Warner Brothers called this film Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams when they released it in 1990. The name is appropriate, and not only because Kurosawa wrote and directed the film. The eight vignettes that make up his only anthology feature are, allegedly, based on Kurosawa’s own dreams.
I was recovering from a herniated disc, and under doctor’s orders to avoid sitting, throughout Dreams’ short theatrical run in 1990. I therefore first saw it on Laserdisc, soon after its video release. I watched it for the second time, on a rented DVD, last night as part of my project to watch all of Kurosawa’s films in the order they were made. I’ve never seen it theatrically.
Anthology films—features that lack a narrative drive and tell multiple stories one after the other—usually suffer from inconsistencies. Some sections may be good, and some bad. In Dreams, however, the bad far outweigh the good. I mean that in two ways: It contains more bad sequences than good ones, and while the worst parts are truly wretched, the best are merely pretty good.
It starts with a pretty good one, “Sunshine Through the Rain,” about a boy who sneaks into the woods and watches a fox wedding—something forbidden to humans. He then must face the consequences. But the story cuts off way too soon, like a movie with the last two reels missing. The best sequence, “Mount Fuji in Red,” starts like a Godzilla movie, with terrified crowds fleeing special effects. A nuclear power plant has exploded, and all of Japan will soon die of radiation poisoning. A businessman, a mother clinging to her child, and the young-man Kurosawa alter ego who’s basically the film’s star discuss what to do as death approaches.
The remaining six stories range from the agonizingly boring to the annoyingly preachy to the unintentionally funny. Leading that last category is “Crows.” The sight and sound of Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh, complete with red wig and beard, but speaking English in his own New York accent, deserves the Mystery Science Theater treatment.
I said earlier that these films are “allegedly” based on Kurosawa’s dreams. Dreams can be a lot of things, but they’re seldom preachy. Most of the stories here are didactic little message pictures that tell you exactly what you should think and feel about the subject at hand. With one exception (the anti-war “The Tunnel”), they all examine humanity’s relationship with nature. That’s an important subject, but preaching doesn’t help.
This was the first film since The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail that Kurosawa wrote and directed all by himself. He was one of several screenwriters on each of the 23 films made in-between, which include all of his masterpieces. Maybe he needed other people’s contributions at that early stage to avoid his worst excesses.
One thing Dreams has going for it: Like the three films that preceded it, it’s visually beautiful. Takao Saitô’s and Shôji Ueda’s photography, much of it of an enhanced version of the natural world, is just stunning to look at. And it’s complimented by Industrial Light and Magic’s special effects, done at the height of that company’s pre-digital golden age.
But all that beauty is at the service of an uneven, preachy film.