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Natsume Soseki's Opium Dreams, Part 6: In the Dreamtime

Director Akira Kurosawa is seen during the filming of "Dreams," on May 15, 1989. (Mainichi)

A Psychodrama in Seven Acts

    By Damian Flanagan


    Widely regarded as the greatest figure of modern Japanese literature, the novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) has inspired many hundreds of books of critical analysis. Yet the true Soseki was a far more psychologically complex, savagely intense and haunted figure -- a man on the cusp of madness and despair -- than traditional accounts would have us believe. In this series, Damian Flanagan traces how his late-flowering but extraordinarily prolific and wide-ranging literary career began in London as he took inspiration from the opium-fuelled dreams of Thomas de Quincey, asserted his own artistic independence and gradually set about creating his own dream-like recreation of the modern world.

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    A poster for the Akira Kurosawa film "Rashomon," 1950.

    The famed Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa is perhaps best known in the West for his samurai epics like "Yojinbo," "Seven Samurai" and "Kagemusha." But one way of thinking about his career is by seeing it as a journey of inspired interaction with, and matching himself up against, some of the world's great literary artists.

    It's well known that three of Kurosawa's greatest films -- "Throne of Blood," "The Bad Sleep Well" and "Ran" -- are based on Shakespeare's great tragedies, "Macbeth," "Hamlet" and "King Lear." But Kurosawa also did reworkings of Dostoevsky's "The Idiot," Gorky's "The Lower Depths" and the classic Kabuki play, "Kanjincho," and he found international fame in 1950 with his cinematic adaptation, "Rashomon," of two stories by the celebrated Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa.

    The film won the Grand Prix at Cannes and became the starting point for bringing Kurosawa's works -- historical spectaculars and modern thrillers -- to the attention of key Western directors like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese over the next thirty years.

    The works of Ryunosuke Akutagawa have been a perennial favourite of Japanese youth, but as noted in Part 4 of this series, Akutagawa was the disciple (deshi) of Natsume Soseki, the grand master of Japanese literature in the twentieth century who acted as a sensei to many other literary luminaries including Junichiro Tanizaki.

    "The Gate" by Natsume Soseki, 1910. Image courtesy Damian Flanagan/Peter Owen

    Having as a youthful director found fame with his adaptation of Akutagawa -- and in the intervening 40 years adapted those great Shakespearean masterpieces -- it's perhaps not surprising that as Kurosawa's career reached its zenith, he thought about matching himself up against the master, Soseki, himself.

    Soseki's novels, however, are masterpieces of stylistic singularity or psychological subtlety, and are notoriously difficult to successfully transfer to the screen. His magnificent 1910 novel, "The Gate," for example, seems almost like a work of non-happening, disguising an extraordinary mental hinterland of ideas.

    While out walking, the protagonist Sosuke observes men putting winter cladding on a tree and begins to consider buying himself a winter coat and selling off a family heirloom to buy it. This heirloom falls into the hands of his landlord who, Sosuke is shocked to discover, is an associate of his former best friend Yasui. Sosuke's wife Oyone was once Yasui's lover, and when she left him for Sosuke, it caused a falling out between the two men and changed the cuckolded Yasui's entire life course.

    Hearing from the landlord that Yasui has become an "adventurer" in Manchuria and that he is about to come back for a brief visit sparks a spiritual crisis in Sosuke. He flees temporarily and embarks on his own uncharacteristic "adventure," seeking mental salvation in a Zen temple.

    This network of dreamlike internal impulses and subtle shifts in the pattern of daily life depicted in "The Gate" is a world removed from the dramatic stagecraft and life-and-death events of the Shakespearean stage, and yet it is no less penetrating of the human condition. Soseki traces a veneer of logicality being applied by the characters to their angst-driven, unpredictable mental associations and the tiny haphazard happenings governing their daily lives. This intellectual landscape, however, is difficult to capture on the chiefly visual medium of film.

    "Wheat Field with Cypresses" by Vincent van Gogh, 1889.

