When Ludwig Van Beethoven premiered his immortal Ninth Symphony in 1824, many critics were baffled by the choral number “Ode To Joy”, the score’s final movement. The now completely deaf Beethoven supposedly explained that it was for a future generation. Sure enough, the Ninth Symphony and particularly “Ode To Joy” are now almost universally acknowledged to be one of the greatest pieces of music ever written and has been performed at the opening of the United Nations, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and of course was the musical obsession of Alex, the anti-hero of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
Personally, I feel that this is true of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (aka: Yume, aka Dreams), one of the final films by the great Japanese master Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa made his directorial debut in 1943 at the hight of World War II with Shanshiro Sugata. After the war he emerged as a giant thanks to such masterpieces as Drunken Angel, Rashomon, Ikiru, Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, The Lower Depths, Yojimbo, High and Low and others. His career hit a snag after his films Red Beard (1965) and Dodesukaden failed at the box office and after he was fired from directing the Japanese sequences in Daryl F. Zanuck’s World War II epic Tora! Tora! Tora! Kurosawa then attempted suicide, but thankfully survived. He then went to Russia to film Dersu Uzala (1975), a Japanese/Soviet co-production and his only film made outside of Japan. Though not a commercial success it did win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film of the year. Kurosawa then enjoyed great international success with his twin samurai epics, Kagamusha and Ran, the later based on King Lear. Both were warmly received by critics and were major international hits.
As he reached his eighties, Kurosawa entered a late period, producing three films that seemed to reflect on his life and his impending mortality. Dreams was the first, followed by Rhapsody in August and Madadayo.
Dreams is the first film in which Kurosawa was the sole screenwriter and while he had experimented most triumphantly with narrative structure in Rashomon, telling one story from different perspectives, Dreams was different in that it didn’t tell a single story but rather several. All of them were based on dreams that Kurosawa claimed to have had himself.
The movie opens with a young boy (Mitsunori Saki) who witnesses a sun shower. This young dreamer is supposedly a surrogate for Kurosawa himself. The first thing we see is the gate to a house. Movie buffs no doubt will recall Rashomon, which also begins with a gate in the rain. Those who can read Japanese characters will be able to tell that the word above the gate is, in fact, “Kurosawa”.
The young boy is warned not to go into the forest because this is when the “foxes” have their wedding ceremony and they do not like people seeing them. The boy disobeys his mother and witnesses the ritual. These are not actual foxes, as in the animals, but rather spirits who dress in ritualistic costumes and masks and move with a precise, choreographed grace. When the boy returns he finds out that an angry fox was at the house, leaving a knife so that the boy can kill himself. His mother tells the boy to go back to the woods and beg for forgiveness, even though foxes are not known for their compassion. Thankfully, the scene ends on a stunningly beautiful and hopeful image of the boy walking through a lilac filled forest and underneath a rainbow, clearly evoking The Wizard of Oz.
From there we see a whole series of fantastic segments that don’t seem to have a unifying thread. They are all visually stunning, unusual, absurd, forbidding and at times terrifying, just like real dreams. In “The Peach Orchard” the young boy sees a procession of kabuki theater “dolls” representing the spirits of the peach trees that were chopped down by the boy’s family. In “The Blizzard” the young dreamer, now an adult and played by Akira Terao, and his expedition crew are trapped on a glacier. The protagonist nearly freezes to death and is visited by a strange apparition, one that recalls the medium from Rashomon. In “The Tunnel” our hero returns from World War II and is visited by the ghosts of his fellow soldiers, all of whom died in battle. “Crows” features our protagonist in an art gallery, admiring the works of Vincent Van Gogh. Suddenly he finds himself in a landscape that’s right out of Van Gogh’s paintings and meets the obsessive artist himself, played by fellow film-maker Martin Scorsese in a very effective and intense performance.
The mood turns considerably darker in “Mt. Fuji in Red”, in which a nuclear reactor explodes, possibly bringing about nuclear armageddon. In “The Weeping Demon” the protagonist walks through a postapocalyptic dreamscape and comes across a mutated human. The film ends on a very hopeful note with “Village of the Watermills”. Our hero has stumbled upon an idyllic country village where he meets an old gentleman (Chishū Ryū) who offers some sage advice about life. “It’s good to be alive” he says. “It’s very exciting”. He then prepares for a funeral procession. Not a dreary procession but a thrilling, music filled celebration of life.
When released, many critics dismissed it as a minor work from the master, complaining that the film was uneven, simplistic and that it didn’t hold a candle to his past masterworks. For me personally it was my first introduction to the master. My father, who had greatly enjoyed Ran, rented the movie, telling me that many of my idols (not just Scorsese but also George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, all of whom had a hand in getting Dreams made) considered Kurosawa to be one of the greatest filmmakers in the world. Watching this entrancing film unfold I too became a disciple. I later familiarized myself with his earlier works and fell in love with them too. Ikiru is easily one of the most heartbreaking films ever made. Throne of Blood is one of the best adaptations of a Shakespeare play ever, even if none of the Bards actual words are used. And of course Seven Samurai is just about the most perfect film ever made, with everything you could possibly want in a movie, be it romance, action, comedy, you name it.
His past work did not diminish my love for Dreams and I later found that I was not alone. When I went to film school I found that many of my peers, not all of them fellow film students, just movie lovers in general, also loved Dreams and frequently cited it as a movie that changed their lives. Visually, it’s one of the most awe-inspiring movies ever created. Before becoming a filmmaker Kurosawa studied painting, a fact that is clear in every frame of Dreams. Despite this artistic background Kurosawa, much like Bergman, Fellini, Welles and other directors of his generation, were reluctant to shoot films in color, believing that black and white was the true medium of the cinema. Still, when he finally did go color in Dodesukaden, the results were stunning, and so they are in Dreams.
More than anything else, Dreams is a movie that, for my money at least, captures the feeling of nocturnal fantasy better than any film ever made. There have been many dream sequences in movies, but usually they’re used as a plot device. Few are really dreamlike. Everyone has a different experience when they dream, of course. I have heard that most people don’t dream in color, or at least color is not a significant part of their dreams. That’s not true of me at all. My dreams are often filled with vibrant, psychedelic color and Dreams is probably the only cinematic work that can match them. Many is the time that I’ve woken up wishing that I could record the dream or nightmare (I actually enjoy having them) I experienced during my last R.E.M. cycle, only to have the experience fade from my memory as I awake. The shards of color and sound that stick in my head are sadly very limited. I would love to some day put these images up on the screen. Kurosawa already did, knowing full well that a future generation would appreciate it.