Judge William Lee's short story anthology "Ten Afternoons of Naps" is a snoozer.
"I had a dream. It was about…"
Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) was a Japanese writer and scholar. At the turn of the century, he authored novels, haiku, Chinese-style poetry and fairy tales. He spent a few miserable years in London before returning home to become a professor of English at Tokyo Imperial University. From 1984 to 2004, his portrait appeared on the Japanese 1000-yen banknote.
A series of short stories titled Ten Nights of Dreams was serialized in 1908. In these, Soseki described ten strange dreams situated in different time periods (including the future). Timed to coincide with the centenary of the stories' publication, Nikkatsu Studios commissioned eleven directors to bring the "riddle" of Soseki's dreams to life.
Facts of the Case
Ten Nights of Dreams opens with a short scene where a female servant, and admiring reader, asks Soseki when he thinks the riddle of his dreams will be solved. "A hundred years hence," he answers.
• "A First Night of Dreams" (Akio Jissoji, Ultraman)
• "A Second Night of Dreams" (Kon Ichikawa, Fires on the Plain)
• "A Third Night of Dreams" (Takashi Shimizu, Ju-on)
• "A Fourth Night of Dreams" (Atsushi Shimizu)
• "A Fifth Night of Dreams" (Keisuke Toyoshima)
• "A Sixth Night of Dreams" (Suzuki Matsuo)
• "A Seventh Night of Dreams" (Yoshitaka Amano and
• "An Eighth Night of Dreams" (Nobuhiro Yamashita, Linda Linda Linda)
• "A Ninth Night of Dreams" (Miwa Nishikawa)
• "A Tenth Night of Dreams" (Yudai Yamaguchi, Battlefield Baseball)
Diving into Ten Nights of Dreams without any prior knowledge of the author's work, I had a tough time getting used to the tone of the movie. The introductory scene and the first story, both set in 1900s Japan, feel a little stiff. The formal view of domestic life of that era has a slightly alienating quality. Immediately, the movie assumes the viewer has at least some knowledge of Soseki as actors' mannerisms, makeup and the camera compositions suggest the filmmakers are drawing from a shared memory of the famous writer. I didn't get any more grounded when "A First Night of Dreams" starts to break out of the confines of its period drama into the meta-theatrical realm.
Trying to link each short story directly to Soseki's life might be the wrong approach for viewing this movie. There is even some dispute over whether all of these stories were based the writer's own dreams. Certainly, there are recurring themes in these stories that seem quite appropriate to his persona. For example, Soseki's parents gave him up to be raised by their house servant's family and his mother and two siblings died when he was young. Thus, feelings of abandonment and death are naturally reflected in his stories. But what can we make of "A Fifth Night" where the protagonist is a woman or "A Tenth Night" which concerns a handsome serial killer? Seeing these as individual stories rather than as pieces in a larger puzzle to be solved lightens the expectation placed upon the movie as a whole and makes it easier to appreciate the parts that work well while forgetting those that don't.
"A Second Night" caught my attention for its minimal use of audio to heighten the tension of the scene. It becomes an intimate samurai story with a hint of supernatural suspense. "A Sixth Night" is another standout segment that mixes up genres. It starts out looking like a samurai flick from the 1960s but has a wicked contemporary sense of humor. Period costumes are combined with cyberpunk details and a wood carver performs an energetic dance to techno music. The most enjoyable segments were those that found a way to mix the old and the new to energize these stories—really, what would have been so interesting about watching a carver work?
There are a few less-successful installments that never take off because they're stuck playing one note. "A Ninth Night" spends too much time without developing the story. Another disappointment, "A Seventh Night," is the only segment that is fully animated (directed by two video game artists) but while it's visually striking, the storytelling is rather lifeless. The English-language voice-over sounds awkward and unnatural (I wonder if the script would have played better spoken in Japanese with English subtitles).
Quality varies slightly from individual short to short, but picture quality is good throughout the movie. Colors have an earthy bias in some segments but it seems to be a deliberate creative choice. Similarly, the photography in a few installments has the brighter areas of the frame punched up to create lighting that feels like a bright, dream-like glow. The mostly sharp image is free of physical defects and digital artifacts. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix is satisfying.
Cinema Epoch has included a handful of supplements to help introduce Natsume Soseki to Western viewers. The most useful is an essay by Japanese film critic Nicholas Rucka, presented in a series of text frames, which introduces the omnibus genre (Japanese version of the short anthology), provides background on Soseki and talks about the development of this movie. The theatrical trailer, teaser and a TV spot are also included. These marketing elements are perhaps a good insight on the attitude with which viewers should approach the movie. That's to say, none of them appear overly reverent of the material so maybe we don't need to take it too seriously either.
Collections of short films are usually a mixed bag but there are enough hits in Ten Nights of Dreams to warrant a recommendation. If you don't take them too seriously, the films are an enjoyable journey through the psychology of one man. Touches of the fantastic, horrific and absurd are provided by a diverse group of veteran and new directors.
Not guilty, but I might feel differently when I wake up.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Epoch
• Essay by Nicholas Rucka
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