    Attempts to film Soseki's novel "I am a Cat" -- comically seeing the world from a cat's perspective -- or depicting the psychological labyrinth of intense male relationships in "Kokoro" failed to rival the outstanding novels that inspired them. Kurosawa realized that if he was going to base a film on Soseki, then it needed to be a work that was suprarealistic and offered striking visual images at every turn. He turned for inspiration to Soseki's intensely beautiful 1908 work, "Ten Dreams," describing in jewel-like prose ten micro-short dream-like stories.

    Kurosawa, however, didn't want to just film Soseki's dreams, but create his own in the same style. The original intention with his 1990 film "Dreams" was, like Soseki, to film 10 mysterious, magical, beautiful and terrifying micro-stories allowing Kurosawa to stand toe to toe with Soseki. But budget constraints eventually reduced the number of the dreams to eight, each one opening with exactly the same words that Soseki used to open each of his Ten Dreams: "I dreamt something like this" ("Konna yume o mita").

    In the sixth dream of the film, entitled "Crows," a Japanese painter is admiring the works of van Gogh in an art gallery and disappears into one of the canvases, setting off through the country landscapes that van Gogh painted, in search of Vincent himself. He eventually discovers van Gogh -- complete with bandaged ear and surprisingly played by the American director Martin Scorsese, wearing a ginger beard and painting in a wheat field.

    Van Gogh asks the Japanese painter why he isn't painting when there are such wonderful scenes to paint. Van Gogh declares that he loses himself in all landscapes, as if in a dream, and the scene just paints itself. He devours the natural setting and then the picture appears before him complete. The difficulty is, he says, holding it inside.

    "The Three Cornered World" by Natsume Soseki, 1906. Image courtesy Damian Flanagan/Peter Owen.

    Asked by the Japanese painter what he then does, van Gogh responds:

    "I work! I slave! I drive myself like a locomotive!"

    To get to the heart of what's going in this scene, you have to grasp that it is a fusion of two inspirations: Soseki and van Gogh. The painter in "Crows" is clearly inspired by the protagonist painter in Soseki's famous 1906 novel, "Kusamakura" (also translated as "The Three Cornered World"), who sets off along a mountain track while pondering deep thoughts about the nature of art and what it is that actually makes a memorable painting. Evidently it is not just a matter of finding something beautiful in nature; there must be something more.

    "Ophelia" by John Everett Millais, 1851-52)

    The painter in Soseki's novel is beguiled by the young woman running his lodgings in the mountain hot spring where he stays, and he starts thinking about painting her, but he can't quite get the right expression for her face. She starts appearing to him in his dream, fused with other local legends he has heard about and ideas he has reflected on that day.

    Meanwhile, he starts painting the scene around a local pond called "The Mirror Pond," but decides it would be most interesting to paint the scene reflected in the pond itself -- that this is itself a framed picture, and that he can place the beautiful young woman, like a floating Ophelia, within it.

    What Soseki was saying was that painting -- indeed art itself -- was not a mere representation of the world, but the world refracted through the consciousness of the artist, fusing a myriad of other mental influences. If the consciousness of the artist is intense enough, a sensibility as intense as that of van Gogh's, for example, then virtually any scene -- a chair, a sunflower, a field, a cafe, a river -- can be turned into great art.

    If Soseki's novel starts with a painter walking up a mountain track into an other-worldly idyll, then it ends with a depiction of a train sending the young woman's former lover off to war, bringing the inhabitants of that Shangri La back to the grim hustle and bustle of the world. Soseki's protagonist acutely remarks that nothing symbolizes the intense thrusting forward of the twentieth century more than the train, hurtling forward undifferentiated masses of people.

    In Kurosawa's dream, he intercuts an image of the train as van Gogh ominously declares, "I drive myself like a locomotive!"

    "Wheat Field with Crows" by Vincent van Gogh, 1890.

    Noticing that van Gogh appears to be injured, the Japanese painter enquiries whether he is alright. "Yesterday I was trying to do a self-portrait, but I couldn't get the ear right so I cut it off and threw it away," van Gogh answers.

