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In 1990, Akira Kurosawa, one of Japan’s greatest directors, released his antepenultimate film Yume (Dreams). At the age of 80, this was to be the most personal of all his films, and along with it, is perhaps the most difficult one for Western audiences to appreciate. The film represents many of Kurosawa’s dreams, many of which represent different periods throughout his life. The following piece will weave into it two commentaries written by Zvika Serper1 and Carl Pletsch2, which focus on one segment within Dreams titled “Karasu” (“Crows”). Analyses of the two articles present themes within “Crows” such as art, suicide, and genius (“Crows” being one of eight episodes which make up Dreams). More to the point however, both articles address and blend artistic brilliance with suicide. The author supports and argues that there is an apparent connection with mental illness, overwhelming sensitivities, and suicide. Examples abound, from Vincent van Gogh (who is the main focus in “Crows”), John Minton, Virginia Woolf, Elliot Smith, to Kurt Cobain. Many artists throughout history have struggled with misdiagnosis and inconsistent treatment largely due to depression. Additionally, it seems that many artists who suffer from depression seem to find comfort in creativity as a substitute. This article encourages the reader to decide if indeed suicide follows closely at the heels of genius.

Dreams expresses Kurosawa’s love for art and cinematography, this is revealed through the eye of a painter via exquisite colour and light.  In “Crows”, Vincent van Gogh (Martin Scorsese) plays a role in the expressionistic and vivid episode, yet with the subdued emotions that are the hallmark of Japanese literature. Pletsch explains that Dreams is a retrospective look at [Kurosawa’s] life, conveyed in representations of eight purported dreams.”3 This has led many of Kurosawa’s fans noting the film to be too insightful and lacking action, “some of the most avid Kurosawa watchers, including Audie Bock, Stephen Prince, and Donald Richie, have found it self-indulgent and unimpressive.”4 However, the episode “Crows”, acts as a biography, showing Kurosawa’s love for art going back to when he was a youth. Therefore, Dreams is a narrative, exemplifying the ageing director’s artistic visions, whereby he has nothing to prove to the audience, but art for art’s sake. 

“Crows” opens with the viewer following a 40-something art student ‘I’ (Akira Terao) walking in front of various paintings by Vincent van Gogh in an art gallery. The art student passes by canvases that were all painted towards the end of Van Gogh’s life, one of which is one of his last paintings, titled, Wheatfield with Crows (July 1890). Pletsch states that “Crows” “depicts the field in which Van Gogh shot himself. The ‘Crows’ symbolize death here and in Japanese culture, generally, where suicide is not dishonourable for an aging artist.”5 Hence, Kurosawa stresses Van Gogh’s impending suicide while both the viewer and Kurosawa look at his catalogue of work; consequently, the self-dialogue is in fact quite evident. Zvika Serper explains that the episode expresses Kurosawa’s “lament and discomfort that adults are incapable of entering the animist world.”6 Thus, Kurosawa illustrates his wish that he could enter the world of make believe as he had done as a child. Serper points out that in “Crows”, the director shows colourful imagery throughout the episode because of its “brightening sun, which creates a romantic and yearning atmosphere”7 that is itself contrasted against other episodes in the movie, which either join this positive imagery or are more depressing in essence, because of their “gloomy darkness.”8 Indeed, the bright and colourful imagery in “Crows” is itself contrasted with the underlying bleak reality of its main character, Van Gogh, who would commit suicide in the very field depicted.

Wheatfield with Crows

Although, the episode “Crows” has lightness to it, its undertones are quite dark, embodied within the theme of suicide. It is the theme of suicide that attaches itself to the theme of genius; consequently, this begs to ask why so many geniuses have committed suicide. Serper argues that ‘I’ in “Crows” is a mix between Kurosawa and his brother Heigo who killed himself at the age of 27.9 In fact, Akira Kurosawa himself attempted suicide in his life. Moreover, Van Gogh had a great impact on Kurosawa’s career as he points to Van Gogh’s influence three times in his autobiography.10 Serper goes on to state that Kurosawa’s brother who was a benshi (film narrator) in silent movies (as was Akira), “committed suicide after talkies put an end to his artistic career.”11 This Serper argues, “could have inspired the personal parallelism Kurosawa saw in Van Gogh, who died very young, without fulfilling his aspirations.”12 

