260. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S DREAMS (1990)

Yume; Dreams

“I dream my paintings, then I paint my dreams.”–Vincent Van Gogh

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Akira Kurosawa

FEATURING: Akira Terao

PLOT: Legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa lenses eight short films inspired by his own dreams. The main character, played by two child actors and one adult, is simply credited as “I.” The dreams involve a fox wedding, living doll spirits, a snow witch, a platoon of dead soldiers, Vincent van Gogh, the explosion of Mt. Fuji, a weeping demon, and a happy funeral.

Still from Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • One of the most awarded filmmakers in cinema history, Akira Kurosawa made Dreams at the age of 80. He had not made a movie since 1985’s Ran. He completed two features after Dreams before finally retiring in 1993 and dying in 1998.
  • Late in his life, Kurosawa had difficulty raising money in Japan because, despite winning awards overseas, his movies did not make a lot of money in his home country. After reading the script for Dreams, Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas convinced Warner Brothers to fund the film. Spielberg served as executive producer and Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic provided the visual effects.
  • Ishiro Honda (Godzilla) served as “creative consultant” and is said to have directed some sequences uncredited, as well as supplying the inspiration for “The Tunnel” segment (which was similar to a story Honda had written but never filmed),
  • Kurosawa personally chose to play Vincent Van Gogh because the director’s energy matched his conception of Van Gogh’s passionate nature.
  • A final ninth dream, which would have involved an outbreak of world peace, was scrapped because Kurosawa envisioned legions of extras and it would have been too expensive to film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: “I” wandering through a series of Van Gogh paintings, crossing over painted bridges and stepping around painted trees.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dancing dolls; Martin Van Gogh; demon under a dandelion

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: When one of the world’s greatest filmmakers deigns to tell us of his dreams, we should sit quietly and listen. If we do, we will be privileged to witness ghostly spirit pageants, movie screens transformed into impressionist canvases splotched by gobs of paint, giant dandelions, and horned demons weeping beside pools of blood.  We have much to learn.


Original trailer for Dreams

COMMENTS: The title is a lie. The visions here are not literal recreations of Akira Kurosawa’s dreams. Although each segment grows from a seed of the impossible or fantastic, they are not especially dreamlike, but are instead miniature fables inspired by the freedom of dreaming—by a conception of movies as consciously constructed dreams. The stories occur in real time, exhibit regular cause and effect, and have few of the strange juxtapositions found in the dream cinema of the Surrealists. Each segment is introduced by a legend reading “I had a dream” or “I had another dream,” but some suggest the translation would be more accurately rendered “I had a dream like this,” a formulation which suggests that the pieces are like dreams, rather than attempts to recreate or portray actual dreams. These are dreams director Kurosawa takes, tames and molds into polished miniature gems, dreams as films.

Beginning with a wedding and ending with a funeral, the dreams track the stages of life: the first two deal with childhood and the next three with the struggles and triumphs of adulthood, all progressing to a final trio that dwells on the awareness of mortality. The lessons learned in each stage are sometimes personal to Kurosawa (although no knowledge of his biography is necessary to appreciate them), often relevant to Japanese identity, but always have a universal human character to them. Throughout all the dreams, Kurosawa weaves the themes of nature and man’s destructive influence on the natural world, as well as his constant awareness of death and the need to come to grips with it and avoid despair. At times, Kurosawa’s anti-nuclear, pro-nature preaching is so shrill and naive that it becomes embarrassing, which led many contemporary critics to downplay the movie as the work of a doddering crank living in a world of false nostalgia, muttering at modern technology to get off his lawn. But although the simplistic didacticism does diminish the final work and keeps it from being counted among the master’s greatest, focusing on that flaw will cause you to miss out on a wealth of imagination and some of the most beautifully staged pageants in world cinema. Pontificating aside, Dreams is a remarkable and sincere personal testament, and the elegiac tone makes makes it the perfect capstone to a brilliant career. It’s a gift to the beloved world from a fading talent eager to impart a lifetime of wisdom to the young.

The two boyhood dreams traffic in magic and the forbidden. Childhood is a time both for wonder and for crossing new boundaries, seeking the horizon where the rainbow lies. The first, “Sunshine Through the Rain,” involves young “I” secretly spying on a fox wedding, and paying a price for his eavesdropping. “The Peach Orchard” finds an older “I” encountering the spirits of ceremonial hina dolls who come to life to accuse his family of destroying their beloved peach orchard. By invoking traditional folklore, both opening pieces ground “I”‘s identity in Japaneseness, but both also involve transgressing limits and breaking rules in order to become a functioning self. “I”‘s explorations of the forbidden reveal majestic  secrets: the wedding procession of the fox spirits, who march deliberately through the fog to the sound of bamboo flutes and drums, pausing to sniff out the intruder, and the dance of the dolls, dozens of figures in vibrant dresses arranged on grassy tiers whose ceremony ends in a resurrection of the lost peach blossoms. These childhood wonders will soon be lost, their haunting beauty difficult to recapture as “I” moves on to the challenges of adulthood.

