ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990) Blu Ray (The Criterion Collection)
An anthology of eight short stories based on dreams experienced by Japanese master director Akira Kurosawa (though some involved uncredited direction by Ishiro Honda, who was arguably best known for his old Japanese monster movies such as Godzilla). The film was funded by Warner Brothers with Steven Spielberg executive producing. Other Hollywood talent was also involved; George Lucas's FX house Industrial Light & Magic created the visual effects shown in some sequences, while Martin Scorsese appears as Van Gogh.
The constant figure through all of the dreams is “I”, a character representing Kurosawa as he experiences each one. He is played by three different actors (Akira Terao, Mitsunori Isaki, Toshihiko Nakano) as he is present in different segments in the form of a young boy, an older boy and a grown man.
The first dream, “Sunshine through the rain”, features the young boy version of “I” who is told not to go into the forest when there is both sun and rain together as he will see the “Fox Wedding” and they will get angry with him. He heads out anyway, and gets caught in the act of spying on the wedding procession. When he gets back home he is informed by his mother that a fox came to him, and gave her a ceremonial knife as “I” must slit his belly open to atone. The only way he could possibly gain forgiveness is to go to the foxes (who live at the end of the rainbow) and ask for it.
The second dream, “The Peach Orchard” has the young "I” serving food to his sister and her friends. He made enough for six girls, but when he comes to the table only five are present. He catches a quick glimpse of the other girl outside the room, but discovers that no-one else can see her. He follows this imaginary girl into the woods and runs into a group of dancing Kabuki dolls. They suddenly tell him that his parents have cut down the peach orchard, and as a result the dolls can’t have their festival. “I” cries and pleads that he wasn’t happy to see the orchard chopped down. The leader of the dolls senses his sincerity so they perform a dance to make the trees grow back and spread blossoms across the orchard.
The third dream, “The Blizzard” features “I” grown up, leading a group of mountaineers through a blizzard that has gone on for three days. When they are on the cusp of death “I” experiences a vision of a spectral woman who covers him in a shimmering silver blanket and whisks the snow storm away.
The fourth, “The Tunnel” casts “I” as an army officer who enters a tunnel guarded by a ferocious dog. When he emerges from the other side he sees that a dead member of his platoon has followed him. After a while the rest of the platoon (all killed thanks to his decision to send them into battle) also emerges from the tunnel.
The fifth, “Crows” has “I” visiting a gallery and appreciating a wall of Vincent Van Gogh paintings. He finds himself sucked into one of them and exploring the colourful landscape within. He meets the painter himself during the time when he had just been released from an insane asylum for cutting off his own ear.
The sixth, “Mount Fuji in Red” takes place during a volcanic eruption from the titular mountain which causes several nuclear plants to explode. An employee at the plants expresses his remorse to “I” as radioactive particles (seen in various colours) sweep across Japan.
The seventh, “The Weeping Demon” depicts “I” walking across the infernal landscape created by a nuclear holocaust. He meets a man wearing ragged clothing who has become a demon.
The eighth and final dream “Village of the Water Mills” features “I” as a backpacker who comes across a village untouched by any kind of modern technology, and meets one of its elderly residents working away by the riverbank. He ends up watching as the elder leads a colourful funeral procession down the road past the village.
Watch a trailer:
At times resembling Kwaidan, Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 anthology of supernatural folktales, Dreams is a visually breathtaking but very hit and miss collection of mini-stories that veer from undeniable brilliance to almost unbearably depressing tedium. The most famous and best of these, Crows, makes use of some remarkable (for the time) ILM trickery as “I” is seen walking through Van Gogh’s landscape paintings. The on-location filming, shot with a rich use of colour to make it resemble the artist’s work, is also breathtaking. Martin Scorcese turns in a remarkable performance as the brilliant but tortured artist; clearly someone the acclaimed American director can relate to. It’s well worth seeing Dreams for this segment alone.
As for the rest? Tellingly, the best are those which are shortest in running time and have the most richly eclectic colour palettes. The first two have an airy touch of Japanese folk fantasy and costume dance that makes them beautiful to watch even though relatively little happens. “Mount Fuji in Red”, one of the segments Ishiro Honda partially directed, homages his early “civilisation in peril” monster pics with some fairly hokey effects and crowds of extras running left and right, but does so in a way that manages to be effectively disturbing. Unfortunately the others are dull, static and talky. “The Blizzard”, for example, spends several interminable minutes showing a group of winter-clad men desperately trying to make progress through a relentless buffeting of snow, and barely going anywhere at all. It doesn’t make for enjoyable viewing.
