‘Mount Fuji in Red': Notes on Japan’s Triple Nightmare
Chaos. A panicked crowd rumbles across the screen while the young protagonist pushes against the stampede. Cut to an eerie vista of Mount Fuji at night, the sky illuminated by horrific, towering geysers of flame. The famed snowcap melts away as the peak glows an angry and ominous red-orange, like some colossal hot coal in Satan’s own furnace.
“Has Fuji erupted?,” the young man asks. “How terrible!” “It’s worse than that,” a bystander tells him. “Didn’t you know? The nuclear power plant has exploded. ” Another witness to the disaster adds, “The six atomic reactors are exploding one after another.”
This nightmarish scenario comes to you from Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, a visionary, impressionistic, often preachy but generally spectacular 1990 film by the man better known for his immortal Samurai epics. One of eight vignettes based on Kurosawa’s actual dreams, “Mount Fuji in Red” is a startling premonition of nuclear disaster. The title comes from a classic woodblock print by the early 19th-century master Hokusai, depicting Fuji at dawn in an idyllic pre-industrial landscape.
Kurosawa’s vision of Fuji is decidedly less idyllic. After the apocalyptic explosions, four survivors of the nuclear holocaust (including the young protagonist who wondered if Fuji was erupting) find themselves stranded on a cliff by the sea, desperately batting away the noxious radioactive fumes and cursing man’s stupidity. Death is certain, as it is for all of us, but for them it will come prematurely on manmade clouds of poison.
What can I say about Japan’s all-too-real compound nightmare — earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster — that hasn’t already been said? I can sing the praises of the Japanese people in the wake of their tragedy: no riots, no looting, no gangs of thugs terrorizing the ravaged streets. Guns aren’t popular playthings in Japan. The culture has fostered a deeply ingrained self-discipline and mutual respect that make American-style thuggery unthinkable. The people mourn their losses with dignity; they survive, gather themselves and persevere — as they did in the dark days after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On the other hand, the folks who run the Japanese government and the damaged nuclear power plant have been about as helpful as the idiot light that tells you when your car has overheated. Their dithering response is, unfortunately, typical of any bureaucratic elite with an instinct for self-preservation. I don’t imagine that our own authorities would be much more helpful if a radioactive cloud were about to waft over the lower 48 states.
Japan’s unfolding nuclear crisis has held center stage for a full week now: those hot radioactive fuel rods, the repeated attempts to douse them, and now the decision to bury the entire complex like a bad memory. It’s easy to forget that the most devastating stroke so far has been the 30-foot tsunami that rolled in from the sea. We watched the great wave (shades of Hokusai again) sweep away houses, cars, people and entire villages like so much flotsam.
All the usual clichés spring to mind: the terrifying power of nature, the sobering fragility of our lives and works. What a puny piece of work is man! And how indispensable we like to believe we are! All our most intricate plans and contrivances can be abruptly overturned like the pieces on a chess board.
Most clichés have a way of sticking in our minds, not because they’re especially elegant but because they’re true. Thinking about Japan’s calamities, I have to wonder why we waste so much time and energy on petty disputes, political and otherwise. Our “red state/blue state” divisions seem as insignificant as the eternal argument over the proper installation of toilet paper: do you pull it over or under the roll? Custom, bias and heated emotions can make us lose perspective.
Do you clamor for big government or minimal government? How about a government that actually works, without bias toward one class or another? We all just want to survive, thrive and pass along something of value to the next generation before our allotted time ticks away to zero. If we can make life a little more enjoyable for our fellow citizens, so much the better.
Kurosawa’s Dreams ends with a utopian idyll: “The Village of the Water Mills.” An outsider wanders into a rustic hamlet suspended in a pre-industrial time warp. The soul-soothing sound of water is everywhere: he’s entered a realm of rushing streams and wooden water-wheels rolling beneath leafy green canopies. The stranger stops to chat with an elderly man who proceeds to lecture him gently on the natural way of life.
“People today have forgotten that they’re really just a part of nature,” the old sage observes. “Yet they destroy the nature on which their lives depend. They only invent things that in the end make them unhappy.”
The stranger asks the old man just how old he is. “One hundred years plus three,” comes the reply. “The people in this village lead a natural way of life, so they pass on at a ripe old age.”
Is it too late to hit the “reset” button, toss our troublesome technology out the window and live contentedly like the old man in the village? Of course it is. We’re eternally hooked on the idea of waiting for Version 2.0 to replace our 1.0. Not to mention the 3.0 that will eventually replace the 2.0. There’s no going back, and the notion of a simple return to nature is probably a cliché. But like most clichés, something about it rings true — as true as a deeply felt dream.
How to Contribute to the Japanese Relief Effort:
InterAction.org has published a list of more than 30 charitable organizations now providing aid to victims of the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster. Despite InterAction.org’s leftish-sounding slogan (“A united voice for global change”), the list includes a diverse assortment of reputable groups — with helpful background information and links for each of them. Choose your favorite group, contribute what you can, and help the brave victims of the disaster get back on their feet.