March 26, 1990. Akira Kurosawa was endowed with the Honorary Academy Award “for cinematic accomplishments that have inspired, delighted, enriched and entertained worldwide audiences and influenced filmmakers throughout the world.” In his acceptance speech, the filmmaker pondered whether he deserved the award. His exact words were, “I’m a little worried because I don’t feel that I understand cinema yet. I really don’t feel that I have yet grasped the essence of cinema. Cinema is a marvellous thing, but to grasp its true essence is very, very difficult. But what I promise you is that from now on I will work as hard as I can at making movies, and maybe by following this path I will achieve an understanding of the true essence of cinema and earn this award.”
Akira Kurosawa’s contribution to the film industry has been immense. Hollywood film director George Lucas has thanked the Japanese stalwart’s Hidden Fortress for inspiring his science fiction film, Star Wars. Steven Spielberg admitted that Kurosawa had influenced him more than any other director had. World-famous Indian film director, Satyajit Ray, shared that the effect of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon on him was so great that he watched the film repeatedly over three days. Ray also claimed that one could learn all aspects of filmmaking from that one movie alone.
Akira Kurosawa was passionately involved in every aspect of his movie, right from selecting the story, scripting, planning, designing and constructing the set, and shooting, to editing and sound mixing. He loved cinema more than any other field, and once even expressed his desire to release his last breath while making a movie.
Kurosawa’s movies such as Throne of Blood, Rashomon, and Seven Samurai ask a common question: Why can’t people be happier together? The director was successful in putting forward this question in contemporary terms through the medium of film, and he answered it too. But he always answered it in a way that intensified and finally transformed our shared reality into a manifestation of mesmerising, yet tragic beauty.
Dreams, Kurosawa’s 1990 movie, was a shift from his typical style as it delved into the genre of ‘magical realism.’ The structure, content, means of expression, philosophical thought and visual frames in the movie offer a spontaneous reflection of the traditional aristocratic theatre of Japan, as well as of other Japanese folklores. Dreams is a collection of eight ethereal stories based on Akira Kurosawa’s recurring dreams, most of which sprung from his childhood anxieties. Through the film, he expresses his disappointment with society, where one’s innate tendency towards greed and immorality could ruin the building blocks of civilisation. Dreams is a representation of his dismay regarding failures in the real world that manifested themselves through his dreams.
The scenes of the movie open and close similar to our eyes as we drift off during the REM stage of our sleep. At the beginning of each dream sequence, a sudden noise or movement acts as a signal that a new world is about to be introduced. The dreams bear a greater resemblance to fables than to actual dreams, and ghoulish characters, although cartoonish in form, act as significant symbols in the short narratives. Just like in dreams, symbols are used as metaphors for the realities and emotions experienced in real life. Dreams compels the viewers to introspect and take the time to recognise the hidden meanings behind these symbols. This enables us to appreciate the movie’s eccentricities rather than indicting it for its unorthodox style. Dreams incorporates plenty of imagery that might make the viewer feel uncomfortable or unwelcomed. However, it ends on a humorous and light tone that is juxtaposed with the earlier, darker segments.
Kurosawa was a man ahead of his times and did not let technology become a limitation to his artistic expression. While commercial directors used two layers of sound—one for voice and the other for the background music—Akira Kurosawa used an unbelievable nine layers of sound. In fact, his technique of using multiple cameras to shoot close-up, mid, and long shots simultaneously, thus saving on shooting time, cost and effort, was later adopted by other directors too.
Akira Kurosawa was indeed a revolutionary figure in the field of cinema. It has been decades since his demise, but people all over the world still resonate with the art he has left behind.