Stars: Akira Terao, Martin Scorsese, Mieko Harada, Mitsuko Baisho | Written by Akira Kurosawa | Directed by Akira Kurosawa, Ishiro Honda
Made in 1990, in the twilight of his career, this is the kind of out-there movie that only an auteur of Akira Kurosawa’s status could have brought (or had financed) to fruition. He had help from some American cineaste buddies like Steven Spielberg (producing) and Martin Scorsese (lending his acting skills and a ginger wig); but the result is something steeped almost entirely in Japanese culture, its history and traditions.
Dreams is structured as a series of brief chapters, each based on one of Kurosawa’s own dreams. It’s an approach that at once seems chaotic: half-formed vignettes with no connective tissue. But at the end of its two-hour runtime, the linking themes coalesce in the mind. In short, this is a heartfelt cry about the threat of industrialisation upon rural Japanese life. Which is a classic concern in Japanese cinema – one that Hayao Miyazaki, a legend of comparable status, was beginning to explore around the same time. Yet by definition, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams is a deeply personal and unique vision.
Kurosawa, working in a pre-digital age in a series of glorious locations and on elaborately designed sound stages, conjures images of staggeringly gorgeous heightened realism. When a child crosses a glowing green field leading to a foreboding valley, crowned with a glorious rainbow, it’s like something out of Oz. Some of the images of nature match Ron “Baraka” Fricke in their sense of observing – in respectful awe – nature’s loveliness. But equally, Kurosawa concedes, nature can punish: a slo-mo story about struggling mountain climbers portrays nature as devastatingly indifferent.
As he showed so dazzlingly with Ran, Kurosawa is a monochrome-age director eager to use colour and light boldly and expressionistically. One of the stories involves a man in an art gallery (Akira Terao, playing multiple roles across the stories) passing through a gateway into a world apparently painted by Van Gogh (Scorsese and that wig), complete with unreal yellows and purple shadows. In another, an army officer is confronted by his dead platoon; but rather than zombie green, their skin is bright blue.
Each chapter carries its own, pretty clear message. The story of the soldiers concerns the guilt of the officer for letting his men die – and for surviving. “The Peach Orchard” sees a child confronted by the spirits of the trees, distraught over their felling at the hands of humans. “Mount Fuji in Red” envisages the catastrophe of Fuji exploding, triggering nuclear meltdown, and a holocaust described in grim scientific detail. Almost always there is a sense of tremendous human-made loss, and a plea for forgiveness.
Obviously, we need only look to Kurosawa’s filmography to see that rural Japan, not to mention the endless search for balance, are matters close to his heart. He specialises in humans-in-nature, whether it’s the loving crane shots in Rashomon’s forest or the tiny figures dwarfed by the landscape in The Hidden Fortress. But not since the Capra-esque Ikiru have I seen a Kurosawa so open-hearted, melancholy, yet ultimately hopeful.
As usual, Kurosawa’s male focus remains firm, meaning women get little agency here. And at times I feel the auteur’s eco diatribe may be too sledgehammer-like for the hardcore arthouse crowd, while the film may be too slow and narratively aimless to fully satisfy fans of Kurosawa’s story- and character-led work. (You won’t find any samurai here.) But surrender to its stately pace, and marvel at Kurosawa’s eye – marvel that a film like this got made at all – and it’s impossible not to feel moved by the time its final gesture arrives: a quiet, dignified farewell from one of cinema’s undisputed masters, giving us his last great movie.
The ample extras include a commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince; a 150-minute making of documentary; a 52-minute doc by Kurosawa’s translator, Catherine Cadon, about the master’s influence; interviews with Teruyo Nagami (Kurosawa’s long-time script supervisor) and Takashi Koizumi (assistant director on Dreams); and the original trailer.
Dreams is out on Blu-ray now from Criterion.