Akira Kurosawa's Dreams Review
Akira Kurosawa. What has not already been said about this director? I cannot personally think of an artist who has been more instrumental in many of the great cinematic moments in cinema’s brief history. He has influenced so many filmmakers, either directly or indirectly, that it would be impossible to list all of them. We wouldn't have Star Wars if it weren't for Kurosawa, Sergio Leone's Fist Full of Dollars Trilogy, Clint Eastwood, The Magnificent Seven and countless other westerns would not exist if Kurosawa had not been making films. Not only that but Kurosawa also paved the way for other Japanese films and filmmakers to be exhibited at festivals and art house cinemas all over the world. We all know his most famous works; period films like Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Rashomon and Yojimbo. But now Criterion are releasing one of Kurosawa's last films, Dreams
Akira Kurosawa's Dreams, like most dreams, isn't focused on narrative. The film follows a nameless protagonist, known as "I", but very easily interpreted as Kurosawa's surrogate, through 8 separate dreams. Each tells a different story, exploring a different aspect of life, from Japanese folklore to nuclear apocalypse.
Dreams is a true filmic experience, and what an experience it is. Because Kurosawa does not need to focus on cohesive story and character development, it is after all a series of his dreams, he is able to move beyond the literature and written aspects of film and explore the visual and aural parts of filmmaking. Kurosawa has been hailed with as a master of the movie; his use of movement, character and atmosphere have filled books, and here they are put to great use. Smoke, rain, peach blossoms enliven the image making the cinematography sing. His framing and use of colour here are fantastic, and I could have happily stared at each frame individually like a picture; especially in the more colourful and vibrant sections. There is also a great atmosphere, with the more apocalyptic and darker vignettes having a stillness and silence that is very suitably unnerving.
Dreams is still a Kurosawa film, so there are obviously more things going on than just an entertaining film and a pretty picture. It is a deeply personal story that explores life, growing up, nuclear power, environmental concerns and culture, a lot of things to think about but the film never feels busy. The merging of message with myth means that musings on man's effect on his environment do not come off as preachy. Similarly, the very personal messages and journeys within the film endear audiences to the filmmaker even more as it allows us a more direct look into the mind of such a great artist.
Though lesser-known Dreams is a must watch for anyone who has a passing interest in Japanese cinema. Its visuals alone are enough to recommend it, but the fact that it comes directly from the mind of the emperor of Japanese Cinema one wonders why you are not out already to pick it up.
Criterion, as always has put out a solid disc, the mechanics of which operate with a user-friendly system that should be familiar to anyone who has already purchased one of their efforts. Similarly, the subtitles are well laid out in this film making it very easy to understand and read. There were no visual or audio errors while I was watching that took me out of the movie, a solid effort from a reliable distributor.
What deserves more note is the visual and audio upgrade that Dreams has undergone in its move to Blu-Ray. Presented in 4K with a 2.0 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio Soundtrack, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams is as vivid and colourful as any dream should be. Kurosawa's compositions and use of colour are masterful anyway, but HD and Blu-Ray raise that artistry to levels higher than I thought possible; you can see each little peach blossom blowing in the wind, the rain falling on the square archway to Kurosawa's house. Just to demonstrate how engrossed I was with the painterly quality of the film, the credits roll over a still shot of reeds under river water, and that shot was so beautiful and clear, that I watched it through twice. I would set it as my desktop image if I could.
It is easy to miss out a discussion of sound when talking about film, cinema after all started out as a purely visual medium, but thankfully Kurosawa always paid great care to his sound design and his music, and it really shows in the Blu-Ray; the audio is crisp and clear. You can hear the little outlier sounds that make the film more present and real, the noise of the river, of the wind, or the silence of the snow.
It is a stunningly beautiful Blu-ray and the visuals alone makes it well worth picking it up.
Like any of Criterion’s releases Akira Kurosawa's Dreams is packed full of extras that provide an idea of how the film was made, who the director was and how important he is. All of which provide plenty of information for a film buff and keep a fan of Japanese cinema enthralled for hours.
Audio Commentary with Film Scholar Stephen Prince
The commentary that runs through the whole film provides an excellent look at the way in which Kurosawa made his films; a historical introduction to the director and analysis of the movie that gives cultural context for each of the vignettes. It enhances the viewing of the film through Stephen Prince’s knowledgeable commentary as it provides a working knowledge of the production of the man Akira Kurosawa and his dreams. A must watch for anyone with a passing interest in Kurosawa.
Making of "Dreams" (1990)
Filmed and edited by Director Nobuhiko Obayashi, most well known for making the surreal 70's horror House, this 150-minute on-set documentary provides a detailed glimpse into the way Kurosawa and his crew worked during the filming of Dreams. It is packed with interviews with the director who reveals his filmmaking philosophy, in typically succinct terms, as well as little segments devoted to each of the eight dreams and talented people on set like Martin Scorsese and Ishiro Honda. As expected of the man who made a film like House, it is constructed unlike any other making-of documentary and its creative editing is something that I personally will keep coming back to as it is both highly engrossing and educational. Obayashi perhaps gives us a look at the man Akira Kurosawa rather than the director everyone reveres.
Interviews with assistant director Takashi Koizumi and Production Manager Teruyo Nogami
While the previous extras mainly focused on Dreams, though Stephan Prince does reference other Kurosawa work’s in order to provide more context for Dreams, these two interviews with frequent collaborators of Kurosawa provide a unique perspective on the working relationship between the director who was known as Emperor and his crew. Both of these people worked with Kurosawa on some films; Teruyo Nogami, for instance, was script supervisor on Rashomon. As such, they are uniquely positioned to tell fascinating tales about their time with one of the most influential directors, all the while imparting universal truths about art, old age and mortality.
Kurosawa's Way (2011)
Finally, Kurosawa's Way is a fifty minute documentary produced by long-time translator Catherine Cadou and consists primarily of interviews with filmmakers from all over the world about their experiences with Kurosawa's films and their admiration for a master that inspired them. The subjects in the documentary include Martin Scorsese, Hayao Miyazaki, Bernardo Bertolucci, Clint Eastwood, John Woo, Alejandro G. Inarritu and many more. Each provides their own personal tales of making films and being inspired by Kurosawa's own work. It is fascinating to see that filmmakers who in turn are counted as highly influential and unique all have a common filmic ancestor. Though this movie mainly focuses on Kurosawa's golden period, Rashomon and Seven Samurai, it is still an important reminder of how far reaching Kurosawa's influence was.