Dreams May 19, 2018
1 Hr., 59 Mins.
reams (1990), somnolent and introspective, is a peculiarity in the filmography of its writer and director, Akira Kurosawa. In a career primarily characterized by terse crime dramas and sagatic samurai films, it is an outlier — an offhandedly beautiful exercise where the stakes are low and the atmosphere’s colorful and sopophorous.
Released five years after his late-period magnum opus, Ran (1985), Dreams’ conceit is comparatively simple: Comprising eight vignettes, it is a cinematization of dreams Kurosawa claims to have
repeatedly had during his lifetime, beginning with visions of his childhood and ending with divine glimpses into his adult subconsciousness.
Yet while it’s a feast for the eyes and a delicacy for the senses, Dreams is definitive style-over-substance filmmaking. Though the brief films aim to say profound things about spirituality, death, art, and other capital-letter thematics, they’re narratively lacking, not much more than lavishly designed scenes featuring one-note characters.
It could be argued that this was intentional and, therefore, excusable: our dreams are generally free of easily decipherable reason, and are customarily more defined by how they look and feel than how they narratively play out. But if Kurosawa’s need to dramatize the goings-on of his most memorable slumbers was so insatiable, embellishing each storyline with more emotional oomph might’ve made for a more impactful, cohesive film. Dreams is just artistically inspired and occasionally moving. And I suspect it could have been more.
The shorts are sonically distinct. (Though, when linked together, are unevenly successful.) Kurosawa sumptuously explores the anxieties of his childhood with the first two short movies in the set, “Sunshine Through the Rain” and “The Peach Orchard,” which reflect his tumultuous younger years with fantastical beauty. “The Blizzard,” by contrast, is a tedious allegory for his grueling teenage period; “The Tunnel” is a stagy albeit chilling elegy. “Crows,” which unforgettably plays tribute to the Dutch, post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh (here played by the director Martin Scorsese), seems a representation of Kurosawa’s passion for art. “Mount Fuji and Red” and its follow-up, “The Weeping Demon,” are ultimately plodding meditations on death; “Village of the Watermills” is a varicolored representation of the idea of “looking forward.”
In spite of its unevenness, Dreams is always entertaining. Yet its periodic bursts of brilliance, courtesy of “Sunshine Through the Rain,” “Crows,” and “Village of the Watermills," nonetheless do increase how much we desire further unity rather than scattershot surges of splendor. Kurosawa would make just two more features, both of which were similarly laid back in comparison to his high-minded earlier works. Dreams is by no means inadequate — it just sleepwalks when we sense it could be more mellifluous, lucid. C+