Surprisingly, it took a little bit of doing following the triumphant success of Ran for Kurosawa to secure financing for his next film, the much smaller Dreams. Then again, Kurosawa’s ambitions were for a pure art film which jettisoned plot and obvious spectacle for something more personal. Perhaps too personal, as a film based around one’s own dreams may not interest anybody else. But Kurosawa had faith in the project, which was reduced from ten segments to a more manageable eight segments, and enough clout to call in a few favors from his admirers. Steven Spielberg stepped in and convinced Warner Bros. to pick up the international rights to Kurosawa’s next film ensuring that the financing was in place. And George Lucas’ company Industrial Light and Magic was on hand to supply the needed special effects, ensuring that it would be a state of the art project. Although Kurosawa never made the jump to Hollywood, his influence was widespread and in his twilight years as a filmmaker he found plenty of love from Hollywood whereas Orson Welles did not
Like Ran, Kurosawa spent a lot of time painting key images of Dreams. More than any other film, those images would become the film rather than the editing or performances. To help him along, Kurosawa brought on board his old friend Ishiro Honda as a “creative consultant”, although co-director seems more accurate considering there’s evidence of Honda’s style and experiences in the final film. And, for the first time in decades, Kurosawa wrote the film entirely himself perhaps due to the personal nature of the film.
Kurosawa begins the film with plain titles, saving his visual flourishes for the actual dreams of the title, and a bit of text saying “I once had a dream”. The “I” in the text is very unusual for Kurosawa as he tended to avoid using film as autobiography unlike Fellini, except for perhaps Scandal. It’s not that Kurosawa’s films are devoid of personality or Kurosawa’s world views, far from it, but Kurosawa’s films are generally those of an artist looking outwards, not inwards.
The first dream is “Sunshine Through the Rain” and it sets the tone for the rest of the picture. A boy (Toshihiko Nakano) sets out to play on a sunny day, but in the midst of the sunshine it starts to rain. The boy’s mother (Mitsuko Baisho) warns him not to go play in the woods as foxes get married during rainstorms with sunshine and they dislike people watching them. Naturally the boy disobeys and plays in the woods.
Emerging out of the fog is a wedding procession of foxes and the boy watches transfixed. Kurosawa’s camera watches the wedding march in great detail as he takes his time with this central image. Kurosawa plays the scene deliberately and slow. The scene is full of ceremony, and it comes across almost like a funeral march instead of a joyous occasion. There’s also, quite clearly, a bit of Noh theater in the march with the foxes being people in masks.
Of course the boy is spotted and flees home. But, when he arrives home, his mother won’t let him enter saying that a fox has come angry over the intrusion into their ceremony. Not only angry, they demand the death of the boy via a knife that they have given the mother. The mother gives the knife to the boy and asks him to beg the foxes’ forgiveness. When the boy asks where he can find them, the mother replies that the boy can find them under a rainbow. The segment ends with the boy, among a vividly colored field of flowers, walking towards a rainbow, created by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, possibly to meet his death.
“Sunshine Through the Rain” gets Dreams off to a strong start. The images are strong and the story is told well. The fact that the boy is facing his possible death introduces one of the themes of the movie early on. Although there are some very dark possibilities, the visual of the rainbow at least acknowledges that there’s hope and that this is just a dream, not a nightmare. However, the boy isn’t a very convincing actor, he doesn’t seem to put much effort into pushing to gain entry back into his home for instance, and seems to be more prop than character. Child actors are a drawback that many directors have had to deal with and although it is a demerit, it doesn’t significantly harm the segment.
The next entry, “The Peach Orchard”, isn’t as successful. A slightly older boy (Mitsunori Isaki) attends to his older sister who is celebrating “Doll Day”, the traditional Japanese day celebrating the blooming of peach trees, with her friends. He soon finds himself chasing after a phantom girl whom he thought was part of the tea party.
