• Akira Kurosawa, Ishirô Honda
  • USA, Japan  /  1990
  • Japanese, French, English
  • 119 min
December 1, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Man’s stupidity is unbelievable.
Waiting to die isn’t living.[/pullquote]
After two historical epics in the 1980s, Akira Kurosawa turns his camera inward. Dreams would be his most deeply personal film to date (and perhaps ever), representing an amalgam of Kurosawa’s childhood memories and his own dreams throughout his life. If auteur theory has any validity, and even if it doesn’t, a filmmaker imparts something of himself in every work. I think one can come to know Kurosawa better by watching his films than by reading his “Something Like an Autobiography” for instance—and, yes, the subtitle of our Kurosawa retrospective, “A Life in Film,” was carefully chosen for this purpose. And if this is true, it may be truer of Kurosawa’s oneiric odyssey in color than any other work.

As the title indicates, this film is nothing more and nothing less than eight episodes, each a self-contained dream. One may read syntagmatic meaning in to the dreams collectively, but I don’t believe the film was conceived for this purpose. The first shows a child happening upon a mysterious forest ceremony, one meant to be hidden from human eyes. The boy returns home to be told by his mother that his actions have cast some kind of curse upon the household and that he will not be allowed to enter. Another episode brilliantly recreates famous Van Gogh paintings, having a character literally enter the scenes depicted to traverse a vibrant, oil-painted world before encountering Van Gogh himself, played amusingly by Martin Scorsese, in a field with brush and canvas. Yet another (directed by Godzilla‘s Ishirô Honda), and possibly the most poignant, shows a returning soldier passing through a tunnel to be confronted by a blue-faced platoon of his less fortunate brothers-in-arms, all of whom perished under his command.

Dreams is so carefully crafted that the film itself is as a dream. On a personal note, I’ve only seen it again recently after several years, and I was surprised to realize that more than one dream had been altered in my mind. I remember the deceased soldier from “The Tunnel” as being part of the previous dream “The Blizzard”. The two had melded together and, while this could simply indicate a lapse of memory, I like to think it rather speaks to the strengths of the film.

With no narrative and a very intermittent score (mostly silence, in fact) and hardly any dialogue Dreams relies almost entirely on the strength of its images. Each dream is incredibly cinematic; I think Kurosawa finally achieved with this film what he always hoped for: to realize a film composed entirely of “cinematic” sequences. He would say often that he thinks some of his work bears at least a few instances of this but that none of his films ever entirely reached that lofty height.

Though black & white photography bears its own set of nuances—forcing filmmakers to focus on chroma, levels and the proper lighting to a greater extent—after seeing Kurosawa’s later features one wishes he had adopted color filmstock earlier on. Only 7 of his 30 films are shot in color and each, especially this film and Ran, are among his most vibrant. All of these were made well before the advent of sophisticated computer lighting and shading technologies, but it’s often hard to tell. Kurosawa relies on makeup, lensing, rear-projection, lighting (especially lighting) to achieve the effects he’s looking for. Even his storyboards are drawn up in color (speaking to his talents as a visual artist) as to suggest that his final work couldn’t be filmed any other way. Dreams, more so than the rest, was conceived mostly from Kurosawa’s own dreams. How colorful they must be.

Kurosawa is very meditative here. I rather like it, but many will disagree. Dreams surely ranks among his most tedious efforts, but if you can manage to focus your attention for the full two hours I think you’ll find it rewarding. Not every moment of each of the eight stories is of visual interest, but collectively this film stands as a dense tableaux of images with salient staging and perhaps the most striking scenery ever photographed by the sensei of cinema.

If the film to follow, Rhapsody in August, represents Kurosawa’s struggle with the bomb come full circle, Dreams represents his supreme reflection on life. He revisits the bomb (meaning postwar Japanese society) here as well, but many of his recurring themes are present: the severity of the human condition, the beauty and cruelty of, and man’s relationship with nature, the precious innocence of childhood, the disclaiming or outright denial of traditional morals and others.

It’s true that Dreams strays in to the trite and the outright maudlin when it moralizes—“Mt. Fuji in Red” (also directed by Honda) probably the most insufferable episode—but these instances are fleeting. It’s also true that Scorsese’s portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh is less than convincing. His Brooklyn accent bleeds through unaltered. But it’s a dream, remember?

Of course this doesn’t mean that given the parameter that anything goes; just that narrative, setting, temporality and all of the other elements of a film can be rendered more liberally. Besides, the title says it all and like any other film we must approach it with a measure of disbelief. While we tend to believe that truths may be realized within a fictional world, as they often are in moving pictures, rarely are these truths as abstract as this. Here we find no truth in morals or themes but only in the images themselves. You could say that the truth is beauty itself, but it may be whatever you wish it to be.

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