When faced with death, few would argue against the prospect of more life. Sure, there are ethical considerations over ‘quality vs. quantity’, and no one really understands what it means to live forever, but immortality (and the implications it offers) has long captured the human imagination. As an alternative to non-existence, it seems like a foregone conclusion. Natural curiosity keeps us wondering what lies ahead, and the prospect of discovering - or actually living through - it drives many. After all, isn’t everlasting life the main tenet of all religion? Yet no one ever really considers what being immortal would really mean. It’s a concept explored by Asian filmmaker Higuchinsky in his fascinating featurette, Long Dream.
In an ominous Tokyo hospital, Dr. Kuroda Shuusuke treats patients with all manner of ailments. He appears to specialize in brain tumors, both benign and terminal. He also handles strange sleep disorders. When his associate, Dr. Yamauchi, comes across a young woman accosted by another patient, Kuroda reveals the strange case of Mukoda Tetsurou. Months before, the young man came in, complaining of something called “long dreams”. Instead of the normal night visions, his horrific REM-induced hallucinations lasting days, sometimes months. Soon, Mukoda is dreaming for YEARS. While trying to discover the secret of why this is happening, Dr. Kuroda must live with the guilt of another patient he couldn’t cure - a young woman named Kana continues to haunt his own waking fears.
Like an old school Outer Limits episode given a surreal Japanese twist, Long Dream (new to DVD from Facets Video) never excuses its made for TV frontiers. In fact, director Higuchinsky, best known for his surreal horror film Uzumaiki, embraces the medium in such a way that he makes even the story’s singular hospital setting work expertly. Everything about Long Dream is controlled and compact. There’s nary a wasted shot or underdeveloped moment. Taking the Junji Ito manga and translating it into a series of amazing movie images, the single named filmmaker finds the proper balance between dread and the deranged. There are moments here that resonate with real visual power. At other times, Higuchinsky is clearly playing with the audiences preconceptions.
Stories centering on dreams typically deal with the clash between fantasy and reality, how we view our world on a day to day basis bedeviled by our nightly visits into subconscious situations. In Long Dream, Higuchinsky highlights one of Ito’s more compelling ideas - that such scenarios could be a doorway to immortality. As the typical eight hours passes, as the subjected person rests, centuries could be playing out in their brain. Such intriguing concepts as evolution, progress, and the basic biological effect on the human enduring such shifts become Long Dream‘s central conceit. But there is also an element of sadness involved, a depressive notion that such an otherworldly opportunity may not be the boon our mind’s eye makes it out to be. Indeed, Mukoda’s deadened manner suggests that, even as he lives for eons in his mind, his true existence is being cut painfully short.
Of course, Higuchinsky does most of his deep thinking via images. Some are obvious (hundreds of CG clocks indicating Mukoda’s complaint) while others push the boundaries of believability (the “monsters” resulting from the title ailment). If you look too close, you may question the zipper-backed believability of some of the material. Similarly, the Kana subplot gets little true explanation. The last act denouement sells the purpose, and the acting by Horiuchi Masami helps fill in some of the blanks. But in order to have us believe in the reason for Dr. Kuroda’s seemingly unethical behavior, we need something stronger than a set of meaningless montages. Of course, this could also be part of Higuchinsky’s strategy. Without a feature length running time (Long Dream is only 54 minutes long), he has to infer some of his more substantive narrative.
Oddly enough, even with the complaints, it works. One of the reasons we stick with this material is that, thanks to Ito’s idea, Long Dream can’t help but fascinate. Dreams are our private realm, a world we visit that no one else can connect to. Sure, we share similar themes and pictures, but the actual experience is totally individual and unique. It’s a subject that many involved in the production address during the DVD bonus features. Both Ito and Higuchinsky comment on the spirit world, our connection to it, and the uneasy truce between the two planes. They also stress the horror elements in such an idea, proposing that people, faced with a certain style of “immortality” would be more frightened than if confronted by ghosts.
When viewed as both an exercise in style and an illustration of substance, Long Dream definitely delivers. It meticulously manages its material without going too far over into indecipherability, and even when things turn odd, Higuchinsky attempts to tie it all together. That he succeeds more times than he fails explains why, even at less than an hour, this film feels fully realized. Sure, some will not forgive the cartoonish appearance of the “evolved” versions of Kuroda’s creatures, and the “twist” at the end may not fully satisfy, but then again, this is more than just a surrealistic shocker. The individuals behind this movie want to challenge the preconception that death is the end and life at any expense is worth living. Long Dream seems to suggest that, in some cases, the exact opposite is true.