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Revisit: Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams

Revisit: Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams

Film legend Akira Kurosawa ran into a problem when pitching a film stemming from his own dreams in the late ‘80s.

Dreams, those primal notions and stories that come unasked during the night, have long fascinated filmmakers and storytellers. My three-year-old son recently began remembering his dreams, claiming each night before bed that he doesn’t want to go to sleep because he is afraid of having a nightmare. He likes his “silly dreams,” but the recurring nightly visitation of a pipe that appears in the bedroom leading down into some murky depth has the little guy terrified of falling asleep.

There is a maxim which states there is nothing more boring than hearing about someone else’s dreams. More often than not, dream sequences in films are labored, surreal sections that do little but kill time and obfuscate plot points. Remember how awful the dream sequences were in “The Sopranos”?

Even a film legend like Akira Kurosawa ran into a problem when pitching a film stemming from his own dreams in the late ‘80s. Coming off what many considered his finest film in Ran (1985), Kurosawa was a critical darling. However, his movies never translated into big profits for his producers. When Kurosawa submitted the initial script for Dreams, his anthology film based loosely on dreams from throughout his life, Toho Studios refused to pay for it. Instead, fan Steven Spielberg stepped in and helped Kurosawa secure financing from Warner Bros., an unlikely partner, especially since Dreams is unlike any other movie in Kurosawa’s filmography.

Best known for his samurai films and human dramas, the abstract presentation of the eight sections of Dreams was a departure for Kurosawa. Yes, there are some dream-like moments throughout Ran, especially some of the battle scenes, but the plot hews close to its source material, Shakespeare’s King Lear. In Dreams, Kurosawa drew from a dream journal he kept most of his life to create visually stunning, somewhat confusing and sometimes slow mini-films linked together by a passive protagonist.

Dreams loosely follows the trajectory of life, beginning with its protagonist (known as “I”) as a young boy and ending with a funeral, though it must be noted that Kurosawa had initially planned a much more didactic final section. Heavily influenced by Noh theater, the first two films (“Sunshine in the Rain” and “The Peach Orchard”) concern the young I sneaking into the woods, despite his mother’s warning, to witness a fox wedding and, in the latter, his devastation over the removal of a peach tree orchard. In both, the young boy learns that mother nature is a force not to mess with as the foxes ask for his life in exchange for going against their wishes.
The tone dramatically shifts in the third segment, “The Blizzard,” as Kurosawa places us high in the mountains in the middle of a major snow storm. Mountaineering was one of the director’s passions, so it makes sense. This segment, along with the fourth called “The Tunnel,” are both creepy tales about the cost of survival and how survivor’s guilt is something that will forever dog someone.

Although the second half begins to drag as Kurosawa’s fears of capitalism and nuclear energy threaten to overtake the production, “Crows” is a visually pleasing homage to the work of Vincent Van Gogh. When he was young, Kurosawa wanted to be a painter and in the film, his protagonist steps into one of Van Gogh’s paintings and meets the artist himself, played with vim by Martin Scorsese in a clear homage to Kirk Douglas’ turn in Lust for Life.

Dreams is definitely a film by a director who is at the end of his career, sated by a series of past masterpieces. Kurosawa’s direction is steady, almost world-weary in some parts of the film, yet the film ends on an optimistic note in “The Village of the Water Mills.” Moving away from the exploding nuclear reactors and desolate wasteland of the sixth and seventh segments, I meets a 103-year-old man in a tranquil village, one where they’ve eschewed modern conveniences and returned to a simpler existence. It’s a lovely, idyllic way to end the film. One can only dream.

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