Following the rich and despairing pageantry of Ran, his epic reimagining of King Lear, Akira Kurosawa opted to turn inward, resulting in Dreams, an intimate anthology film that finds its raw source material in the director’s own inner experience. The notion of cinema as oneiric reverie is, of course, nothing new. There are even those who would argue that the two are, in fact, more or less synonymous. Going as far back as Luis Buñuel Un Chien Andalou, though, the idea has been to render the dream in its own terms, employing startling juxtapositions and the protean elasticity of time and space to capture the disorienting and often disturbing experience of the unconscious. In Kurosawa’s masterstroke, he turns this approach on its head, instead couching the dream content—often blending the blatantly autobiographical with broader folkloric and even sociopolitical material—in the understated, naturalistic visual style he had developed over his last few films.
In each of the film’s eight vignettes, a Kurosawa surrogate either plays witness to or, more seldom, enacts the goings-on himself. The basic dyadic structure of most segments owes a profound debt to the dramaturgy of traditional Noh theater. Elucidating Kurosawa’s belief that, by emphasizing the strictly personal, a narrative opens into more universal implications, Dreams is bookended by traditional rites of passage: a wedding and a funeral, respectively. In “Sunshine Through the Rain,” young Kurosawa (Mitsunori Isaki) witnesses the forbidden festival of a fox wedding, a legendary event that reputedly only happens during sun showers. For his transgression, the boy is exhorted by his mother (Mitsuko Baisho) to atone, either by asking the foxes’ forgiveness, or else by committing hara-kiri. In “Village of the Watermills,” a middle-aged Kurosawa (Akira Terao) visits the anachronistically Edenic titular village in time to witness the funeral procession of an elderly woman.
What’s remarkable about both these segments is that Kurosawa manages to seamlessly merge meticulous attention to detail—recreating his childhood home in one, his father’s rural hometown in the other—with an extravagant sense of the theatrical. Both depict their protracted pageants practically in real time, with visual élan and a conspicuous absence of the declamatory verbosity found elsewhere in the film. Kurosawa indulges in pure cinema here (and in the doll ceremony in “The Peach Orchard”), finding a kinetic rhythm that conveys both an exalted, almost hieratic ceremonialism and a joyful embrace of the vicissitudes of mortal existence.
“The Blizzard” finds Kurosawa in a more purely existential mood. A team of mountaineers battle a snowstorm in order to recover their base camp. Most of them slowly succumb; only one (Terao) persists in the Sisyphean quest, until he encounters a snow demon (Mieko Harada)—a mythic embodiment of the elemental at its least forgiving—who seeks to do him in. Kurosawa shoots the finale in equivocal fashion, using slow motion and rear projection to problematize an apparently happy ending. It’s easy to read this segment as a metaphor for the filmmaker’s struggles over the course of his career with studios and financing. But true to Kurosawa’s artistry, “The Blizzard” also works more polyphonically, standing as a bleak fable for humanity’s opposition to an indifferent, if not overtly hostile, natural world.
“Mount Fuji in Red” and “The Weeping Demon” form a disturbing diptych, depicting a nightmare of nuclear and post-nuclear annihilation. The former pays cheeky tribute to the films of Kurosawa’s longtime friend and assistant director, Ishiro Honda (who directed Godzilla), with its deliberately low-rent special effects, yet the vignette retains a striking, almost poetic quality in its surreal visions of Fuji in neon-red flames and wafting particolored radiation fumes. The latter, filmed on the desolate volcanic slopes of the real Mount Fuji, offers giant irradiated dandelions and horned demons bathing in pools of blood. The long final, slow-motion shot contains a haunting literalization of man’s descent into the lower depths.
“Crows” is perhaps the most conceptually intriguing of the vignettes. An aspiring artist (Terao) views a Van Gogh exhibition, then, experiencing a variety of the Stendhal syndrome, he enters bodily into the world of the paintings, which spring to life through a combination of rotoscope and digital chroma key effects (provided by Industrial Light & Magic). Ultimately, he meets the painter himself (played by Martin Scorsese, in an inspired casting coup and under heavy makeup). Van Gogh’s soliloquy about devouring and being devoured by his art—and his claim that its source and essence resides in the light of sun—can stand as a kind of aesthetic credo from Kurosawa, but the segment turns strangely ambivalent as the Kurosawa surrogate cannot find his way out of Van Gogh’s paintings. Kurosawa, who was an aspiring painter in his youth, sees that he must abandon his own anxious influences in order to find himself as an artist of light, that exuded (as Buñuel wrote) by “the screen’s white eyelid,” which “would only need to be able to reflect the light that is its own, and it would blow up the Universe.”
Criterion's 4K transfer is a marvel to behold. Every frame of Akira Kurosawa and cinematographer Shoji Ueda's imagery is charged with chromatic detail: from the riot of rich colors on parade in "The Peach Orchard" segment to the splashes of incarnadine and sickly blue-green that contrast the otherwise muted earth tones in "The Tunnel." Criterion's Blu-ray renders color density and saturation exponentially better than previous SD versions. The image, whether static or in motion, has impressive depth and clarity; flesh tones and fine details of costume and set design are presented faithfully. The Master Audio two-channel surround mix lends some nice separation and depth to Shinichiro Ikebe's score, which fluidly blends traditional Japanese and classical Western instrumentation.
Stephen Prince's energetic commentary track neatly lays out the production history, links individual vignettes to episodes in Kurosawa's private life, and analyzes the frequent formal and thematic connections with the director's other films. The 150-minute making-of documentary by Hausu director Nobuhiko Obayashi utilizes a panoply of cutting edge (c. 1990) video editing techniques to tinker with the inherently interesting behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Kurosawa, a decision that's often more distracting than illuminating. New interviews with Kurosawa's perennial production manager Teruyo Nogami and Takashi Koizumi, who acted as AD on Kurosawa's last five films, offer more straightforward insights into the director's technique and attitudes toward the material. "Kurosawa's Way" ruminates on the elusive nature of language and the vicissitudes of translation, then offers tributes from 11 contemporary directors, including Martin Scorsese, who delivers some wry observations on his role in Dreams.
A gorgeous and painterly late-period masterwork, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams gets a stellar 4K transfer and a surfeit of extras from Criterion.