The chase leads him to the old peach orchard of the family which has been cut down. There, the boy is confronted by the spirits of the orchard, actors dressed up as “dolls”. The boy bursts into tears at the sight of the cut down orchard and the spirits. The spirits accuse the boy of merely being sad that he can’t get peaches, and the boy responds that he can buy peaches, but where can he buy the sight of a peach orchard in bloom? Acknowledging that the boy’s answer is worthy of true grief, the “dolls” perform a Noh/Kabuki inspired dance, filmed in widescreen shots emphasizing the width of the composition, which figuratively brings the orchard back to life and then cuts to literal shots of a peach orchard in bloom. The segment ends with the boy finding a small peach tree, representing the spirit he pursued at the beginning, blooming amidst the stumps of the old orchard.
Death and grief are entwined into this segment, although Kurosawa feels the need to spell out everything. The fact that Kurosawa ends on a small blooming peach tree is an acknowledgement that grief doesn’t have to be permanent, life can rise again, but it’s placement after the spectacular rainbow end of “The Marriage of Foxes” exposes the same sentiments as repetitive and the whole experience is less visually triumphant.
Cutting to shots of a real, blooming peach orchard seems to be Kurosawa not trusting the audience or his own images. It’s not often when you can accuse Kurosawa of a lack of confidence, but “The Peach Orchard” gives all the appearances of an idea that Kurosawa wasn’t sure he could really pull off and it slides into obviousness and didacticism. The filmmaking is also quite static and uninspired as well, although the dance itself is interesting. To top it off, it really doesn’t tell us anything new. You watch any Kurosawa film set in the wilderness, and you’re going to see him film the trees as live creatures, often with great beauty as the sun filters through the leaves and blossoms. There are some striking images here, but overall it’s a static segment, redundant among Kurosawa’s filmography, and blunt. Of all the segments of the film, it’s the least necessary and really doesn’t advance the themes of the film.
Fortunately, “The Blizzard” comes next and is one of the strongest segments of the film. Right from the start it’s more immediately dramatic than the first two segments as Kurosawa opens with a group of mountain climbers trudging through a fierce snowstorm, their every breath amplified on the soundtrack. The filmmaking emphasizes the difficulty of their situation by using slow motion techniques.
The men stop from exhaustion amidst the near whiteout conditions and argue about how far they are from camp, where camp is, and whether it’s nightfall or simply that the storm is so intense that it makes it look as if it was night. In any event, they’re in bad shape and the men all collapse into the snow except for the leader (Akira Terao, who will be the Kurosawa stand in for the rest of the movie) who wants to continue. But even he drops into the snow eventually.
Upon collapse, the leader finds himself covered with a blanket by a dark haired female spirit (Mieko Harada). Kurosawa never made a horror film, but he indulges in some echoes of the classic Japanese horror film Kwaidan and “The Woman of the Snow”. The Woman of the Snow urges the leader to sleep, telling him that the snow is warm and to accept sleep, as the wind whips her black hair around. The black haired spirit is a mainstay of Japanese cinema, right up to today. Ringu, for example, makes uses of the concept. It’s striking imagery and a terrific performance by Mieko Harada, who was brilliant as Lady Kaede in Ran. Of course, sleep for the mountaineer will bring death and the drama is whether he resists or gives in.
Ultimately, the man doesn’t succumb to the Woman of the Snow, fending off sleep, and the woman flies away into the wind in a brilliant visualization as the storm breaks. The men find themselves only feet from their camp as they survive the worst that nature could throw at them.
“The Blizzard” is one of the strongest segments of the film as it’s the first time that Kurosawa truly lets the images speak for themselves almost entirely. There is some necessary exposition, but it’s short and doesn’t spell out the themes which Kurosawa is able to convey visually. The use of slow motion is particularly striking as it gives an unearthly air to the proceedings as well as the audio design often focusing on the breathing of the mountaineers. The whole segment is dream-like in the best way possible.
