Finding Authenticity, or at least Resonance, in the Presentation of Dreams

I recently rewatched Akira, a show for all its many visual merits, has a gem with Tetsuo’s dream sequence in the “hospital” he was held. Granted, the dream was manipulated by the other ESPers but the presentation of the dream is a visual spectacle rarely rivaled in animation or elsewhere. I think I would have to rewatch Paprika to ascertain which film has a more visually remarkable dream sequence.

Last year I really enjoyed the film Inception, wholly devoted to dreaming, or at least had dreaming as a central science fiction conceit. It is similar to Paprika in focusing on dreaming as a subject within which the characters and the narrative play out. One thing common about these three films with their feature-length budgets, is that for all the visual spectacle and focus on dreaming, I feel no resonance with any of the dreams featured within. I am shown by and told by the narrative that dreams are occurring, but I don’t feel like I’m witnessing a dream like anything that I’ve had.

This isn’t that big a knock on these films, it’s not that I doubt the verisimilitude of the dreams. It’s just a matter of failing to find a personal connection with the featured dreams. But there are shows with dream sequences that ring very true for me. I’ll explore some of them in this post.

In the average, non-dream centric show, the dream more often than not serves as a montage of sorts as some kind of short-cut to leading the reader/viewer into some kind of insight on the dreamer. Also, the scene may serve as some kind of symbolic message for the viewers to interpret with or on behalf of the character dreaming. The payoff may be some kind of epiphany leading to choice/resolution of a story, or something indirectly moving the plot forward. In Neon Genesis Evangelion, it was all this and an attempt at resolution itself:

Interestingly enough, the clip show/recap episode of SDF Macross (17 “Phantasm”) for me portrays the most relatable dream sequence in anime. The dream logic seems very familiar to me. While Inception shows a highlight reel of Dom Cobb’s life, he dreams about the dramatic memories in his life, Hikaru’s dream shows more mundane slices of his past year. It perhaps is relatable because my life is more mundane than that of Inception’s Cobb. But not really, drama is relative and I can easily imagine a highlight reel of moments I’d relish to relive and wish to avoid at all costs to remember.

But this is not the heart of things. I can remember, with some vagueness of course, having dreamt similar dreams in similar ways. The important aspect of the dreams I had, and Ichijo’s, is the events remain the same, but what the people in the dream say are different. It is a very disconcerting feeling. I wonder with fear, who’s putting the words in these people’s mouths? If my dream is a projection of my fears and desires, then I’m the one making people not only say horrible things to me, but to each other. How could I be capable of such… malice!?

I exaggerate a bit, most of the time the things said between people in the dream are only horrible in context to my own discomfort hearing them. It’s not unlike writing fiction – I am not malicious for making a villain speak villainous speech. But since the dreams are not exercises in fiction writing, and involve characters who are real people, who I have real relationships with, what kind of will or at least desire do I have to cast them as villains?

Ichijo Hikaru doesn’t necessarily cast the people in his life as villains, and to be fair, much of the behavior of people in his dream are in character, but it does say something about Hikaru, how he’s cast himself as a victim of their words or at least the circumstances where they have power over him. The episode at least has to make this contribution, as to justify consideration of being beyond a mere clip show.

This is what I want to ask you, really. Among the shows (anime, film, what have you) you’ve consumed, what dream sequences do you resonate with? What or which ones feel true to you? Which ones don’t – and feel little more than an indulgence of the subject works?

As a touchstone regarding dreaming, I recommend the “animated” film Waking Life by Richard Linklater. The film explores the very nature of dreams, dream logic, in a contemplative and exploratory way as opposed to the action-centric/dramatic way Paprika and Inception do. An excerpt:

I was never really into dreams, dream exploration, or even documentation. But it is fascinating nonetheless, both as a subject of contemplation or as a possibility of escape, or release, from this sometimes crushingly boring and meaningless existence. I reiterate: What works of film, TV, or animation have you seen that contain dream sequences or content that resonate with you the most? Why?

