Japanese director Akira Kurosawa has had a long and distinguished career, with many landmark films that have not only influenced film-makers all over the world, but are also required viewing for students of film. "Dreams" was released in 1990, his twenty-eighth film, the follow-up effort to the King Lear-inspired "Ran" of 1986. It is a collection of eight short vignettes, that progress from some undisclosed time period in medieval Japan to a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Though it is visually stunning, the overly-preachy heavy-handed moral exposition and increasingly contrived plotting relegates it to obscurity.
The sun is shining, but it's raining. Foxes hold their wedding processions in this weather. And they don't like anyone to see them. If you do, they'll be very angry.
"Sunshine in the Rain" finds a little boy wandering into the woods during a rainstorm and spying on a wedding procession of foxes. Combining beautiful cinematography and the unassuming traditions of traditional Japanese Kabuki theater, Kurosawa creates a surreal and spooky sequence.
But Doll Day is for the peach blossoms. It's to celebrate their arrival. We dolls personify the peach tree. We are the spirit of the trees, the life of the blossoms. How can you celebrate with these trees cut down?
"The Peach Orchard" once again combines impressive camerawork with elaborate traditional Japanese production design to create a surreal sequence where ceramic dolls bemoan the lost beauty of a cut-down peach orchard.
It's been like this for three days... the snowstorm will never be over.
"The Blizzard" is a drawn-out vignette of three men climbing up a mountainside in the middle of a snowstorm. With little dialogue and laggard plotting, Kurosawa allows the audience to feel the seemingly-futile struggle against the elements and exhaustion. They then find themselves literally battling against the comforts afforded by Death itself, making it perhaps the strongest sequence of the entire film.
I suffered so much in the camp, that I thought dying was easier. And now, as I look at you, I feel that same pain. I know that your suffering and torture were much greater. But honestly, I would have wanted to die with you. I feel your bitterness. They called you heroes, but you died like dogs.
"The Tunnel" takes place in a post-World War II Japan, with a soldier traveling on a barren road. Upon emerging from a darkened tunnel, he is confronted by the spirits of his long-dead battalion, who refuse to believe that they have died in battle.
At this point, half-way through the film, if you wish to respect Kurosawa as a director, I suggest that you stop your VCR, because "Dreams" becomes increasingly wretched, in a series of vignettes taking place in the present, linked by a central character. "Crows" seems more like a PBS special with a man meeting artist Vincent Van Gogh (played by director Martin Scorcese) by 'entering' his paintings. Though the cinematography effectively captures the vibrant palate employed by Van Gogh in his paintings, the juxtaposition of Van Gogh's creative process with a speeding locomotive, and the final chroma-key sequences of Van Gogh's paintings reduce it to a mere sophomore effort that is uncharacteristic of Kurosawa.
Has Fuji erupted? How terrible!
It's worse than that! Haven't you heard? The nuclear power plant has exploded!
"Mt. Fuji in Red" has the man emerging from the painting to find a panicked crowd attempting to escape the sudden eruption of Mt. Fuji. With dialogue and special effects reminiscent of any "Godzilla" movie, this is a sequence that will make you slap your hand on your forehead and exclaim "Doh!".
It gets worse in "The Weeping Demon", where the man is now wandering the irradiated wasteland of Japan and stumbles upon a tribe of cannibalistic mutants (I'm serious!). With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, this sequence continues to beat the dangers of man's continued industrialization into the audience's heads until they pass out from sheer boredom.
The final sequence is meant as a beacon of hope, with the man wandering into the "Village of Watermills", where mankind has returned to a simpler age that is in harmony with nature. Unfortunately, despite the upbeat atmosphere of this final vignette, it is marred by the same preachy dialogue being uttered in many different ways for fifteen minutes.
In summary, the first half of "Dreams" is the only part worth watching. From "Crows" to "Village of Watermills", the moral pontificating becomes increasingly unbearable and the plotting becomes increasingly cheesy. A disappointing effort from Japan's leading director.