Akira Kurosawa is one of the most celebrated film directors of the 20th century, mainly for his ability to translate Japanese sensibilities to the international language of the medium. In Japan, there has always been a mix of celebration and disdain for Kurosawa for the same reason, to the point where he was unable to find funding for his projects in his native land during his later lifetime. Fighting suicidal bouts, he found outlets for his creative drive via the international community and made spectacular cinema in doing so. The Russian language film, Dersu Uzala, about the Soviet conquest of the Mongol/Siberian territories, was one such film. Among Kurosawa’s last films, Dreams (1990) was another such effort. Steven Spielberg was one of the executive producers of the film, and significant help was given by others including Martin Scorcese, who stars as Vincent van Gogh in an unforgettable performance. George Lucas lent the services of ILM to the van Gogh scene to mesmerizing effect (pun intended).
The final scene of Dreams is called Village of the Watermills, a remarkable and stunning piece of film making on its own. Like the other scenes in the film, Village of the Watermills is based on Kurosawa’s actual dreams and constitutes one of his most extraordinary comments on culture and technology. The scene seems like a Japanese screen adaptation of Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization at times, with the village as a metaphor for the civility and balance of the early eotechnic era.
Mumford actually has a lot to say about water wheels, frequently using them as examples of technology of ancient civilizations brought out of the ruins to be reinvented for new purposes, calling them “wind-blown seeds from other cultures.” It is the new context in which these ancient technologies find new meaning and from which spring the innovation of new forms, the water wheel taking root in the early mechanization of medieval society, for example.
The dominant interaction between technologies and their environments was dubbed the technological complex by Mumford, a series of eras demarcated by the types of technology dominant in their time. The first technological complex was an era of water-and-wood, named by Mumford the eotechnic phase, and spanning 1000 A.D. to 1750 A.D.. During this period the technical advances of ancient civilizations collected and underwent increasing experimentation and invention to constitute the earliest age of the machine. The second such phase, the paleotechnic phase, was a coal-and-iron complex that spanned roughly the period 1700 to 1900 A.D.. Mumford named the third phase of his technological complex system the neotechnic phase, a period of electricity-and-alloy dominance that began at the turn of the 20th century and extended into Mumford’s present. The eotechnic phase is of interest here, so a few more words about its significance.
The eotechnic era was one of discrimination of the “finer things in life,”in part thanks to the rapid integration of various sorts of machines to replace or relieve human labor. Leisure arose in response to this new environment and the desire for even greater and more powerful machines took off. Walter Ong, in his work The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History, reports that the linguistic turn of taste came about during the Enlightenment as people searched for descriptors suitable for explaining the process of discrimination between things of high and low value or quality. As taste is our most discriminatory sense, it became an apt metaphor.
In this way, Mumford notes that the Renaissance was not the beginning or a rebirth of culture, but in fact the final phase of a technological revolution, where invention on behalf of leisure and power and, yes, taste took command as the motivating force of social activity. Leonardo’s work was as much about technical evolution as it was about beauty, and so we see the escalation of mechanical development, which culminates in the paleotechnic phase and the Industrial Revolution. We see a rise in scientific observation, which also results in the idea that humans can achieve a total dominion over the laws of nature provided efforts are organized and acted upon properly. The mechanical clock emerges, synchronizes human activity, and gives rise to urban commerce.
Mumford sees a particular romance in the eotechnic sensibility, or at least in what it borrows from great civilizations of ancient times. He quotes Antipater of Thessalonica to show his appreciation of the water mill and its adoption by said ancient peoples:
Cease from grinding, ye women who toil at the mill; sleep late even if the crowing cocks announce the dawn. For Demeter has ordered the Nymphs to perform the work of your hands, and they, leaping down on the top of the wheel, turn its axle which, with its revolving spokes, turns the heavy concave Nisyrian millstones. We taste again the joys of the primitive life, learning to feast on the products of Demeter without labor.
In the end, however, Mumford notes that the fatal flaw of the eotechnic phase was its reliance on resources (especially the resources of power, i.e…wind and water) that were only readily available to particular regions, necessitating the development of other forms of energy. The wood-and-water complex could not be enough to sustain the demand for growth that the world now possessed. The new wave of innovation that led the world into the paleotechnic would also spell an end to whatever romance humans once knew with respect to the liberating quality of technology.
Kurosawa’s story takes place, obviously, in a dream that spans time and space. The traveler is of a world of electricity, our world, and the old man by the riverbank knows the pitfalls and perils of our world. The village is not of the past, but of a place out of time. An impossible place, where the genie has been put back in the bottle and wiser heads have prevailed on behalf of the earliest moments of the eotechnic era. The houses are made of wood and paper. The water wheels are also wood, and we see no signs of metals with the exception of the bells and Western instruments used in the funeral procession. The only glass in the scene lurks in the dark depths of the building by the riverbank, an oil lamp. The telling exchange between the traveler (T) and the old man (OM) goes thus:
T: There’s no electricity here?
OM: Don’t need it. People get too used to convenience. They think convenience is better. They throw out what’s truly good.
T: But what about lights?
OM: We’ve got candles and linseed oil.
T: But night’s so dark.
OM: Yes. That’s what night’s supposed to be. Why should night be as bright as day? I wouldn’t like nights so bright you couldn’t see the stars.
T: You have paddies. But no tractors to cultivate them?
OM: Don’t need them. We’ve got cows and horses.
T: What do you use for fuel?
OM: Firewood mostly. We don’t feel right, chopping down trees, but enough fall down by themselves. We cut them up and use them as firewood. And if you make charcoal from the wood just a few trees can give you as much heat as a whole forest. Yes, and cow dung makes good fuel too.
After pausing to take in the sounds of nature, the traveler continues to listen to the old man:
OM: We try to live the way man used to. That is the natural way of life. People today have forgotten they’re really just a part of nature. Yet, they destroy the nature on which our lives depend. They always think they can make something better. Especially, scientists. They may be smart, but most don’t understand the heart of nature. They only invent things that in the end make people unhappy. Yet they are so proud of their inventions. What’s worse, most people are too. They view them as if they were miracles. They worship them. They don’t know it but they’re losing nature. They don’t see that they’re going to perish. The most important things for human beings are clean air and clean water and the trees and grass that produce them. Everything is being dirtied, polluted forever. Dirty air, dirty water, dirtying the hearts of men.
They always think they can make something better. Especially scientists….they are so proud of their inventions. What’s worse, most people are too. They view them as if they were miracles. They worship them. Echoes of Mumford, Ellul, and Postman in the dreams of Kurosawa…
Marshall McLuhan wrote that environments are pervasive and invisible, and noted that the role of the artist was to provide an anti-environment…a counter-situation that enables us to recognize and understand what typically eludes us. Kurosawa’s dream was just such an anti-environment, and the Muses having found their appropriate medium, enable us to more clearly see Mumford’s message and the transformation of our own world, and our own thinking. Kurosawa’s message to the worshippers of scientists and invention, of technology and progress, is a message of warning and a call to remember balance. The bridge crossed by the traveler in this scene is the bridge Kurosawa is asking us all to walk, before it’s too late. As the genie can never really be put back in the bottle, however, the answer might just lie in the media ecology paradigm.