It’s also Kurosawa-like in the best way possible. There’s a strong leader thrown against nature and the will of the leader triumphs. Kurosawa often used weather to comment on the action in his movies, and now it takes a role front and center. The strongest segment of Dersu Uzala is the men battling the elements to construct a shelter before night sets in, but the literal personification of a winter spirit tempting the leader to just give up provides a whole new dimension to that idea. Without the distraction of epic landscapes, the segment becomes much more personal and the small triumph of will becomes something much larger. Death is present, but it doesn’t have to win over man’s survival instinct. If there’s one wholly successful segment in Dreams, it is “The Blizzard”.
The next segment is “The Tunnel” which is also a bit of a horror segment. An Army veteran (Akira Terao) walks down a road in the daylight until he approaches a dark tunnel. He enters the long, dark, tunnel and encounters a snapping dog, evidently an army dog judging from the equipment strapped to it. The dog passes him and the man completes his long walk with his footsteps echoing to the other end of the tunnel where it is suddenly night.
Upon reaching the other side, the Army veteran suddenly hears marching footsteps behind him and a ghostly soldier, Private Noguchi (Yoshitaka Zushi), emerges from the tunnel. The private is looking to return home, which is within sight of the end of the tunnel. It is up to the Army veteran to tell the soldier that he died in the war, with considerable emotion from both sides, and the private turns and marches back into the tunnel.
The Private no sooner vanishes into the tunnel when there’s a marching of a group of men and the Army veteran’s old platoon marches to the end of the tunnel, reporting for duty to their old commander. The platoon makes a striking image with their painted faces and stillness, visually approximating China’s terra cotta warriors in some aspects. At the site of his former men, which the veteran ordered to their deaths, he breaks down and apologizes to them and dredges up his shame at having survived when they all died. At last, the veteran orders the men to march back into the tunnel and accept their deaths, although the veteran is once more confronted by the snapping dog at the end.
There’s no real drama in the filmmaking of “The Tunnel” as the camera setups are fairly static and much of the scene is the platoon standing at the mouth of the tunnel. Any drama of the scene is purely in the performance of Akira Terao. Fortunately, there’s a strong dynamic performance to anchor the scene. And the standing soldiers make a striking image.
It’s also a somewhat curious segment as Kurosawa was never a soldier and certainly didn’t order anyone to their deaths. Undoubtedly he knew a great many men who died in World War II, so perhaps this scene is merely a visualization of Kurosawa’s survivor’s guilt. Or, perhaps, this is Ishiro Honda’s segment, since Honda served in the war and was taken prisoner. The uncertainty over authorship is problematic in judging the film as it turns from an autobiographical film into more of an anthology.
As such, “The Tunnel” is somewhat tough to reconcile with Kurosawa, although there is a very good performance at the center of it that elevates it beyond its striking imagery. It’s the first segment where the main character is truly conflicted and struggling with his inner demons and is the first segment that explores the inner drama of a character. Again, death and survival is a central theme of the segment which is one of the linking themes uniting the whole movie.
Kurosawa steps away from horrific imagery for his next segment, “Crows” which focuses on the artwork of Vincent Van Gogh. The identification between Akira Terao and Akira Kurosawa is made more explicit as he wears a hat typical of Kurosawa. The segment opens with Akira Terao walking through and examining a series of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh including some of his most famous masterpieces. Akira Terao finally settles in front of a painting of the Langlois Bridge at Arles. Kurosawa then match cuts to a live action version of the painting, a variation on an axial cut, recreated in vivid color and exquisite detail, in freeze frame.
The “painting” then comes to life as Akira Terao wanders in asking the whereabouts of Vincent Van Gogh. He’s pointed in the general direction and then finds Van Gogh (Martin Scorsese) sketching in a field. Van Gogh responds to Akira Terao’s French enquiries in English, perhaps due to Scorsese’s limitations speaking French, perhaps due to dream logic. Van Gogh describes how driven by his art he is, comparing himself to a locomotive which Kurosawa cuts away too, a bit heavy-handedly. Van Gogh is so driven by his art and the short amount of time he has that he runs off and Akira Terao pursues the artist, running through the paintings of Van Gogh brought to life via Industrial Light and Magic in his pursuit.