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
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36 Responses to Finding Authenticity, or at least Resonance, in the Presentation of Dreams

  1. Tronulax says:

    This is a very interesting topic. The concept of dreams I think can be used in many ways. I think Satoshi Kon was masterful in the way he used dreams in his works, either as a way of characterization, narrative structure, or to contrast waking up from the dream into the nightmare that is reality vs. waking up from the nightmare to the dream that is reality. Paprika, like you said, is a good example of this to a degree.

    As far as dream sequences in anime that have resonated with me, I gotta go with Paranoia Agent (coincidentally also by Satoshi Kon). That scene at the end where the detective was drawn into his fantasy world was sadly beautiful. It wasn’t really a “dream” per se, but the effects were similar. The second Urusei Yatsura movie is another one, though I think Oshii falls shorter than Satoshi Kon.

    Also, I’ll go out on a limb and mention Interstella5555. I’m not sure if it was really a dream or not (at the end). But damn if it were, I’d pay to be that baby.

  2. Emperor J says:

    I was always interested in the use of dreams in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The dream sequences there serve as both an escape from a boring and stupid world to genuinely trying to escape from reality. I guess it resonates with me because of the world the movie is set in.

    As far as animation is concerned, there really isn’t that much that has resonated beyond aesthetically. Kon’s films were interesting for their use of dreams, but it wasn’t ever anything beyond a brief thought.

    • That’s another movie that I really need to see. Posts like this serve as good reminders to revisit my backlog and reprioritize. I’ll find a good excuse to mainline Brazil.

  3. hearthesea says:

    This is a great post. I love reading about or discussing anything to do with dreams/dreaming — there is something fascinating and terrifying about the loss of control when you fall asleep and are confronted by all sorts of things that have been quietly bubbling under the surface.

    In regard to your examples, I love ‘Evangelion’ but I always had a mixed reaction to that ending sequence. I never quite knew how to feel about it. On one hand it’s undeniably interesting, and the way Shinji’s mental instability finally reaches its climax (after building for an entire series) makes sense. On the other hand, it feels like there is an odd sense of instruction or message of self-help at its core which doesn’t quite gel with me, as it feels too obtrusive/blatant and heavy-handed. It seems to work and yet doesn’t work at the same time, so it left me bemused. (Typical, though. Would it really be Eva if it didn’t complicate things?)

    It’s interesting that I can’t really think of a really impacting example of a character having a dream in the ‘traditional’ sense. Maybe I haven’t watched enough shows, but whenever I see those type of ‘dream’ scenes it normally feels like an overly long exercise in symbolism, which makes it difficult to connect on an emotional level. I think what I actually prefer is when something is dream-like rather than being a literal dream. I recently saw ‘Black Swan’, and that provides a perfect example — the protagonist sees the world in a nightmarish, surreal fashion that works for me because I can actually feel her horror and frustration as she tries to separate the real world from the illusions that her mind constructs. There is plenty of nightmare-like imagery and a sort of unreliable narration at one point. It hit me hard.

    In terms of Anime, I think there are quite a few dream-like moments in ‘The Tatami Galaxy’ — one could argue that the whole series actually feels like a series of dreams until the protagonist finally ‘awakens’ at the end. I’ve also been rewatching ‘Cowboy Bebop’ recently, and dreams/dreaming is of course an utterly crucial theme in that series.

    As for scenes in which characters are literally dreaming…I’m going to have to think a little more about that, and see what I can recall. It’s an interesting question.

    • Thanks.

      I’m totally with you re Eva’s ending, and I feel the same way with BOTH endings considered (End of Evangelion). It’s “necessarily” Evangelion, but that doesn’t mean it is of superlative merit or even likable.

      The Black Swan dreams are nightmares. They were purposely horrific to watch. I had no access to relating because of the protagonist, her world, etc etc. but they were very uncomfortable to watch indeed.

      I’ll have to take on the dream aspect of Cowboy Bebop soon, as my own blog post series on it starts tomorrow. Tatami Galaxy as an extended dream conceit works as a concept and the feelings within it are relatable but all things considered the edgy execution removes it from accessibility. It’s not a bad show by any stretch at all, just making it clear. I look forward to your other thoughts.

