Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1991)
Understanding that Dreams was among the last films Akira Kurosawa made inexorably adds a regal and elegiac air to the proceedings. The fact that the work is semi-autobiographical (based on or inspired by actual dreams the legendary director had during the course of his life) renders the final product a rather intimate look into Kurosawa’s mind. Perhaps most intriguing is the unguarded way we are able to understand and appreciate the great man’s muse: we are in a sense seeing the way he saw, artistically. As such, Dreams could be considered the maestro’s most human film.
The concept, eight “dreams”, rendered as vignettes (or tone poems, or short stories, or fantastical reveries—or all of the above), could—and likely would—in almost any other director’s hands, be a recipe for farce. In fact, Dreams remains controversial and critical opinion on the film’s success is decidedly mixed. Those who dismiss it find the material mawkish, preachy, and haphazardly constructed. Those who endorse it accept it on its own terms and relish the opportunity to explore Kurosawa’s creativity and, more than occasionally, his conscience. Perhaps more so than any other great director, Kurosawa was incapable of separating artifice from morality, and the tension of this human (and artistic) struggle recalls Dostoyevsky perhaps more than any filmmaker.
If nothing else, Dreams is a visual triumph; the cinematography is truly epic and the film succeeds purely as spectacle. Indeed, most of the “action” is rendered through images, and the emphasis is on showing, not telling. Dialogue is minimal and the music, when utilized, is strategic and effective (the use of Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude is particularly inspired). While each of the segments have a discernible trajectory, they don’t necessarily begin and end—at least not in a strictly linear fashion, as is appropriate for any authentic rendering of a typical dream.
The most affecting stories are associated with his youth. (Whether or not these were inspired by actual dreams is almost beside the point; Kurosawa imbues each segment with impressions that balance the surreal elements of dreams with the symbolic inventions of a creative mind. Both of these, then, are also commentaries on what drives an artist and compels creation.) “Sunshine Through the Rain” and “The Peach Orchard” serve as slightly surreal Aesop’s Fables, only instead of a lesson we get a revelation.
In both instances a young boy is enticed by a love and appreciation of Nature, ultimately coming too close to some ancient and enigmatic authority. Rather than providing a clichéd contrast to “reality” or adulthood, Nature is at once capricious, inscrutable, and even vengeful. In other words, the mysteries of tradition and the unfathomable forces of history prove irresistible but also perilous. It is almost impossible to see these intriguing parables and not be moved by Kurosawa’s subtle commentary on the events and attitudes that influence an artistic sensibility.
Subsequent stories engage with the concerns and obsessions Kurosawa grappled with throughout his life. Both “The Blizzard” and “The Tunnel” (which ostensibly concern survival in harsh elements and the aftermath of war) can also be viewed as allegories for perseverance, literally and artistically. The film does stumble a bit with the two “horror” stories, both involving a nuclear apocalypse. Certainly the subject matter is anything but trite but the results are a bit ham-fisted and, as many critics have opined, preachy.
The last segment, “Village of the Watermills” is a peaceful meditation on existence (again, literal and artistic) and serves as a sort of living eulogy for a life well-lived (and featuring legendary actor Chishû Ryû as “the Old Man”, an actor as indelibly associated with director Yasujirô Ozu as Mifune was with Kurosawa and whose only other appearance in a Kurosawa film was at the very end of Red Beard). By the time Dreams is over, we’ve seen youth, old age, life, death, magic, enchantment, illusion, and redemption. What else is there?
Special mention must be made of the film’s centerpiece, “Crows”, which involves an extraordinary encounter with Vincent Van Gogh (played, more than a little appropriately, by Kurosawa disciple Martin Scorsese). The famously tormented painter discusses “devouring” the natural scenes he paints, but admits “it’s so difficult to hold it inside.” If there is a better or more succinct explanation of the forces that inspired and destroyed this delicate man, I’ve yet to come across it. The only thing to do, he asserts, is work; to battle the inhibitions and push oneself past where even the demons can go. That way lays Glory and down there, deep, resides Beauty. And madness. “I drive myself like a locomotive,” he says, staring defiantly at the sun. What happens next, I’m not at all sorry to state, must simply be seen to be believed.
Dreams endures as an exercise in the art of nostalgia: memories are elevated into visual splendor that is at once soothing and unsettling. Sort of like life. By experiencing this film we have the indescribable opportunity to behold the world through the eyes of an exceptional, sensitive soul who just happened to be a genius. — Sean Murphy