“If you look closely, all of nature has its beauty.”
Dreams is perhaps the most unusual film of director Akira Kurosawa’s career, in part because it feels almost nothing like anything he had made previously. Many of Kurosawa’s signature films are rich, heartfelt, emotionally gripping works marked by a striking sense of humanity. His characters feel real and three-dimensional; his storytelling methods pull you in immediately and make you lose track of time. Dreams, by contrast, is strangely bloodless and esoteric; a slow, experimental film that veers between dream logic and atypically heavy-handed sermonizing.
It’s almost impossible to believe that Dreams came from the same man who made Seven Samurai and Ikiru, but it’s a little easier to believe that it came from the man who made Kagemusha and Ran. In the later period of his career, Kurosawa – working with the financial support of grateful Hollywood fans like George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola – began to place an increasing amount of emphasis on spectacle and pageantry (though the aforementioned films still retained a good deal of dramatic power). Dreams feels like the final phase of that metamorphosis, as the director finally loses himself in opulence.
This isn’t to say that the movie is meaningless. The structure is intriguing and ambitious: we’re told that what we’re seeing are visual recreations of eight dreams Kurosawa has had, and the director effectively employs a number of interesting techniques that add to the dreamlike tone. The imagery on display is both stunning and curiously spare, as if the dreamer is seeing the important things with great clarity but not paying much attention to the margins. The pieces sometimes end very abruptly, as if we’ve just woken up. Many shots tend to be almost absurdly long, refusing to adhere to natural filmmaking urges to dramatize situations via judicious cutting. From a formal perspective, there are a lot of interesting elements to consider. Unfortunately, the moments that really grab you on any other level are too few and far between.
The first tale centers around a young boy who defies the wishes of his mother by staying outside on a day when the sun is shining through the rain. According to legend, foxes hold their weddings on days such as this… and there are allegedly severe consequences for any human who happens to witness such an event. Sure enough, the boy does indeed witness the wedding, which is presented in lavish detail. After learning of this, the boy’s mother angrily gives the boy a knife, suggesting that he is obliged to commit suicide. She urges him to go find the foxes and beg for their forgiveness, but to be prepared to take his own life if they do not grant it. The boy leaves. The segment ends, and the words “I had another dream…” appear.
An understanding of Akira Kurosawa’s personal history helps, though only Kurosawa himself could provide a full explanation of how to interpret each segment. Pieces of his childhood fuel several of the segments featured here, and the dreams almost certainly contain deeper meanings that are profoundly personal to him. Each piece is handsomely crafted, but I often struggled to connect with them.
Not every sequence is quite so difficult to interpret. “The Tunnel,” the film’s fourth segment, offers a strikingly blunt statement on the cost of war (as a Japanese company commander is forced to confront the ghosts of men he sent to die on the battlefield), while “Mount Fuji in Red” examines a nuclear holocaust with symbolism that makes Gojira seem subtle. The most memorable sequence is a lovely tribute to Vincent Van Gogh, featuring an appearance from director Martin Scorsese (scowling, hair dyed red, speaking with furious energy) as the master painter. In dazzling fashion, Kurosawa brings several of Van Gogh’s famous works to life: one great artist paying tribute to another. Despite the film’s many frustrations, there are scenes that take your breath away.
Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (Blu-ray) Criterion certainly offers a beautiful 1080p/1.85:1 transfer, fully capturing the visual splendor of Kurosawa’s film. Detail is strong throughout, colors have a lot of vibrance, depth is strong and a modest layer of natural grain is left intact. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio track is strong, too, presenting the effectively-employed music with strength and offering the dialogue with clarity. Supplements are typically generous: a commentary with film scholar Stephen Prince, an 150-minute making-of documentary (it’s on the formless side, but certainly thorough), the fifty-minute documentary “Kurosawa’s Way” (featuring directors like Scorsese, Hayao Miyazaki, Bernado Bertolucci and others paying tribute to Kurosawa), new interviews with production manager Teruyo Nogami and assistant director Takashi Koizumi, a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Bilge Ebiri (who provides a persuasive defense of the film) and Kurosawa’s script for an unfilmed ninth dream sequence.
With some regularity, Dreams lands across moments of exceptional beauty. It’s a shame that they’re trapped within a film that feels so inert. It’s a gorgeous but frustrating work from a master of filmmaking.