In my last article on one of this director’s films, I don’t think I elaborated on Akira Kurosawa’s filmmaking style. Let me correct that omission here: he’s slow. Pretty damn deliberate in his pacing. It seems like every movie he makes feels about 3 hours long. Even his Macbeth adaptation Throne of Blood, which clocks in at under 90 minutes real-time. But he also makes several movies which actually ARE three or more hours long, so Kurosawa-time isn’t always a bad thing.
Now, Dreams was made during Kurosawa’s late career, after his attempted suicide and around the time when he was being propped up by his successful New Hollywood admirers, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. Coppola helped produce Dreams and Lucas’ ILM special effects company helped glitz it up a bit. Was it worth all the effort?
Ehhhh, sort of. Dreams is a collection of short films/vignettes that all seem to revolve around people encountering the fantastic. It also feels about a million years long. Some portions of the film feel like they are practically FROZEN IN TIME, that’s how glacially they’re paced.
And that’s sort of a pun because easily the most interminable segment involves a mountaineering team encountering a malevolent snow spirit during a blizzard. I suppose it’s to Kurosawa’s credit, but he really makes you feel like you’re trudging slowly up a mountain with no end in sight when you watch this. For several minutes NOTHING happens outside of grueling close-ups of the expedition putting one foot in front of another while getting snow blasted into their faces. And there’s not really even any pay off when the leader encounters the spirit. It’s all just a really pointless exercise in pointless exercises? Another sequence about a man that enters a tunnel and meets the ghosts of his dead war comrades is interminable because of the bevy of useless pauses in the dialogue. A whole MINUTE will roll by with no one saying anything, and for no discernible reason. It manages to edge out the blizzard story for relevance by actually seeming to have something to say (ironically, as it were).
Other stories are really preachy, such as one where nuclear reactors around Mt. Fuji explode, causing a nationwide catastrophe that leaves everyone dead/turned into demons. ENVIRONMENTALISM, MUCH? He also knocks on modern culture in the bit at the end of the film about a man that visits an old man who lives in a simple country village who constantly talks about how awesome it is living in a simple country village and how modern things suck and the environment rocks. Jesus Christ, Kurosawa, is that all old Japanese directors can seem to talk about? Between you and Miyazaki and Kawamori (ARJUNAAAAA), it’s like all you’re trying to say is, “I’M OLD AND JAPANESE AND HAVE OPINIONS.” Really OBNOXIOUS opinions. Yeah, Kurosawa’s a master filmmaker and all that, but give me something I haven’t heard before a million times, dammit.
That’s all the bad, though, and with an omnibus like this, you take the bad with the good. And there is good. The best segment is easily the one titled “Crows.” It involves an art enthusiast jumping into a Van Gogh painting and traveling around the artist’s work, ultimately meeting the tortured painter himself. It’s a rather poignant piece about creativity and obsession, with a surprising cameo by another New Hollywood Kurosawa fanboy, Martin Scorsese, as the intense Van Gogh. You can actually catch the whole thing on Youtube here. There’s also the beginning segment about a boy who witnesses a bewitching marriage procession of foxes and the disturbingly dire consequences it has.
So am I recommending this or not? Hrmm… I’d recommend this if you’re patient and already have a few Kurosawa movies under your belt. This would NOT be a good gateway movie to Asian cinema, even though it contains all the slow pacing, beautiful photography and ambiguous symbolism that I love about it. It DOES have some great special effects, though, especially for recreating Van Gogh’s paintings as sets and actually getting someone to walk around in them. If you want better Kurosawa, go see Ikiru. If you want a gander at what was inside Kurosawa’s head in his final days… take a look into his Dreams.