    As discussed in the last part of this series, this is not why van Gogh cut off his ear, but it does reveal a deeper truth. Van Gogh is so obsessed with his art that he will completely sacrifice himself, mutilate and destroy himself, in his pursuit of it.

    In the film, van Gogh scurries off and the Japanese painter follows, now wandering the mountain tracks of van Gogh's own paintings until he finally arrives in one of his last iconic works, "Wheat Field with Crows." He sees van Gogh disappearing into the wheat as the sky fills with roughly painted crows until there is the crack of van Gogh shooting himself.

    Throughout his early writings Soseki was fascinated by the idea of literature encompassing both the striking visual images of painting and the incongruous, psychologically revealing mental associations of dreams. Van Gogh, a lover of literature, was a pioneering exponent of producing intensely dream-like imagery in art. Kurosawa's "dream" deftly fuses the influences of these two iconic artists, and by portraying a younger version of himself -- complete with his trademark hat -- as Soseki's painter and the film director Martin Scorsese as van Gogh, he was asserting that cinema was the ultimate medium of fusing literary and painterly ideas in dream-like landscapes.

    I wrote in the last part how van Gogh cutting off his ear and presenting it to a maid at a local brothel was actually a representation of slave-like submission and defeat, the prostitute acting as the symbol of his suffering, humiliated, unappreciated self. It's well-chosen that the words Kurosawa places on van Gogh's lips are, "I work! I slave!"

    "Oronooko: or, the Royal Slave" by Aphra Behn.

    Lying in bed in his cheap boarding house in London in 1901, a copy of "Confessions of an English Opium Eater" on his bedside table, Soseki saw the image of himself in the degraded house maid Annie Penn who, he wrote, "from morning until night, from morning until night, she works and works," clambering asthmatically up and down the stairs, with occasional bursts of slurred speech.

    Soseki too, the "literary psychopath," worked and slaved, and if he did not quite cut off his ear, he was quite prepared to harm himself in other ways, abandoning his wife and children for two years, his mental and physical health failing as he moved himself into ever more depressing lodging houses in his ruthless pursuit of literature. He eventually ended up in a room close to Clapham Junction, where he could from dawn to dusk hear the incessant clank and grind of locomotives, the ultimate symbol of the nervous breakdown-inducing twentieth century.

    Prone to bouts of violent paranoia, for years afterwards, Soseki was obsessed with the idea of being enslaved. He closely read up on the ideas of Nietzsche -- yet another tormented, self-destroying artist -- on the subject. In his 1907 novel, "The Poppy," his male protagonist Ono is described as suffering spiritual enslavement at the hands of a forceful young woman, and in his 1908 novel, "Sanshiro," Soseki took inspiration from Aphra Behn's novel, "Oroonoko" -- about an African prince cast into slavery -- and repeatedly compared his protagonist Sanshiro to such a "Royal Slave."

    "I work! I slave! I drive myself like a locomotive!"

    Natsume Soseki's literary career first took flight in a boarding house room in London in 1901 when he covertly rebelled against the dominance of his poet friend Masaoka Shiki. He began penning a self-portrait inspired by the opium dream memoir of Thomas de Quincey, in a moment of critical self-liberation. His literary ambition had ignited. Like van Gogh, the difficulty was keeping those burning literary visions inside. The self-doubt, the self-hate, the ambition intersected with dream-like forcefulness and eventually caused Soseki to pour out literary works with the same relentless power that van Gogh painted paintings.

    Kurosawa's "dream" captures the overlap of these two intense artists with great insight and economical originality. Unsurprisingly his film met with a muted response in the West, completely oblivious to some of the structures and ideas that Kurosawa was playing with. Adaptations of Shakespeare they understood, but not of Soseki.

    It was almost as if it was an opium dream, offering some meaning and entertainment to the dreamer, but impossible to disentangle for those looking soberly in from the outside, lacking the zeal of incendiary inspiration.


    (This is Part 6 of a 7-part series. The Mainichi will carry the final installment on Sunday, May 22.)


    Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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