Reviewed by David Williams and Colin Jacobson (November 13, 2016)
Starting with 1965’s Red Beard, Akira Kurosawa essentially embraced a “five-year plan”: every five years, the director created a new film. This continued for 25 years up until 1990’s Dreams. Kurosawa stepped up his pace after Dreams and made two more movies before he retired for good.
Those last two efforts – 1991’s Rhapsody in August and 1993’s Maadadayo - didn’t make a dent in the US, but Dreams received a fair amount of attention. Unlike Kurosawa’s other efforts, Dreams actually got backing from US sources, as the director relied on high-powered fans like Steven Spielberg to find the money.
As I recall, Dreams also earned a reasonable level of publicity in the States. This didn’t translate to profits – the movie made less than $2 million US – but Dreams certainly received a higher degree of attention than the vast majority of other foreign language films.
A collection of eight fantasy sequences, writer/director Kurosawa claims that his actual dreams inspired the material. He turned them into a poetic screenplay that doesn’t really deliver a narrative as much as it provides hauntingly beautiful and loosely related sequences.
Admittedly, Dreams requires strong focus and attention to find the macrobiotic structure contained within the film and its stories, but the more you watch, the more you understand … and the more the film speaks to you.
While growing up, Kurosawa was a huge fan of Hollywood Westerns. This led him to correlate the Samurai culture with the Western gunslinging culture in such classic films as Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai. At the time, little did Kurosawa know that his sagas would influence Western genre greats such as The Magnificent Seven and some of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns.
In Dreams, Kurosawa uses a character named “I” (Akira Terao) to loosely connect each of the segments, as he serves as our conduit for each of these individual, surreal journeys that begin with “Sunshine Through The Rain” and “The Peach Orchard”. In these episodes, we meet I as a little boy and we are able to catch a glimpse of the director’s love for nature and the environment, as well as how he sees mankind connect with them.
In “Sunshine”, young I is told not to venture out in to the forest, as a period of rain in the village has been followed by a period of sunshine. He learns that it’s on days like this that foxes hold their wedding ceremonies and processions – and they do not like being watched. Being mischievous, he goes anyway and is quickly discovered by the foxes and must pay the price for spying on them. The punishment is quite harsh, but the forgiveness is absolutely beautiful.
In “Orchard”, I encounters some ornate dolls and he follows them to his family’s peach orchard. The dolls are upset that the family has felled all of the trees in the orchard, and their graceful dances and processions tell the story of their contempt.
The next two episodes offer “The Blizzard” and “The Tunnel”, and both are much more bleak and uninviting than our two previous outings. In these two segments, we find ourselves - as well as I - in deep meditations about gloomy subjects like death and war.
“Blizzard” deals with a group of four men from a mountain climbing expedition who get lost in a blizzard and stand on the verge of death. All but the leader of the group feel ready to stop and rest, but the leader knows that if they fall asleep, they will surely die.
In “The Tunnel”, we meet a military commander who returns home from war as the only survivor from his regiment. On his way back home, he meets his ghostly comrades and they begin their plaintive march towards town. This sequence delivers an emotional impact.
Next up comes “The Crow”, in which an art student literally becomes transferred into a Van Gogh painting. As he walks through the gorgeous landscapes and countrysides that the artist transversed, he meets the painter himself (Martin Scorsese).
In an elegant sequence, the artist and the admirer stroll through many of the artist’s paintings and Van Gogh espouses many of Kurosawa’s opinions and attitudes about art. Visually stunning and very playful, this becomes a really nice sequence.
The next two episodes jump back into more somber subject matter as they reiterate Kurosawa’s strong feelings against nuclear power/technology, as well as his stance against war and the destruction it causes. In “Mt. Fuji in Red”, a nuclear power plant executive/scientist helplessly watches the devastation that occurs when the power plant experiences a meltdown. With the plant positioned behind Mt. Fuji, it makes it look as if the great volcano springs to life once again. We find very haunting and disturbing imagery here and it’s quite obvious the point that Kurosawa is trying to make about the arrogance of science and the dangers of nuclear power/energy.
During “The Weeping Demon”, we see someone walking across a charred and barren wasteland that was once the earth as we know it. A demon approaches the man and explains that he was turned into a demon after surviving the nuclear attacks. The fallout from the missiles caused plants and animals to severely mutate and because of that, those left have had to resort to cannibalism.
However, there’s a hierarchy involved, as the demons with more horns eat the demons with fewer. It seems that the more horns a demon has, the more harm it did to humanity during its life and therefore, it feels more pain with each and every horn it grows.
The horns serve as some cosmic justice/curse on the demon and immortality in this “hell on earth” serves as part of their punishment. Here, Kurosawa seems to portray what he sees as a fitting fate for government officials and arrogant humans everywhere who think the world should be ruled with nuclear authority. While the “hell on earth” imagery seems haunting, the sequences can become a bit preachy.
Kurosawa finishes off Dreams with “Village of the Watermills”, a snippet that espouses the advantages of the simple life and the serenity and tranquility it brings. A hiker happens upon a small village and sits down with an elderly resident to discuss the pace and way of life there.
It’s an affirming way to close things out and it reinforces Kurosawa’s belief that we should do all we can to commune peacefully with nature. As the two talk, they hear music approach from the distance and the old man explains that it is a funeral - the town feels that hard work and living to old age are things that should be celebrated, not mourned. This delivers a fitting end and an inspiring lesson.
Some folks think that Dreams was a bit self-indulgent and overdone, a visually striking film that at times, borders ever-so-slightly on gaudiness and flamboyance. But there’s a much larger contingent that tells this crowd to enjoy the film for what it is: a breathtaking and magical journey that delivers a fine summation to an incredible career.