Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 film Dreams (Yume) is a collection of short segments, each depicting an individual dream. The first time I watched it, I fell asleep.
It’s a remarkable depiction of what the experience of dreaming is like: slow-burning anxiety-driven plots that lack logic and occasionally escalate into nightmares, punctuated by moments of beauty and tranquility. That’s what dreams are like for me, anyway, and apparently Akira Kurosawa too.
(I like to think that’s what lulled me to sleep—its depiction of dreams was so accurate my brain didn’t know what to do, so it joined in the fun.)
So much of the film is quietly horrific. A child having wronged the mystical foxes of the forest is given a knife and told to commit suicide—unless he journeys into the forest to apologize. Mountaineers caught in a storm are coerced by a demon to lie in the snow. Exploding nuclear plants cause Mount Fuji to glow like hot iron. And more.
I’ve had these dreams, with different backdrops, with characters from my own life. Remarkably similar dreams, which is a testament to Kurosawa’s ability to articulate deeply abstract and distant ideas that lurk so far down in our unconscious psyches.
One night in San Francisco there were fierce, cold winds, and I was living in an old building with original wooden window frames that let the cold air go wherever it damn well pleased. I slept in a sweater under a pile of blankets.
But in a surreal moment of sleep paralysis, I awoke to something holding me down, accompanied by roaring, deafening winds. It was, it seemed, an evil presence in the form of the cold itself, pressing down on my chest—just as Kurosawa showed happening to the mountain climbers. I wonder if he experienced something similar and changed the setting to something logical for the story: a cold night in bed depicted as a blizzard on a mountainside.
I have not dreamt of Fuji and nuclear disaster specifically, and yet, I have dreamt of the same experience: crowds fleeing the chaos of destruction. Oddly, in my experience, these aren’t nightmares, they’re just things that happen (lol). I frequently dream of all kinds of aircraft exploding and falling from the sky, and I say aircraft because they are sometimes planes and sometimes abstract goliath flying machines that you would see in a Marvel movie. I don’t even fear flying! Nonetheless Kurosawa’s nuclear disaster reminded me of my planes. But it is not all doom—
There are also those moments in your dreams that feel full of serenity and tranquility, when you are in a perfect place with perfect people. Perhaps the sun is pouring down, perhaps you are with someone you loved, maybe there’s a breeze and you watch the wild flowers sway back and forth. Kurosawa’s closing segment, a visit to a rustic village full of water wheels, feels like that.
It was years ago that I watched it and fell asleep, but just the other day I awoke and was immediately reminded of the film by something I had dreamt. I can’t remember what it was. And yet—the thing is—I’ll have the same dream again and will revisit this film again, if only as an oddly reassuring reminder of our mutually shared dreams and nightmares.