  4. Very nice post. I totally agree about Phantasm being one of the best dream sequences probably that I’ve ever watched, and I, too, am oft disappointed by how little dreams in TV seem to resemble any dream I’ve ever had. One of the things I’m determined to do at least once is write a great dream sequence that actually feels real (as in, real dream).

  5. animekritik says:

    Tons of sequences in the Ghost Hound series, partly dreams, partly OBEs, were really well done. I felt pretty ill watching a lot of it (I’ve had OBEish type dreams before).

    • Shit how could I not mention this. Ghost Hound was definitely based on the experiences of someone who’d experimented with lucid dreams, dream diaries, and shit like that (no surprise since Chiaki J Konaka is that kinda guy.)

    • Man, my wife is really into the Ghost Hound manga right now. I should ask her about these too, as I suspect she’s also following the show on TV (Animax Asia).

      • I didn’t even know there was a Ghost Hound manga… honestly it can’t be much good (only 2 vols, probably some cash-in attempt). The anime is already a huge mess of convoluted insanity that I couldn’t finish, but the best part of it is the sound. And after that, the visuals.

  6. megaroad1 says:

    My dreams for the most part, are completely different to what is generally portrayed in most films and/or anime. Generally they protray very mundane or commonplace settings, and most of the people present are people I know. Having said that they do exhibit behavior that is not commonplace. Or will be speaking in languages they don’t know. But nothing particularly concrete.

    Having saidI love all of Satoshi Kon’s films and his dream sequences. Few directors have portrayed the blurring of the borders between dream and reality with such flair.

    I thought Shutter Island had some very interesting dream sequences. It got mixed reviews, but I thought it was a pretty good film that handled the themes of madness and paranoia quite well.

    • Shutter Island isn’t on my radar, but I’ll read up on it further. I think commonplace settings for dreams have strong effect, and the more fantastic the elements are, the weaker it becomes. I don’t fully understand why I feel this way, but only that I do.

  7. Reid says:

    Thread Hijack:
    Good job on that English dub of SDF Macross! I like the versimilitude of having Minmay’s seiyu, Mari Iijima, being the same in both English and Japanese-language tracks. It’s a shame that most companies who handle Eglish-language dubs don’t cast(or try to cast) English speakers of other languages to voice characters who aren’t white Americans. Heck, it would have been great if, for example, the Lockon Stratos twins from Gundam 00 were actually voiced by somebody with an Irish accent, or if Shin Kazama had been voiced by a Japanese English speaker in Area 88 to better demonstrate the difference between him and the rest of the mercenaries. I feel like this is one area where a localizing team has the advantage over the original creators of any animated product but they seldom take advantage of it. Especially in the States, where people are literally from EVERYWHERE, you would think that it would be fairly easy to find people who were English speakers of other languages.

    • I thought it sounded off, but it’s not as bad as I thought it’d be.

      As for verisimilitude, bollocks. Minmay is part Chinese, but is the only Japanese-sounding person in a battleship with lots of Japanese, notably Hikaru Ichijo.

      • Reid says:

        Well, you’re right, but I never claimed the whole thing was perfect. I just think it’s a step in the right direction for English dubs to make us of voice actors who are of a similar ethnic background to the characters they play.

        Also, In Minmay’s case, I actually meant “versimilitude” in the sense that her singing voice matches her normal speaking voice, though in my rush to type up that comment I forgot to say so. I realized there had been a mistake when I re-read my comment. My bad. By the way, I checked out your youtube channel; neat stuff!

        • Haha, stay away from that channel because you’ll spoil yourself. Invariably when I make blog posts in advance the videos have to be uploaded there first. All the videos I make are in the service of a blog post, though right now, only the Z Gundam stuff there isn’t in a post yet.

