Previous to watching Akira Kurosawa's Dreams I had seen four movies directed by Kurosawa: Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and I Live in Fear. All of these movies were made early in his career, between 1950 and 1961. The first three are jidaigeki films (from which Jedi warriors), period dramas set in the Samurai period. I Live in Fear is the story of a man who, after living through World War II, is obsessed with idea that there will be further nuclear war and who is desperately trying to move his family to a place in Brazil that he thinks will be safe. All of these films are very serious. Where there is humor if there is any, it is a sort of comic relief, and we need it. There is no humor that I can remember in I Live in Fear. All these films employ to some extent that over-exaggerated style of acting that we have discussed elsewhere on this blog.
Akira Kurosawa's Dreams on the other hand, was made in 1990, only eight years before Kurosawa's death, and while it incorporates elements of the older films, for the most part it is very different. I don't remember where I came across the film. I must have been looking around Netflix when it caught my eye, and I put it on my DVD list. Wikipedia cites The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa by Stephen Prince as saying that this film is based on dreams that Kurosawa said he had had repeatedly. There are eight dreams in which the main character is Kurosawa. They vary in style and mood from the very serious to the whimsical. They also vary in quality.
It may be the uneven merit of the different dreams that accounts for the wide disparity of opinion on the film. The Rotten Tomatoes website gave it a Tomatometer rating of 55%, and looking around the web, that seems about right. Vincent Canby in a New York Times review on August 24, 1990, used terms like, sublime, astonishingly beautiful, and pure screen enchantment to describe the film. He also said, “For Kurosawa, the present is not haunted by the past. Instead, it's crowded by an accumulation of other present times that include the future. The job is keeping them in order, like unruly foxes,” which I think is accurate, although I'm not sure I entirely get what he means.
On the other hand, Hal Hinson writing for the Washington Post (September 14, 1990), opined, “By titling his new film 'Akira Kurosawa's Dreams,' the Japanese master has engaged in a little false advertising. 'Pontifications' might have served as a more accurate header. Or better yet, 'Sermons.'" His description is at least partially true. The dreams are a bit, sometimes quite a bit, heavy-handed on the topics of nuclear radiation, and the environment. Of course, this isn't unusual in Japanese films, and it's quite understandable. It occurs to me that the Japanese are preoccupied with these topics in much the same way that we in the United States are preoccupied with race.
And then, while the dreams are more than sermons, they only resemble dreams in certain ways. For one thing, for the most part they aren't really finished. They may end like dreams, and leave you with that same feeling that you get when you are in the middle of what I think of as a story dream, and you wake up wondering, and really wanting to know what happened next. And then things happen that would not happen in real life. However, they are more coherent than any dream I can ever remember having. While mysterious things happen, Kurosawa, never finds himself suddenly in a different place or with different people, and the story never changes in mid-stream.
For the most part, I really enjoyed the film. I liked some of the dreams very much indeed, and one not at all. I think that most viewers, even those who most liked the film would feel the same, although their choices of the best and worst might differ. Some of them are quite short, and others fairly long. Some are very beautiful, and others rather hideous. I'll give a brief introduction to each one.
The first three dreams draw heavily on Japanese tradition and folklore.
Sunshine through the Rain
Unfortunately, this first dream is in my opinion the best. I kept waiting for another to match it in beauty and mystery, but none did, although there were a few that I liked almost as well. I was disappointed, but now you won't be, having been forewarned, but then, you may not agree this is the best.
In this dream, Kurosawa or “I” as the billing reads, is a small boy, about five. His mother warns him not to go out in the woods because the sun is shining through the rain. Foxes, which play a large part in Japanese folklore, like to have their wedding processions in this kind of weather and they don't like to be seen. Needless to say, the boy loses no time running out into the woods to see what he can see, and the procession that he sees is both beautiful and mysterious. Unfortunately, his curiosity leads to more serious consequences than he expects.
The Peach Orchard
This dream takes place on Hinamatsuri or Doll's Day , when Japanese families display dolls of the emperor and empress and others on a platform made of a series of steps, and have a special tea ceremony. In the dream, Kurosawa is about seven and his sister is having a celebration of the day with four of her friends. He sees a sixth girl, dressed in pink, who lures him outside where he finds the dolls come to life in the former peach orchard. This dream is also very beautiful, and I liked it almost as well as the first.
Now grown, Kurosawa leads two other men on an exhausting and dangerous trek through a blizzard on a mountain. When they have reached the end of their endurance, they meet a Yuki-onna , a Japanese Snow Woman. What happens next confuses me, and if any of you watch the movie, I would love to hear what you think.
We find Kurosawa walking down a deserted, unlovely road in the evening twilight when he is accosted by a mysterious, glowing dog running out of a tunnel. The dog never touches him, but as he exits the tunnel at the other end, he meets the ghost of man who had been under his command during the war, and who had died in his arms. In this dream, Kurosawa is man coming to grips with his past.
I love this one. This is the whimsical one. Kurosawa with his paints and canvas under his arm (he was a painter) strolls through a museum exhibit of paintings by Van Gogh and finds himself inside The Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing. After consulting with the women, he crosses the bridge and finds Van Gogh in a hay field, head wrapped in a bandage, played by Martin Scorsese. A review of the movie on the website Open Culture said that it wasn't so much Scorsese playing Van Gogh as Van Gogh playing Scorcese. It is in any case humorous. Kurosawa wanders further afield through one Van Gogh painting after another in scenes that will be recognizable even to those who aren't particularly interested in art. He gets deeper and deeper into the paintings until he is walking on the very strokes of the paint. There's no story here, just a look an appreciation of Van Gogh's work. And it's fun.
Mount Fuji in Red
Crowds of people are running away from an abstract Mount Fuji from which flames are erupting. Is it a volcanic eruption? No, there are six nuclear plants exploding and there is no place to go. It's a warning and since the film was made 21 years before the Fukushima disaster, it seems to have been an apt warning. It is not, however, a good film.
The Weeping Demon
This one is painful to watch. Following on the theme of nuclear and environmental destruction, Kurosawa finds himself in a desert with giant dandelions, talking to ragged man with a horn on his head. This dream reminds me of the nuclear disaster sci-fi movies of the 50s, especially The Amazing Colossal Man. The only thing I can really remember about the movie, though, is that he was out in the desert and there were enormous dandelions.
The ragged man is a demon and he tells Kurosawa about the aftermath of the great disaster, and the people in the desert that used to be men, but are now demons. There is one scene that is reminiscent of a sort of Japanese Hieronymus Bosch. It is also reminiscent in a way of Kurosawa's earlier movies and has that over-emotive acting.
Village of the Watermills
In a complete change of atmosphere, Kurosawa finds himself in a beautiful little village built around a stream filled with watermills. At first, I thought this was just a movie set, but it was filmed at the Daio Wasabi Farm, which you can tour and where you can get, oh wonder of wonders, wasabi ice cream, and don't you wish we could all just go now. Anyway, it is very beautiful.
Here we see a great deal of the preachiness that Hinson talks about in his review as a 103 year old man tells Kurosawa about the wonderful, simple life that the villagers live. They don't have electricity, and they don't have a lot of inessential things, and they respect the environment. Now, all these things are very good things, and I agree with him in essence, but it's not always so simple. Still, it's very lovely and the movie ends with a joyful funeral procession for an old women who lived a good life. It is full of music and dancing and color, and brings us full circle from the quiet and somber wedding procession of the foxes.
A painting by Kurosawa
—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.