Akira Kurosawa: Dreams (1990) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: Dreams (1990)

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AndrewCommentaryBannerThis week we're looking at a film very unique for Akira KurosawaDreams is a compilation of short films that seem unconnected, but really just follow the path of common hopes and fears as he travels to each fantasy.  Our usual back and forth isn't going to work as well here so I will give a quick analysis of each short first and Kyle will follow.

Kyle Commentary BannerIt has been 2 days since I watched Dreams, and I literally cannot think of more than 5 stories. I don't know if it's that the tone is so effective in branching between a few segments that I'm combining them in my mind, or if there is that much unevenness at play here. We'll see once I start responding to your thoughts below.

1Sunshine Through The Rain

A child defies his mother and sees a secret gathering of foxes he shouldn't have, and afterward is told he is expected to commit suicide.

This film is where the idea of each dream representing a common growth of hopes and fears as we age is founded.  The child's encounter with the foxes, born entirely from the all too common impulse to defy our parents when we're young, is represented more as a child experiences danger.  It's a vague notion to one so young and one that still easily ends in hope.  Two things I absolutely love about the start: the methodical dance of the foxes, and the stunning rainbow that ends the film.
Andrew: Like

The bizarre procession of foxes and/or crazed animal-mask people from the original Wicker Man is both creepy and somehow very charming. This whole segment reminds me of the best fairy tales I remember hearing when I was a kid, which while whimsical and often moralistic, always seemed to have something very wrong going on underneath the surface. I also think it's fitting that somehow, in true Kurosawa form, he pulls off a surreal, hopeful ending immediately following a scene where a mother effectively says “you went out to play without my permission — here's a knife, go kill yourself” to what appears to be an 8 year old.
Kyle: Like

2The Peach Orchard

A pre-adolescent confronts his sister and her friends while they disbelieve his story of a woman who is spying on him.  She leads the boy to a gathering of spirits that represent a grove of blossoms chopped down by his family and he urges them to grow back only to wake up and find that the grove has not returned save for one plant.

The centerpiece, a beautifuly hypnotic song and dance by the blossom spirits, is a bit too reminiscent of the fox gathering in the first film but is a bit more complex in execution.  That fits a growing child, as does his paranoia about girls and partial acceptance of reality beyond his dreams when he finds the grove destroyed at the end.  Overall it's every bit as effective as the first short.
Andrew: Like

This second one may be my favorite, if only due to the excellent centerpiece and the bizarre logic of the human-sized “dolls” that lecture the boy on his family chopping down the grove. I also thought the shot of the boy walking up to the gathering of spirits only for them to suddenly turn into dead, gnarled tree trunks was incredible, and worked to counterpoint the shot of the boy walking toward the rainbow at the end of the first short.
Kyle: Like

3The Blizzard

Fresh from adolescence, a man leads a team of mountain climbers back to their camp in a devastating snowstorm.  They fall, one by one, into the snow and the man almost succumbs to a spirit asking he yield to the warmth.  He resists and leads them all back to the camp.

This is one of the most unendurable tests that Kurosawa has ever but his audience through.  Kurosawa establishes the struggle of the team in a endless and boring shot of the same climbers struggling through what seems to be the same snow.  He pushes his love of using weather as an emotional force too far here through the repetition of their struggle.  I do like the overall theme of reality eeking further into Kurosawa's dreams, but this one was painful to sit through.
Andrew: Dislike

I had a little trouble at first, but the repetitive, methodical nature of the shots had an entrancing effect after a little bit, and while I was strangely conscious of how contrived it was in the back of my mind, the whole thing held on straight through. We've mentioned this before, but this was the strongest signal yet to me that Kurosawa missed a great opportunity in his career by never making an experimental silent film.
Kyle: Like

4The Tunnel

A lonely traveler is accosted by a vicious dog in a dark tunnel before he is visited by some old friends.

This one is spotty but has possibly the most gut wrenching shot of the collection.  The sound design, normally great in a Kurosawa nightmare, is at odds with the dog who is alternately vicious in close up and a bit too friendly while moving in the long shots.  It's a confusing tone to establish but as soon as the dead soldier arrives demanding his orders the dream gains great power.  The great scene I mentioned is when all the soldiers who died under his command almost beg for orders before disappearing back into the dark tunnel.  If it weren't for the reappearance of hell dog this would have ended perfectly.
Andrew: Like

Dreams is an appropriate title for this short.
Kyle: Indifferent


An artist goes off in search for Vincent Van Gough, played here by Martin Scorsese.  When the artist asks Van Gough how he paints so well Van Gough accosts the young man for wasting time with questions when there's so much to paint.  What follows is a literal trip into Van Gough's paintings until the artist arrives back in the real world.