Dreams is a serious and sincere film, but as Akira Terao journeys through the many paintings of Vincent Van Gogh the film becomes, for the first time, playful and fun. It’s a celebration of Van Gogh’s art and the modern capabilities of special effects. It turns the silver screen into a wonderful and huge display canvas. It gives meaning to the phrase “getting lost in a painting.”
Akira Terao never catches up to Vincent Van Gogh, he’s too busy with his art and driven by his vision. When last seen, he’s cresting a hill stirring up a flock of ILM created crows to recreate one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings. The final shot is back in the museum with a Van Gogh painting and a train whistle sounding on the soundtrack. Van Gogh is now dead, but his art and vision carries on.
“Crows” is a marvelous segment, imaginative, playful, and personal in all the best ways. Kurosawa identifying with Van Gogh even makes sense; they were both fond of bright, vivid colors in their art and perhaps there’s a bond in that both contemplated suicide at one point. If there’s one segment to introduce people to Kurosawa, out of context, “Crows” would be my first choice.
“Crows” is also placed at the start of the second half of the movie as a break in the grimness of the movie as the film turns positively apocalyptic with “Mount Fuji in Red”. The segment opens like many a Godzilla film with people running in panic from some unseen terror and seems like evidence that Ishiro Honda likely directed the segment. Our Kurosawa stand-in makes his way through the crowd and observes explosions behind Mount Fuji. He asks if it’s Mount Fuji erupting and is told that six nuclear power plants are exploding. Mount Fuji and the explosions are brought to vivid life and it seems like the greatest Godzilla movie ever.
Regardless of whether Ishiro Honda or Akira Kurosawa was most responsible for the segment, it clearly fits both directors’ concern about nuclear power. The two had been linked thematically ever since they made Godzilla and I Live in Fear in the same year. So, it’s only appropriate that one of the nightmare segments of the film revolves around nuclear fears.
The film suddenly cuts to a windy seaside where our main character encounters a man (Hisashi Igawa), a mother with two children (Toshie Negishi), and nobody else as the seaside is littered with luggage, bikes, the best tandem stroller I’ve ever seen, and assorted personal gear. Colored streams of smoke are blown by the wind which shakes the camera. The man explains that the different colored smokes represent different radioactive isotopes and the effects of each isotope. Further, the people of Japan have thrown themselves in the sea to escape the effects of those isotopes. The man finally reveals that he was a nuclear plant worker that thought they could control radiation when it was beyond man’s control all along. Between cuts, the man throws himself into the sea and our main character futilely battles the wind with a jacket to keep the radioactive smoke away from himself, the mother, and the children.
Kurosawa was didactic in I Live in Fear when it came to his nuclear fears and he’s a bit didactic here as well with the nuclear plant worker spelling out all of the dangers of radiation. Regardless, the opening shots of Mount Fuji and the closing shots of the man battling the wind and smoke are striking and effective. And, in light of the Fukushima disaster, it the segment becomes somewhat prescient.
The film then transitions from the apocalyptic to the post-apocalyptic with “The Weeping Demon” which, aside from some expository details, could almost be a direct sequel to “Mount Fuji in Red”. Our main character wanders through a desolate, fog shrouded landscape where he encounters a man, with a horn growing out of his head, crying. The weeping man (Chosuke Ikariya) doesn’t dispute it when he’s called a demon at first glance by the Kurosawa stand-in. However, the weeping demon takes it upon himself to explain the state of the post-apocalyptic world sitting down in front of some giant sized dandelions.
