With a master artist, their later works are impossible to judge outside of the context of their careers. One could look at Dreams, and say if it weren’t made by Akira Kurosawa, it would be irritating, and no one would care. But when the filmmaker who made Seven Samurai, Rashomon, and Ran makes a film completely out of character, it creates its own sense of interest. Why is the creator of suspenseful, action-packed films indulging in this left field project?
Because Dreams is an indulgent film. Kurosawa depends on the patience of the audience, his built-in credibility to afford him that patience for what is, ultimately a collection of unconnected short films sourced from a combination of Kurosawa’s dreams, ideas, and Japanese folklore.
What binds them together is not a central story theme, but the filmmaker’s excellence at crafting images. And Kurosawa sets himself several challenges and challenges the audience to be patient as he builds his picture stories.
The first “dream” is “Rain Through Sunshine”, where a little boy Akira is admonished not to go out on a day where the rain pours though the sun shines. That’s the time when foxes have their weddings, and they do not want to be observed.
Of course, the boy goes out into the forest, and finds a procession of foxes doing a long dance. They step slowly, and occasionally suddenly look to the side, to see if anyone is watching the wedding. The foxes are not foxes, but people wearing masks and costumes. It’s playacting. Dreams straddles the line between cinema and filmed theater several times.
What it never does is hurry through its stories. The fox-wedding procession takes several, slow minutes. The next dream, “A Peach Orchard”, spends several minutes observing a ritual dance made by life-size dolls. In “The Tunnel”, my personal favorite dream, an old army Captain waits patiently as his old platoon, all dead ghosts now, march through a tunnel to form ranks. Dreams is never in a hurry.
It’s also never not beautiful. Sometimes the beauty is extravagant. In the dream “The Crows”, the Akira Kurosawa persona (named “I” ) literally walks through several Van Gogh paintings. The Doll Ceremony in “Peach Orchard” is exquisitely choreographed. But everything is filmed perfectly, with impeccable compositions and camera movements. Several times images are occluded with smoke, or snow, as if the master is challenging himself to make something compelling out of as little visual detail as possible. Again and again, he succeeds.
Unfortunately, in some of the latter dreams, Kurosawa gives up the enigmatic for the didactic. “Red Mount Fuji” is a specific paean against nuclear power, and it has the grace and subtlety of a giant billboard. Even in the much better “Town of the Water Mills”, the concluding dream, an old man lectures the I character about how man has abandoned and abused nature in a way that sounds like declarations from the director, not conversation from a character.
But then the populace of the film are not, strictly speaking, characters. These are Akira Kurosawa’s dreams, and even if they aren’t all of general interest, they’re impeccable image crafting from a world class artist. On this new 4K UHD release, the level of detail and cinematic imagery is incredible. Particularly in the “Peach Orchard” dream, where the ceremony is suddenly crowded with thousands of peach blossoms floating on the wind, the imagery maintains its integrity and never devolves to noise.
Dreams is not Kurosawa’s finest film, or even a movie of interest to a general cinema fan. But to an enthusiast of the director, one of the greatest the medium has ever known, it’s a valuable contribution to his oeuvre. It’s the rare self-indulgence that doesn’t just tick the creator’s boxes but has something to offer to the audience as well. There’s no great story, and despite the often impeccable beauty of the filmmaking, it wouldn’t be of much interest if another filmmaker had produced. But it was made by Akira Kurosawa, and that’s why it matters.
Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams has been released on 4K UHD and Blu-ray by Tthe Criterion Collection. The 4K UHD disc contains the movie, while the accompanying Blu-ray has both the movie and special features. There is a commentary track by Japanese film scholar Stephen Prince. Video extras include Making of “Dreams” (151 min), a documentary on the making of the film with copious interviews with Kurosawa; “Kurosawa’s Way (52 min), a documentary by Kurosawa’s long-time translator Catherine Cadou, who interviews several directors about Kurosawa’s influence on their work; and video interviews with Teruyo Nogami (18 min), Kurosawa’s long-time script supervisor, and Takashi Koizumi (16 min), his assistant director for the last five features Kurosawa made. There is also a trailer for the film, and a booklet with an essay on the film and the script for an unfilmed dream.