Dreams (1990)



Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 Dreams is an escape into the director’s memories and dreams, a personal journey of a legendary director near the sunset of his brilliant career. The film is comprised of eight dream segments.

The first two episodes have a boy playing the main character, possibly representing a young Akira. Immediately the visuals and cinematography have their impact, the wide shots, lush landscapes and colors washing over our eyes like a fine painting. The end of the first episode (Sunshine through the Rain)  is a startling vision of a rainbow arching over a meadow with the boy framed in the middle of the shot, looking futile and small, overwhelmed by God’s land of perfection. I had difficulty understanding this dream and the second (The Peach Orchard) as it touches on ancient tradition I’m unfamiliar with but never loses its appeal with its childlike imagination.

The Blizzard is visually my favorite. Four mountaineers are struggling to reach their camp, fighting through a blizzard. The scene is shot in a dark, bluish color as the snow falls, enveloping the men, sometimes impossible to see them as they fight on, the feeling of certain death impossible to escape. All the men collapse, giving up. Then a demon women appears, with a haunting, eerie score emerging as the sounds of the blizzard fade away.  She floats above one of the fallen men, with her white dress flowing, her long black hair hiding her face, luring him to death, trying to take his soul but he resists. The blizzard then clears and he can see his camp only a few feet away, awaking the other three men.

The Tunnel also touches on the spiritual world. An army officer is walking down an  empty road near dark and reaches an enormous tunnel that is pitch black, unable to see anything inside. A vicious dog appears, foaming at the mouth but lets him pass. As he reaches the other side, he’s approached by a soldier, a bluish, ghostly hue covering his face. The officer recognizes him from his command during the war, explaining to the solider that he had died during battle. The ghost turns around, returning into the darkness. We then hear thundering footsteps from the tunnel and finally a platoon of dead soldiers emerge, asking for their orders. Stunned, the officer explains that they are also dead, due to his incompetence during the war, explaining what had happened. They turn away not saying a word. The blackness of the tunnel never loses its impact, visually disturbing, towering above the soldier like a black hole threatening to suck him in.

An actor portrays Akira as an art student observing Van Gogh’s paintings at an exhibit in Crows. He’s then transported into the painting itself, submerged into a world of brilliant colors and richness, the details amazingly real (thanks to George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic). He encounters Van Gogh in an expansive corn field, played by Martin Scorsese, discussing his passion for his art, rambling about the truth’s form. Akira travels through other Van Gogh masterpieces, the landscape real or giving the appearance of an oil painting, an astounding mind bending feast for the eyes, capturing Van Gogh’s fragile mind.

Mount Fuji in Red shows an erupting Mount Fuji but the cause are several nuclear power plant facilities melting down, creating hysteria and madness as people scramble for safety. Eventually there are only a few survivors each discussing their inevitable fate with the radioactive waves floating towards them, the bright red hue covering the sky and sea. The Weeping Demon follows and seems to play on this despair, as we find ourselves on a desolate, ruinous mountain side, gaseous fumes rising into the air. There are mutated humans in pain as mutated horns grow from their heads. Akira’s chased away by one of these demons, his shadow casting a memorable, threatening figure, the mountain side black with death and decay.

Village of the Watermills opens with a traveler entering a serene, lush village, quiet and green, ripe with nature’s life, a startling contrast from the previous two dreams. He sits with an old man who explains how they have passed on modern technology and the complications and urgencies it requires, for a natural, spiritual life embracing nature and the earth’s elements, as we see in the background  several wooden water windmills churning water from the river. While he talks, the traveler grows curious with their lifestyle, asking questions.  The old man also explains how they celebrate those that have passed away, the proper way to end a good life, instead of mourning their deaths. The traveler wanders around the village, the wooden planks over the waterways, dodging overhanging brush, leaning against the trees, enjoying the pleasure of slowing down in nature’s embrace. We can then hear the sounds of music and song, seeing an oncoming funeral procession being led by musicians and dancers, the traveler enjoying the festivities.

The film ends with a haunting but gentle melody showing a streaming river, green vibrant leaves floating by as the credits role, a beautiful ending to a film that takes us into the magnificient inner recesses of Kurosawa’s darkest and brightest visions.


3 Responses to “Dreams (1990)”

  1. 1 toshiro mifune

    Definitely an unconventional masterpiece. You really capture the visuals well. This and “Ran” show that Kurosawa was probably one of the best directors at using color.

    What I really love about this movie is how close it comes to capturing the how dreams actually feel. Not only in its visuals, but in the way that the utterly nonsensical and alien somehow seems familiar and evocative at the same time. One example that I always flash back to is at the end of the first(?) segment [SPOILERS], after the young protagonist sees the dance of the foxes and his mother hands him a knife with which to commit seppuku. [END SPOILERS] Shakes me up every time.

    The only director I’ve ever seen that really captures that sense of dream/nightmare that Kurosawa evokes here is David Lynch. But I think Kurosawa is better at it. When Lynch abandons any sense of narrative, he just goes adrift – see Inland Empire, which pretty much just bored me. In Dreams, Kurosawa eschews narrative for the most part, but it’s never anything less than compelling. He manages to maintain a sort of overarching feel or theme to it all…

  2. 2 Amar Rehal

    Great point regarding his lack of narrative in much of the film. He makes his statement trusting his vision and camera work, along with the movements of his characters. It almost sounds so simple but he shows so much, so many layers with each scene. Astounding work.

    Nice comparison with Lynch’s film work. I think Inland Empire might be signs of decline though. The dream scenes from his earlier work, Twin Peaks, stand up better to Kurosawa’s work, though, Lynch was very young then and Kurosawa an aging master.

  3. 3 toshiro mifune

    That’s a good point on Lynch’s decline and “Inland Empire.” Lynch’s “black lodge” dream sequences in “Twin Peaks” were masterful…

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