"Once I had a dream…"—Akira Kurosawa
A boy wanders out his front gate during a sunshower, ignoring the warnings of his mother. In the woods, he sees a band of magical foxes, kitsune, march in a wedding procession. Upon his return home, his mother tells him that the foxes demand penance. He must kill himself, or beg forgiveness. The boy goes in search of the foxes' lair beneath a rainbow…
Although Akira Kurosawa is much praised in America, Japanese audiences tend to find his work too westernized. There is some truth to this criticism: Kurosawa seems to find a closer kinship to Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, and American genre fiction (especially westerns and crime stories) than traditional Japanese storytelling. And for much of his career since the 1960s, his films were financed outside of Japan. In spite of this, when most people think of Japanese cinema, they think of Akira Kurosawa.
All this gave Kurosawa considerable international cache, especially after the triumphant Ran, an adaptation of King Lear that only a director reaching the twilight of his own life could make. So if Yume, or Akira Kurosawa's Dreams, seems a little indulgent at times, it is only because Kurosawa has earned it.
Perhaps taking a cue this time out from Fellini, Kurosawa has made his own psyche the subject of this often pensive and bitter and surreal follow-up to Ran. Structured as eight dreams, the film traces a wandering ego (played as an adult by Akira Terao, whose job it is mostly to look slackjawed at the images unrolling before him) through all the stages of his life. The first tale, "Sunshine Through the Rain" (described above), sets the tone for the rest of the film: Dreams will be filled with bright colors and an affected style, more in the mode of a theater piece or a painting (Kurosawa himself trained as a painter) than some of the more naturalistic films Kurosawa made earlier in his career. Also, the first segment points out one of the key themes of the film, that forbidden knowledge leads to peril and an eternity of rootless wandering. Once the boy sets off in search of forgiveness, the rest of the film shows his course toward final contentment.
"The Peach Orchard": A boy follows a mysterious girl into the woods, where an army of spirits tell him that his family is cursed for destroying their peach trees. But the spirits sympathize with his sorrow and perform a ritual to allow him one last glimpse of peach blossoms. Here we are introduced to another running theme in the film: chaos in nature as a reflection of humanity's own cruelty (a major theme in Ran as well).
"The Blizzard": Weary men stumble through blinding snow. As they succumb to the cold, one man struggles against a snow witch. There is a consistent theme throughout this film of Kurosawa's (or at least the wandering ego's) anxiety over his masculinity, from the threatening females (the mother in the first story, for instance) to the well-dressed official in the "Mount Fuji" segment (see below) that despairs of the failure of his civilization. Kurosawa also uses sound very effectively in "The Blizzard," clearly inspired by Kwaidan, but this segment also points up a key problem in most anthology films: not every segment is a winner. This one tends to run too long (as do some others) and comes across as too abstract to be engaging.
"The Tunnel": Yet another ghost story, this time expressing Kurosawa's ambivalence about World War II. The wanderer is now a former soldier who is confronted with the ghosts of his former platoon at the mouth of a tunnel that clearly represents his transition into the adult phase of his life. Another weak aspect of the film overall is evident here: characters tend to explain the issues, rather than allowing Kurosawa's imagery to carry the meaning itself—telling rather than showing.
"Crows": This is the oddest piece in the anthology, and perhaps the most gimmicky. Considering the life of an artist, our wanderer visits the world inside a Van Gogh painting. He meets with Van Gogh himself (played with twitchy energy by Martin Scorsese, who was inspired enough by this to turn in a segment for his own anthology New York Stories on the same theme) who tells him that "the sun compels me to paint." The wanderer visits vividly colored landscapes, courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic.
"Mount Fuji in Red": Whatever exactly the wandering ego decided to do in life, it is now too late to enjoy maturity. Fujiyama explodes in a nuclear accident, a garish display reminiscent of a Toho disaster movie. Here Kurosawa mourns his loss of control over the world (and the backlash of nature again) through anxiety about the apocalypse, in the form of a parody of the special effects blockbusters that used to beat his work at the Japanese box office. Ironically, Godzilla guru Ishiro Honda serves as the film's "creative consultant."
"The Weeping Demon": After the apocalypse, the wanderer comes upon a feral mutant. They chat amongst gigantic dandelions about the revenge of nature. The image of the aging demon, writhing in agony as his horn burns, suggests that the wandering ego is now moving into old age and fearing the loss of his faculties.
"Village of the Watermills": Finally, paradise. Children play and pick flowers to lay on the grave of another aimless wanderer, as our ego-character reaches a village at peace with nature. An old man provides way too much exposition to clear up what is obvious to the audience: living in harmony with the world—and accepting death with grace—is the path to contentment. A joyous funeral bookends the film, offering a contrast to the somber fox wedding in the beginning.
So it is all beautiful to look at, but Akira Kurosawa's Dreams is a mixed bag in terms of actual content. It does not really offer anything new, especially for Kurosawa fans, other than a dabbling with ILM special effects. The "Mount Fuji" segment is probably the best, and the rest have their strong moments. But like most anthology films, each piece does not really stand on its own as a satisfying work. The overall film runs too long and gets awfully preachy, never quite achieving a balance between the silence of its images and the personalities and actions of its characters. And Warner Brothers offers nothing in the way of extras.
But Akira Kurosawa's Dreams hits the mark often enough to make it worth a look for casual fans of Japanese cinema. And fans of Kurosawa in particular will find it a fitting coda (along with his last two somber productions after this) to the climactic Ran, which capped his long and fruitful career with furious grace. Dreams is more of a psychological retrospective, and probably should be considered in light of Kurosawa's life and work, a personal reminiscence rather than a film that stands well on its own.
In view of his achievements, Akira Kurosawa is released by this court. Warner Brothers must suffer painful mutations for releasing this film without supplements. Court is adjourned.
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Studio: Warner Bros.
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