The dandelions themselves are a playful image in a very bleak segment and perhaps the only thing that really keeps the segment afloat. The weeping demon explains how he’s crying because of the pain of the horn, which is a mutation, and the pain of living in an irradiated environment. There are more “demons”, he explains, and they have turned cannibalistic, eating their own. The weeping demon realizes he’s coming soon in the hierarchy and perhaps welcomes death while fearing it at the same time.
Ultimately, the demon takes our Kurosawa stand-in to see where the demons live and it’s a scene out of a medieval painting of Hell. The demons wallow around in a great pit, all in evident pain. The demon then warns the Kurosawa stand-in to flee before it’s too late, either that he’ll be transformed or eaten, and the man flees in a longer than anticipated, slow motion shot as if this nightmare will never end.
“The Weeping Demon” is the second weakest segment of the film. It’s both static and didactic. The placement of the segment after the more dynamic “Mount Fuji in Red” does it no favors. Especially since it repeats many of the same points Kurosawa made in the earlier segment. There’s a nice performance by Chosuke Ikariya in the segment but Dreams could have easily cut the segment without anyone noticing.
The film then turns to its final segment, “Village of the Watermills” which is an idyllic segment contrasting with the apocalyptic images of the two previous segments. Akira Terao makes his way, crossing over a stream with several watermills quietly working away. On the other side, children set flowers on a stone.
The traveler finishes crossing the stream and talks to an old man (Chishu Ryu) about the nature of the village. The old man explains that “Watermill Village” is a simple form of life, away from the conveniences of the city, where night is dark as is its nature and man can see the stars. The village lives as part of nature, not as masters of nature. Further, the old man opines that the nature of their village, away from the stresses of the city and modern life, is conducive to man. The village lives simply, in harmony with nature, and the result is a long, happy life for everyone with thanks for everyone’s contribution at the end.
Kurosawa buttresses this opinion through his filmmaking. There is activity, and even work, but it’s presented as perfectly natural and peaceful. The soundtrack is quiet with the rhythmic turning of the watermills in harmony with the flowing stream being the main accompaniment to the old man’s story.
The old man explains that the gesture of the flowers on the stone are in memory of a sick traveler who died on that spot and was buried there, with the stone marking his tomb. Since then, it’s been a custom to place flowers on the stone. Then, the old man has to cut short his conversation as he has a funeral to attend. An old woman, the old man’s first love in fact, has died and the whole village has turned out for her funeral. We then see the old man’s words ring true as Kurosawa stages the funeral procession as a celebration of a life. Music is played, a song is sung, people dance in the procession as if it is a parade, and it’s a joyous scene. At the end, the traveler picks and places his own flower on the rock like the children before him.
It’s the second film in a row that Kurosawa ends with a funeral procession, but it couldn’t be further from Ran’s bleak ending. Given his age and declining health, it’s no surprise that Kurosawa was contemplating his own mortality. This time he ends on a note of acceptance and celebration. Kurosawa bookends the film with a wedding that plays like a funeral, and a funeral that plays like a wedding, and it works marvelously. It’s easy to speculate that Kurosawa was staging his own funeral in the film where he was a de facto character. Kurosawa is rightly known for his violence, but the ending reveals his opposite side and ends the film on a strong, resonant note.
Dreams was greeted upon its release as a lesser, but still worthy, work by Kurosawa. As a visual tour-de-force it has few rivals, but it’s also somewhat static at times and slightly didactic. Nevertheless, it’s an extremely accessible picture despite its extremely personal nature. It may not be a great film, but it is a successful experiment at a time when many would have been content to retire. It may be “minor” Kurosawa, but many successful filmmakers never make a film up to Kurosawa’s minor standards.
It’s also clear that Kurosawa had more to say about his nuclear fears, perhaps stirred up by “Mount Fuji in Red” and “The Weeping Demon”. His next film promised to be more traditional and intimate, exploring those fears from the point of view of someone who had lived a long life. It also would continue a late dabbling with American financing by bringing in Richard Gere and would be the last Kurosawa film that would get a North American theatrical release.
Next Time: RHAPSODY IN AUGUST (1991)