously mentioned, Kurosawa uses some aspects of montage cinema as Eisenstein understood it, in which the montage in concrete scenes is not at the service of the narrative continuity of the story, but aims to provoke third ideas in the viewer through the juxtaposition of symbolic images (plans of the locomotive and Van Gogh painting); In this case, one shot dialogues with another to generate as a result in the viewer’s mind the idea of the tireless, continuous and crazy work of the painter.
The Messages: Nature & Human Being
Kurosawa takes advantage of this film to transmit certain values. He doesn’t only want to represent his dreams, but also transmit an environmentalist message that we could apply nowadays. Childhood dreams Sunlight through the rain and The Plum Orchard and The Doll’s Feast show the precious harmony between nature and the human being, and how the last one must live in service and respecting the first one. This is the only way to achieve longevity and to face death with joy, it seems that the last of the stories wants to tell us, The town of the water mills. Furthermore, the idyllic scenery of the final episode and the young protagonist’s talk with the old man (played by Chishū Ryū, Ozu’s favourite actor) highlight the unnecessariness of current materialism: “Most people tend to attach great value to all these absurd inventions and, as if they were miracles, they adore them”, warns the old man.
On the other hand, the devastation and the unusual landscape of Mount Fuji in red and The Demon Pitcher show Akira Kurosawa’s obsession with natural disasters, as if in all the futures he imagined there was no other possibility than the devastation caused by man. As we can read in El País, Kurosawa was “a creator who never closed his eyes to the tragedy of man.” (Anonymous, 1990).
Finally, it also seems to convey a message of peace by portraying the panic he had toward war. We find an example in The Tunnel dream. “It (the dog) is an Alsatian shepherd and represents my fear of militarism. Diving in my dreams brought me the unexpected surprise of recognizing my country in the form of a rabid dog. At bottom it is more hilarious than heinous,” according to the words of Kurosawa himself at the article of El País (Anonymous, 1990). It is for all this that Kurosawa ends up transmitting to us with this film both the beauty of nature and the horror that people are capable of creating (wars, ecological disasters …).
Conclusions: the Spirit of the Dreams
Finally, with this analysis we can observe the extreme care with which Akira Kurosawa carried out his works. The light, the camera, the theme… everything perfectly cohesive to get to transmit the emotions that Kurosawa himself had to experience while dreaming.
We are facing a film that captures the spirit of the most extravagant dreams. The stories were filmed and written just like real dreams. The fact that strange, surreal events happen, which sometimes do not make sense, presented as if they were normal situations, and which remain inconclusive, makes us feel that we ourselves (the spectators) are indeed in a dream. Visual effects help create that dreamlike, hypnotic state that dreams appear to be.
And finally, the messages that, intentionally or not, the director ends up transmitting. Timeless messages that ensure that, after viewing the film, the viewer is not indifferent, and he continues thinking about them for a few days. Perhaps they are a kind of warning, as we seem to be taking the path that Kurosawa predicted years ago.
[*] This article is one of the results of the Collaborative learning of film analysis in transnational and interuniversity environments project, developed in the academic year 2019/20 among the students of the subject Teoría e historia de los medios audiovisuales of the Degree in Media Communication (Grado en Comunicación Audiovisual, Facultad de Comunicación y Documentación, Universidad de Murcia) and the Japanese Studies Program of the BA Film and Media of the School of Arts of the Birkbeck Collage (University of London).
- Referencias bibliográficas
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