Akria Kurosawa’s Dreams is among the most impressive color films ever made. Whether photographing nature and colorfully costumed Japanese, or using Industrial Light and Magic’s (ILM) bag of tricks, the film is a visual feast, now on DVD for the first time.
Such Sights as Youthful Poets Dream
Dreams is made of 8 short tales, each one presumably dreamt by Kurosawa. They are arranged in a life-stage chronology, running from childhood to old age.
The first two episodes have an awestruck boy as the protagonist. The world reveals itself for the first time. Fairy tales come true and the universe explodes with color and magic. Children don’t just go for walks, they explore and have adventures. The sole contributions of adults are arbitrary laws spoken with god-like force. Joy, beauty, and magic define these first episodes.
The third and fourth stories deal with young adulthood. These episodes have the most interesting and approachable stories. In one, mountain climbers fight a blizzard, and in the other, a soldier confronts his dead comrades. These episodes feature protagonists at their physical peaks. They are driven by duty and work, and their lives offer little time for wonder or reflection.
The most memorable segment is the fifth, Kurosawa’s tribute to Van Gogh. Our protagonist is now a middle-aged man. Himself a painter, he stands in admiration of Van Gogh’s work at a museum. Suddenly, he finds himself inside the paintings of Van Gogh. The segment is a rebirth, an awakening into the world of art. It is about humility in the face of beauty. It is not only an homage, it is also about paying homage to those who’ve inspired you. It’s also the most visually amazing segment in a film full of amazing images. Kurosawa duplicates one of Van Gogh’s paintings (The Drawbridge at Arles) by carefully setting up the scene in front of his camera (he has some help from ILM, no doubt). ILM takes over completely when our protagonist walks through Van Gogh’s painted landscapes.
To Sleep Perchance to Dream
The two penultimate episodes are much darker, both visually and in tone. They tap into a deep angst that only a Japanese person can truly understand. In both, a dark nuclear cloud hangs over the dreamscape. In the first, the protagonist’s fear of a nuclear cloud is fed by the fact that there is no escape from Japan except into the sea. The second takes place in a post-nuclear world where the flowers are crippled and demons roam the dead and deformed landscape.
The final episode ends with the same protagonist from the previous three episodes meeting a 103-year-old man in The Village of the Watermills. The old man has more wisdom to impart than will be useful to our protagonist — he speaks against newfangled science and technology, even as he mends a giant water wheel — but the mere fact of their conversation is good for both of them. After mending the wheel, the old man joins a bright, celebratory funeral procession — maybe it’s even his own in a way. Maybe it’s Kurosawa’s.
The procession passes and the protagonist goes on his way, but not before taking part in a cherished tradition that the old man passed on to him. The tradition has become more important than the event it commemorates, which feels like a poetic way of acknowledging the power of art over reality, of story over history, and of film over filmmaking.
Picture and Sound
Every time I walk by a certain stone bridge in my neighborhood, I think of the scene in Dreams where the Van Gogh painting comes to life. In the film, the effect is surprising, delightful, and breathtaking.
There are other startlingly beautiful images in the film. A verdant, lush hillside explodes with peach blossoms. Vividly costumed and made-up dancers move like toys in the bright sun. A peaceful, shady village relaxes between silent water wheels.
Overall, the picture quality on this DVD is excellent. In particular, the bright, vivid color in the natural scenes of daylight is beautiful. These scenes of nature photographed are more impressive than the technically challenging scenes that ILM helped create: a live person walks through a Van Gogh painting, two men sit by giant mutated dandelions. This visual trickery still looks good on DVD, but it’s not as convincing as I remember, perhaps because of the gigantic leaps in technology since 1990.
Kurosawa used both Japanese-sounding and Western-sounding music, often back-to-back. The music track sounds fine, although the soundtrack is not discretely encoded. The dialogue sounds fine too, although not being a Japanese speaker, I am not the best judge.
DVD Extras, or Lack Thereof
The almost-complete lack of extra material is a big disappointment. The “Special Features” screen consists of entries: a selected list of awards Kurosawa received, and a partial list of the cast and crew. From this second screen is a link to a filmography of Kurosawa.
Dreams stars Martin Scorsese (as Van Gogh) and was made with the assistance of George Lucas’ ILM. Additionally, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg helped Kurosawa get funding from Warner Brothers. Surely WB Home Video could have found something interesting to say about the collaboration of this dream team. I would have loved to hear from Scorsese and the notoriously reclusive Lucas about their collaboration with Kurosawa.
I’d also like to have known why Kurosawa wanted to make Dreams in the first place. I seem to recall hearing, when it came out, that it was a labor of love, that it was a project Kurosawa had been wanting to make for a long time, but I could find no confirmation. I would like to know whether these 8 stories really do represent dreams from different times in Kurosawa’s life. The perfect place to store this information would be on an informational DVD.
The special effects in Dreams are deceptively easy-looking. The walking-through-the-painting scenes look like simple bluescreen effects, but the camera pans and tilts, and the actor climbs and drops as well as simply walking left to right. A description of the challenges, and whether they had been tried before, would have been interesting.
And that last serendipitous butterfly that flies across the frame in the last shot: was that real or an ILM touch?
This edition, however, has nothing to say about these potentially interesting back stories.
This DVD of Dreams leaves a lot to be desired by fans of the movie. A better disc would have given us more extra features. But at least we can finally see the film itself in its full, color-rich glory on a home theater system. For that we can be grateful.