There are a series of well-meaning messages running through the stories - the costs of war and nuclear proliferation, and the importance of respect to nature and cultural heritage. Unfortunately the film ends up spelling out a rather luddite proclamation that modern technology is inherently bad. Yes, a lot of it is - but let’s not forget that plenty of advances have been made in the fields of medicine and other disciplines that help people, thus saving countless lives in the process.
Still, despite its flaws there is some incredible cinema to behold here, particularly if you are a fan of this legendary Japanese director.
Runtime: 119 mins
Dir: Akira Kurosawa, Ishiro Honda
Script: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Akira Terao, Mitsunori Isaki, Toshihiko Nakano, Martin Scorcese
Criterion have done an incredible job with this 4K restoration. So many scenes are such a rich colour feast that if you took a screenshot you could hang it on a wall as a piece of fine art. Appropriate considering that one segment deals with Van Gogh.
The Japanese folk/classical soundtrack sounds rich and evocative in the 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio rendering.
We get a lush booklet with an essay by film critic Blige Ebiri and Kurosawa’s script for a ninth dream that was never filmed. Interestingly, Blige’s essay sees the tedious Blizzard section in a different light to myself in that the sequence’s interminable length is meant to convey the harshness that its main characters endure. The passivity of the main character throughout along with the fact that some sequences end before a natural resolution reflects how dreams often work, with the person experiencing it often a helpless observer in the events unfolding around them. Blige also places the film within Japan’s historical and cultural context. We learn that funding came from Hollywood sources as Japanese studios wouldn’t touch the script, partially because Kurosawa’s other projects weren’t very profitable, and partially because of its criticism of Japan’s nuclear energy sector.
It’s a revealing accompaniment to a film that many (like myself) will have conflicted feelings about.
The ninth dream was intended to be a utopian final chapter where world peace breaks out and all of the world’s weapons are destroyed. It was never filmed as doing so would have been prohibitively expensive.
On the disc itself are the following extras:
Interview with production manager Teruyo Nogami
A wonderful interview with Teruyo, who has worked extensively with Kurosawa over the years. She reveals how on Dreams everyone pitched in, from the whole crew planting thousands of fake flowers for the final scene in the first story, to the waves in the riverside scene in Crows being created by the assistant director. She also reveals that the wheat for the yellow field scene in Crows was apparently planted a year prior to shooting. She conveys the filming challenges very well.
Interview with assistant director Takashi Koizumi
He talks about the influences behind the film, including Kurosawa's own childhood when he learnt about Hari-Kiri (which comes across in the first story), and how Ishiro Honda's contribution helped with the soldier marching scenes in "The Tunnel". He also provides us with more fascinating insider revelations about the film, including getting the titular birds at the end of "Crows" to fly within the frame by playing them music they didn't like!
A 52 minute documentary by Catherine Cadou, featuring interviews with ten directors including Bernardo Bertolucci, Martin Scorsese, Alejandro Inarritu, Hayao Miyazaki and Clint Eastwood, who talk about how Kurosawa's work influenced both them and the wider cinematic landscape, as well as the influences from Western culture that informed his own work, including Shakespeare and Dashiell Hammett. It’s well worth seeing for anyone interested in finding out Kurosawa’s place in the cinematic lexicon and history.
Making of “Dreams”
An epic amongst docs, lasting around 2 and 1/2 hours in length (half an hour longer than the film itself) and directed/presented by Nobuhiko Obayashi (best known for the bizarre 1977 supernatural horror Hausu). It goes through each section of the film (oddly enough however it doesn’t stick to the running order of them), comparing footage from the movie with behind-the-scenes shots and storyboard art. There are also sections where Obayashi interviews Kurosawa. The best bit comes in the middle when we see an animation of a dream that didn’t end up being filmed. Unfortunately it is - yes - rather longer than it needs to be; how many times do we need to watch footage of filming being delayed by bad weather? There’s still enough of interest here, and the famously modest Kurosawa comes across as a genuinely nice man - even if he does occasionally shout at cast and crew.
Audio commentary with Stephen Prince
Highly recommended for those with a low level of familiarity with either Kurosawa or Japan, Prince tirelessly reels off a huge amount of well-researched background detail and artistic critique of the film’s nuances. He refers to the director’s love of Noh Theatre, his childhood, his wartime experiences (he managed to avoid being drafted but did fully experience its devastating aftermath), his camera positioning and the various stylistic motifs that recur throughout his work. After listening to his encyclopaedic wealth of knowledge I felt a lot more endowed to understanding a film that, in places, left me cold.
Although the film itself is something of a curate’s egg, this disc is an essential purchase thanks to the stunning audio-visual presentation and sheer wealth of extras.