This one has a contentious reputation in an already contentious film.  I love the audacity and bluntness of the artist literally traveling through Van Gough's gorgeous landscape and not stopping for a moment to appreciate or capture it.  It also helps that Kurosawa screens the artist into Van Gough's paintings in a way that captures the texture and expressive colors of each canvass.

Scorsese has had his own demons to exorcise and while his performance isn't great there's still a sense of appropriate exasperation when he talks about cutting himself to get his art perfect.
Andrew: Like

Scorsese either makes or ruins this one — it may not actually matter which. His forceful, often blunted delivery of his lines reminded me, for some reason, of the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Van Gogh is nothing if not inconvenienced. I especially love the shot of him shuffling quickly up a path through some tall grass with the other artist running behind him as a flurry of birds rises up around him.
Kyle: Like

6Mount Fuji in Red

All the nuclear reactors in Japan are melting down at once and the few survivors are not comforted by a man's description of the invisible horror that lurks with radiation.  At least, not until the radiation arrives in the form of colored powder as one man tries in vain to push it away with his shirt.

Unlike the Van Gough film, this one was a bit too on the nose in a way that did not work for me.  I like the slightly shoddy special effects of the reactors melting down as it's the strongest sign this is his first full nightmare.  After that the broad fear of death by radiation and its subsequent physical arrival is a bit too much for me to take.  I don't dislike it, it just doesn't work.
Andrew: Indifferent

This was one of the ones I didn't remember until you mentioned it. It would have worked substantially better if some of the dark absurdity of the situation was allowed to come to the forefront instead of being essentially a very real-world fear put into a slightly dream-like setting.
Kyle: Dislike

7The Weeping Demon

More nuclear disaster dreams as a man finds a mutated landscape of giant flowers and people burning to death from the inside around a red pool of water.

The exact same problems applies to this film as the last only intensified - no fresh insights into nuclear fear, even more standard imagery mutation imagery with the giant flowers, and then death.
Andrew: Dislike

The exaggeration to grotesque levels of the previous story's nuclear fear made a stronger impression in this one. While it's not profound, I did think that the apocalyptic hellscape featured here worked to convey more honestly the almost inconceivable emotional terror that the bomb must have wrought on Japanese culture for so many years.

Rather than trying to portray it in a real-world sense that many people—especially with the distance of time and culture—can probably never fully understand, here Kurosawa just gives us a small, contained, yet strikingly ultimate world of complete dread. The shot of the lonely “demon” coming to a moment of realization and turning to another man to ask “do you want to become a demon too?” stuck with me in a totally uncomfortable way.
Kyle: Like

8Village of the Watermills

The young man finally comes to a peaceful water mill where an old man talks about his life and what awaits him.  Then a procession of brightly dressed performers come and the old man leads them into the distance before disappearing into silence.

This one is just as directly on point as the last two, but it's hard not for me to get caught up in what is the old man's obvious death and celebration into whatever comes next.  The main reason is that the old man is both a studied and wonderful speaker when talking to the young and lights up brilliantly when it comes time for him to go.
Andrew: Like

This one has a charm to it and a distinct “Kurosawa feel” that works almost too well to round out the sequence for me. I don't mind it, but I won't remember it much either. It feels for me more like an expected bookend to a few more extreme or adventurous segments, or maybe a well-rendered final scene to a feature film that never got made—I'd have rather seen that film than the segment here.
Kyle: Indifferent

AndrewCommentaryBannerIt's uneven, but there's enough strong imagery to make up for the bad parts.  I really enjoy how the overarching theme is the slow evolution of a boy's dreams throughout his life.  It begins on unseen fears and naivete, shuttles through despair and inspiration, and finally the ultimate fantasy as he is ushered out of this life.  I felt more during the high points of Dreams than in Ran or Kagemusha, but the lows make it too inconsistent a product to recommend above either of them.

Kyle Commentary BannerI love how the surreal quality of the whole endeavor allows for more experimentation by consequently allowing for more fluctuation than a straightforward narrative film. One of the interesting things about books of poems for me is that while the best ones work as many parts converging into a distinct cumulative unit (for shit's sake, read The Man Suit), I can still pull one off the shelf and read a few individual entries here and there. I rarely have as strong or lasting of a reaction to a book of poetry as I do to my favorite novels, but I sometimes feel more familiar with them because they are so easy to revisit. I would revisit most of the shorts here on any given day, and probably will.

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Posted by Andrew

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