In the following scene, cutting from ‘I’ standing in front of the painting, The Langlois Bridge at Arles (1888), the audience sees ‘I’ walking into the actual setting of the painting itself. ‘I’ walks over to the group of women at the foot of the bridge, and asks in French, “Do you know where Mr. Van Gogh lives?” One woman responds, “If it’s him you’re after, he crossed the bridge and went that way.” ‘I’ says, “Thank you,” and as he’s walking away, the woman calls out, “Be careful, sir…He just got out of the lunatic asylum…” The women laugh, and ‘I’ walks away. Eventually, ‘I’ sees Van Gogh in a field, runs over to him, and talks to him, perhaps hoping to gain some helpful insight as to what makes a genius or a successful artist: “The episode opens with a close-up of a framed self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh confronting the viewer from the wall of a museum. This creates the analogy: Van Gogh/Kurosawa. One depicts himself in paint, the other in film.”13 Pletsch asserts that the episodes in Dreams connect with each other autobiographically and this can be similarly seen in countless self-representative pieces created by other artists. Moreover, this easily places the notion on their audiences that they are geniuses; therefore, it is “no wonder it seems a bit self-indulgent: this is an essential part of the genre, which assumes that a genius is, by definition, self-indulgent and should be.”14 This further ties in with the thematic notion of death in general, and suicide specifically. The shortness of life should drive us to indulge the potential genius in ourselves to create and express all that we can, while we can. Tragically, often when artists perceive that they have lost their ability to indulge in their self-expression, their final act is one of ultimate self-indulgence: taking one’s own life. 

He Just got out of the lunatic asylum

Running

More Running

Running to Van Gogh

When ‘I’ meets Van Gogh in the field, the exchange between them takes the fashion of a master describing the source of his inspiration to a student. Van Gogh starts talking, imparting knowledge onto him, explaining how “as if it’s in a dream, a scene paints itself for me” and “how difficult it is to hold it all inside.” ‘I’ then asks Van Gogh, “then what do you do?” and Van Gogh answers, “I work, I slave, I drive myself like a locomotive.” The contradictory image of the need for artistic expression being the source of both inspiration and desperation is a powerful one. This need for expression, a drive to create was apparent in Kurosawa’s career as he wrote and directed consistently from 1941-1993. This constant need to create is apparent in other genius creatives such as Billy Wilder, Hayao Miyazaki, and Steven Spielberg. 

Subsequently, the viewer sees Van Gogh sketching rather rapidly, he stops, looks up at the sun, and says “I have to hurry, time is running out, so little time left.” This of course alludes to his impending death. Following this statement, ‘I’ asks Van Gogh with concern, “Are you alright, you appear to be injured?” Which Van Gogh replies, “This? Yesterday I was trying to compete a self-portrait. I just couldn’t get the ear right, so I cut it off and threw it away.” Clearly, Kurosawa makes Van Gogh’s struggles with mental health front and centre. As quickly as they meet, Kurosawa finds himself alone.