          As for singing and speaking voice matching… verisimilitude isn’t dependent on that. Disney’s Aladdin (and animated features in general) use different singing voices and speaking voices. Lea Salonga sang for Princess Jasmine in Aladdin and Hua Mulan in Mulan but provided neither speaking voices (and she’s a Tony Award-winning actress). It’s all good anyway. In Macross Frontier, Endo Aya played a wonderful Sheryl Nome while May’n did her fuckmazing vocal stylings. It’s all good.

  8. Martin says:

    Facinating stuff. I’m glad you mentioned Waking Life beause that, for me, is the most convincing depiction of what happens inside my head at night (what little I remember of it afterwards, anyhow). Paprika comes close second for its vivid portrayal pof ‘dreason’, in which really crazy stuff sort of makes sense at the time (sometimes I realise it’s bollocks but for whatever reason accept that fact…like I’m bordering on lucid dreaming or something). Inception also makes an effort to show the dream world as it reall is – buildings and landscapes that *look* real but whose structures and layouts are clearly nonsensical, the flow of time no being the same as in the waking world, and so forth. A few liberties are taken for the sake of making it a dramatic and thrilling movie experience, but I enjoyed the spectacle of the thing enough to let that slide.

    TBH, a lot of ‘dream sequences’ in films are merely an excuse to show a scene that weirder or more illogical than it would be in the real world – a get-out clause for lack of realism, in a way. There’s a scene in the Audition novel in which a character’s background is played out in another’s head in the form of a dream: if it really is her backstory rather than his own guess at her early life, it’s a cheap trick on the part of the author. It felt like a lazy solution; and infodump. I’m not sure how else the material could’ve been worked into the narrative, but it didn’t work well for me at all.

    So, yeah. Paprika, Inception and Waking Life are the three ‘true-to-life’ movie portrayals of dreams that really stand out. Others are either too much like the real world (no nonsensical bits, no ‘dreason’) or too much like simple fantasy. It’s hard to describe, but dreams to work on their own ‘rules’, even if they differ a lot from those of ‘reality’. With that in mind, I wonder why filmmakers and writers don’t explore and exploit dream worlds more often.

    • Thanks, and Man, I do need to rewatch Waking Life because it’s been years. I love how it remembered love for Before Sunrise… when you see Celine and Jesse talk their talk on their bed as the sun rises.

      TBH, a lot of ‘dream sequences’ in films are merely an excuse to show a scene that weirder or more illogical than it would be in the real world – a get-out clause for lack of realism, in a way. There’s a scene in the Audition novel in which a character’s background is played out in another’s head in the form of a dream: if it really is her backstory rather than his own guess at her early life, it’s a cheap trick on the part of the author. It felt like a lazy solution; and infodump. I’m not sure how else the material could’ve been worked into the narrative, but it didn’t work well for me at all.

      Yeah it kind of sucks when things like this happen.

  9. kadian1364 says:

    The thing about dreams in real life is that they don’t make sense. During sleep, your brain is compiling all your memories from during the day and dreams come from your brain reliving all of your experiences jumbled up together with only vague similarities to reality. But stories have to make sense, hence why dreams in fiction never feel authentic. I actually agree that Hikaru’s dream in Macross is the closest thing to an actual dream I’ve seen, mixing up all the events, dialogue, and Hikaru’s personal desires into some bizarre experience. It’s a curiosity as a recap episode, but otherwise felt like a waste of an episode.

    • Great point, and renders most if not all sequences in narratives to be unnecessary or at least inauthentic. It’s a waste in the sense that it doesn’t forward the plot as much, and it’s a break in the pacing of the show… but it’s become of significant (if weird) personal value.

  10. nattao says:

    Mind game (cannot recommend this enough)
    Manie manie meikyu monogatari
    any of Yoshitaka Amano’s films:
    Angel’s Egg
    1001 Nights (what a trip! PLUS orchestrals)
    Tori no Uta

    • That’s a lot of interesting shows to check out, but do you recommend them for their personal resonance for the dream sequences?