The next three sequences introduce themes of struggle and regret, ending with the obsessive drive of the artist to overcome these negative forces by focusing on beauty. The slow-moving “The Blizzard” is probably the weakest of the segments. “I” dreams he is part of a mountain climbing expedition that is returning to base camp but is bogged down in a blizzard; the rest of the men lie down and give up, but he struggles on. Finally, the elements overcome him and he too sinks to his knees, only to be visited by a snow spirit who promises him relief. He rejects the lure of easeful death, staggers back to his feet, and discovers the camp is mere yards away as the snow lifts. Kurosawa never served in the military, so many suspect “The Tunnel” is not based on one of his actual dreams. In it, a soldier trudging home encounters a vicious dog strapped with grenades, then a platoon of zombie soldiers for whose death he was responsible. The segment seems to refer to Japan’s guilt and ambivalence over its role in World War II rather than to Kurosawa’s personal experience, yet it hooks into his theme that his identity is tied to his nation’s. Having come to grips with the threats of despair and regret, “I” finds meaning in “Crows,” the segment where he enters into Van Gogh’s paintings (thanks to impressive visual effects from Industrial Light and Magic) and discusses art with the mad genius himself. This segment is controversial; many consider it the film’s best sequence, while others objected to the “weird” casting of Martin Scorsese as an English-speaking Van Gogh. Scorsese may be miscast, but having an American director play a Dutch artist in a Japanese dream is a brilliantly dreamlike mistake. Autobiographically, the dream relates to Kurosawa’s decision to forgo his first love—painting—for directing; in a larger sense it presents the transformative power of art, which overcomes death by allowing humans to participate directly in the eternal beauty of nature. “Crows” is the thematic centerpiece of the film.

The final three dreams deal with “I” coming to grips with mortality. The first two see death as fearsome, while the third offers a vision of peace and grace. Although ironically prophetic, “Mt. Fuji in Red” is one of the dreamer’s weaker visions. Multicolored banks of radioactive smoke from a nuclear reactor meltdown have pushed a few survivors to the very edge of Japan; they stand trapped on the shore as poisonous clouds roll towards them. The environmental moralizing is a bit on-the-sleeve, too rational to make for a good dream. “The Weeping Demon” continues the apocalyptic theme in a more nuanced and appealing form. “I” now wanders over the volcanic black slopes of a desolate Mt. Fuji and encounters a horned demon. They discuss the new demon-eat-demon order, relax under a giant dandelion, and see suffering spirits wailing next to a lake of blood. This vision of Hell is one of Dreams‘ eeriest and most impressive set pieces. It represents both a literal environmental catastrophe that Kurosawa feared, while also serving as a metaphor for “I”‘s apprehension of his own upcoming death. The final chapter, “The Village of Watermills,” shows “I” coming to peace with his own mortality as he walks into a fabulous rustic utopian village whose residents live in perfect balance with nature. There, death is not feared, and funerals are causes for celebrating the passed life. The old man “I” meets there, who is celebrating the death of his boyhood crush and who is bound for the grave soon himself, imparts a simple wisdom learned from a lifetime of dreaming: “Some say life is hard, but that is just talk. It is good to be alive, it is exciting!” The film then ends with a colorful funeral procession, with the entire village playing instruments and singing joyously, a mirror image of the fox parade from the first dream. Just as Fantasia ended with a demonic vision of Hell followed by a beatific Heavenly coda, so does Dreams.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a collection of short, sometimes fragmentary films that are less like dreams than fairy tales of past, present and future. The magical and mysterious are mixed with the practical, funny and polemical…. almost as much of a trip as people once thought ‘Fantasia’ to be.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…the experience is distinctively surrealistic, an opportunity to float atop a masterful eddying of images, sounds and music.”–Desson Howe, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

“None of the vignettes have much narrative beyond their rudimentary premises and when they do, they are left eerily unresolved… Nonetheless this is clearly the work of a master filmmaker, even if his DREAMS are as unpredictable and uneven as our own.”–“TV Guide”

IMDB LINK: Dreams (1990)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990) | The Criterion Collection – Criterion’s page includes basic info, an essay from critic Bilge Ebiri, two videos (one on dream sequences in general and one reminiscence on Kurosawa from a collaborator)

The Color of Dreams – snapshots of Kurosawa’s original sketches for Dreams, courtesy of cinematographer Shoji Ueda

DVD INFO: The Criterion Collection licensed the rights to Dreams from Warner Brothers in 2016 and released the film in a two DVD set (buy). The same content comes on a single Blu-ray (buy). As is expected from Criterion, the print is meticulously restored (in 4K) and this is the best looking and sounding version of the film we’re ever likely to see. Extra features are typically bountiful. Naturally, the trailer is included. There’s an illuminating audio commentary from Stephen Prince, who fills in gaps in our knowledge of Kurosawa’s biography and Japanese folklore. The accompanying booklet has an essay by Bilge Ebiri and the screenplay pages for an unfilmed ninth dream. Kurosawa’s Way is a fifty-minute documentary appreciation featuring admirers like Bernardo Bertolucci, Martin Scorsese, , , , , and others illumining Kurosawa’s talent. Even meatier is Making of Dreams, a behind-the-scenes documentary which runs 30 minutes longer than the original film. It was shot on set by none other than Hausu‘s , and occasionally uses experimental techniques to “remix” short sections of the film. It also has short animated snippets of unfilmed dreams (one features a tightrope rope walker who falls and is caught by an angel). New interviews with Dreams producer Teruyo Nogami and assistant director Takashi Koizumi round out the impressive package.

Obviously, the Criterion edition is the way to go for people who love the film, but more casual fans who just want a copy on their shelves and desire to save a few bucks can still find the bare-bones Warner DVD (buy).

Dreams is also available for rental or purchase on-demand (without Criterion’s extra features) (rent or buy).

(This movie was nominated for review by “Len,” who argued “it’s a gentle kind of weird, as opposed to a violent or twisted kind of weird,  but the Japanese film 夢 (Yume) aka ‘Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams’ is pretty weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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