‘I’ and Van Gogh

After running through various Van Gogh paintings, ‘I’ eventually stands at the junction of three paths in a wheat field, looking up to where Van Gogh is walking on one path towards the horizon. Crows scatter in disarray, ‘I’ looks around startled and confused. ‘I’ is left with the decision to literally follow in the footsteps of Van Gogh or do something different as is so often a decision geniuses have to make. The camera focuses on Van Gogh as he exits the field of view and the scene ends. A locomotive whistle can be heard as the camera does a close-up of Wheatfield of Crows. As the camera pans out, ‘I’ stands, back facing the camera, staring at the painting, finally taking off his hand as a sincere sign of respect. “Having obtained the secret from Van Gogh, he confronted a decision on what direction to take as an artist. In the event, he chose to abandon painting and become a filmmaker.”15 In Kurosawa’s youth, he desired to be a painter, but as is shown in the film, he or ‘I’ ends up choosing the path to becoming a film director. He does this after losing all narration work and moving back in with his parents to his older brother committing suicide, followed by his only other brother dying months after, which would have a lifelong impression on Kurosawa. Taking into consideration these deeply formative experiences from Kurosawa’s own life, the autobiographical thread throughout “Dreams” becomes more apparent in “Crows.” The exchange between ‘I’ and Van Gogh can be interpreted as a departure from the Van Gogh/Kurosawa analogy described by Pletsch,16 and the Kurosawa/Heigo analogy described by Serper.17 The Van Gogh/Kurosawa, and Kurosawa/Heigo analogies seem to run in parallel and may overlap with a separate analogy of Van Gogh/Heigo. Pletsch draws attention to the fact that ‘I’ “is not seeking the youthful Van Gogh but Van Gogh at the end of his life when his creativity had reached its apogee.”18 Just as ‘I’ seeks guidance and insight from Van Gogh, it’s easy to imagine that the real-life Akira would have sought these things from his older brother. Though Heigo was young at the time of his suicide, it seems clear that in his own mind he had reached the end of his creative life. From this perspective, ‘I’ in this case takes on dual role of a young Akira seeking inspiration and guidance from a master; as well as a veteran artist nearing the end of life, perhaps wondering for how much longer he will be able to continue finding meaning in life before reaching the apogee of his own creativity. All three of these men were artists desperately seeking meaning through self-expression, only for two of them to end their respective lives once life-fulfillment through creative expression was seemingly lost. The fluid nature of this overlapping and amalgamation of identities and concepts, along with the final sequence of “Crows” depicting ‘I’ walking inside some of Van Gogh’s paintings, maintains thematic consistency with the fluidity of ideas and images within dreams themselves. 

Choices

Crows Scatter

The fact that Kurosawa shows himself as an art student watching Van Gogh painting “Crows” is explicit because this would be arguably one of the last paintings Van Gogh would paint before he committed suicide. This then leads observers to wonder if Kurosawa himself thought of suicide conceivably at that very moment in his life, perhaps even while he was on set shooting the movie. Consequently, although critics have stated that the film is overall quite “trivial and self-indulgent,”19 possibly, it is Kurosawa’s right as a prodigy to show how he searched and attained the ability to make magnificent films. Kurosawa himself said, “man is a genius when he is dreaming.”20 It is through Kurosawa wandering through Van Gogh paintings whereby he tries to imply that it is through the suicide of Van Gogh feasibly some of this genius is passed onto himself. Though all of us dream, few of us remain genius artists upon waking. The artist, however, is able to retain that seemingly magical power to create at will, whether dreaming or awake. Tragically often, once the artist believes that their power is lost, a deep and spiralling despair can follow. In spite of this, we non-artists, and aspiring artists like ‘I’, must often rely on the artist to inspire us, and help us to interpret, the wide variety of experiences that give life depth of meaning. The truly great artists seem not only to create art, but to dream it, and to live it until the very end.

Endnotes

  1. Zvika Serper, “Kurosawa’s Dreams: A Cinematic Reflection of a Traditional Japanese Context,” Cinema Journal, Volume 40, Issue 4 (2001): p. 82.
  2. Carl Pletsch, “Akira Kurosawa’s Reflection on Becoming a Genius,” Journal of Popular Film & Television, Volume 32, Issue 4 (Winter 2005): p. 192.
  3. Ibid., p. 192.
  4. Ibid., p. 192.
  5. Ibid., p. 194.
  6. Serper, p. 82.
  7. Ibid., pp. 82-83.
  8. Ibid., p. 83.
  9. Ibid., p. 92.
  10. Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography (New York: Knopf, 1982).
  11. Serper, p. 83.
  12. Ibid., p. 83.
  13. Pletsch, p. 193.
  14. Ibid., p. 193.
  15. Ibid., p. 197.
  16. Ibid., p. 193.
  17. Serper, p. 92.
  18. Pletsch, p. 194.
  19. Ibid., p. 198.
  20. Ibid., p. 197.

About The Author

Matthew Michaud is an instructor in the School of Communications and a lab supervisor in the School of Motion Picture Arts at Capilano University, North Vancouver, Canada. Michaud’s research interests include communicative competence, educational technology, Indigenization, new media, and Japanese cinema. Justin Richardson is a Lecturer in English for Academic Purposes in the Department of International Relations at Kyoto Sangyo University, Japan. Areas of focus include popular culture as pedagogy, technology in the classroom, and testing and assessment.

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