      • nattao says:

        everything except 1001 nights and mind game
        takes a great man to have a personal resonance with these
        i’d like to be one

        • nattao says:

          saying this just in case
          the first 1/4 part of mind game is brutally different from the rest
          you will see god and the life itself(in that order)

          • Xard says:

            Mind Game is awesome film, one of my favourite anime films ever and druggy as hell but exploration in dream logic it ain’t, as far as I can tell. it’s more “loldruuuugs” than anything

  11. Xard says:

    Andrei Tarkovsky
    David Lynch

    enough said, I guess. At least for me that’s the case. I can’t really think of dream sequence from anime that had “resonated” with me… I don’t count Eva finale’s weirdness as exactly dream sequences, if I did then things might be different

    • Ok it’s on the list now, which has gone to become quite an exciting one for trippy stuff.

      • Xard says:

        Ahh, you haven’t familiar with Andrei Tarkovsky or David Lynch? Former I can understand quite well if you’re not into art films – Tarkovsky is one of the most celebrated and respected filmmakers of last century right up there with likes of Bergman, Bresson, Kurosawa and Fellini. You can of course check wikipedia 😛

        but if you’re not into art films Tarkovsky will probably bore you to death. Just a warning.

        I’m more surprised with your (assumed) unfamiliarity with David Lynch though. You haven’t seen Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive or anything?

        • I’ve read a few things about Lynch and his films but have never gotten the chance to watch any.

          • Xard says:

            Well, this comes a bit late but might as well give my recommendations.


            – Blue Velvet
            – Mulholland Drive
            – Twin Peaks (classic, legendary tv series that changed the medium forever, first season is pure brilliance but second season starts to lose it after mystery about Laura’s murder was forced to be resolved by execs and whole thing ends in giant cliffhanger. Just a warning)

            Blue Velvet is Lynch’s classic film and perhaps most accessible starting point alongside with Twin Peaks (two are very similar in feel and even share actors). Mulholland Drive is one of the most critically renowned films of past ten years and Lynch should’ve won Oscar for it but alas…anyway, great film but seriously mindscrewy. Like, Serial Experiments Lain/Eva mindscrewy.

            These are not Lynch’s films that have the strongest “dream feel” though. Those would be my favourites, his legendary black and white debut Eraserhead (Kubrick’s favourite film) and his newest film Inland Empire. Eraserhead is just nightmare that needs to be seen. No description does justice for it. It’s really a huge fucking absurd nightmare put on celluloid with creepiest, most fucked up baby EVER. Also the radiator lady:

            Inland Empire on the other hand is one of the only few films (and definetly best such one) I’ve ever seen that operates 100% on dream logic. I think it’s Lynch best film, but it defies rational understanding. I think it’s the “ultimate Lynch” film that I was most thinking of when I initially replied. Ebert wrote great review of it:

            As for Tarkovsky, The Mirror/Zerkalo is my favourite film and it’s 100% about human memory and life experience (based on Tarkovsky’s own life and life of his mother, largerly. Her mother even plays the never-seen main character’s mother). But as said, it’s really artsy and has no plot as traditionally conceived. Stalker is another masterpiece with this famous “dream sequence”

            Actually, whether you like that or find it incredibly boring pretty much answers the question whether you should see his films. Personally speaking I love Tarkovsky and the incredible atmosphere his films have but as said, if one’s not into art films one is better off without trying to watch them 😛

            I hope this post gives some ideas. At least see Blue Velvet for starters 🙂

  12. Faith@ahead says:

    great stuff! dreams! That Akira Nightmare was creeping me out this late at night, though. But I like reading your blogs. I learned a lot, really. And here, I thought I’m an anime junkie. Guess the great ones are before my generation!

    • Thanks very much! I don’t think of myself as a junkie of any kind, but I accept the complimentary spirit in which you make the statement. Being older just means I got to be exposed to a lot more shows over the years, so it doesn’t mean a thing.

      My friend 2011digitalboy is 14 years younger than I am and I think he’s far more an anime ‘junkie’ than I’ll ever be.

  13. Pingback: 7-15-2011 John Inception | A Dream Within A Dream Gone Lucid Within A Dream Within A Dream? | John Jr's WordPress Blog

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