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Dreams (4K Blu-ray Review)

4 min read

Many will find it hard to believe that struggled to find funding in his native country following Yojimbo, Sanjuro and High and Low. The once-prolific director's output slowed, and from 1965-90 he only directed one film every five years. Towards the end of this ‘quieter' period, Kurosawa's international renown enjoyed a resurgence, and Dreams, his least mainstream film in decades, got made with the help of his American disciples George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, with financing from Warner Bros. 

Kurosawa's third-to-last film, Dreams consists of eight vignettes, none of which are connected by a narrative through-line; the uniting factor is that these are all inspired by dreams Kurosawa had. In one, a young boy is met with the spirits of a peach orchard that once flowered on his parent's property, and in another a band of mountaineers trek through a violent blizzard, minutes away from certain death. Some are more fantastical than others, but Kurosawa generally opts for a Rushdie-esque magical realism to keep things relatively grounded.

The most recurring theme in these dreams is death. Kurosawa was fascinated by mortality, exploring old age in Ikiru and addressing effects of bereavement and war in Rhapsody in August. The latter uses the bombing of Nagasaki as a narrative springboard, and similarly Dreams's ‘Mount Fuji in Red' is built around Japan's geographical precariousness as a country with lots of nuclear power stations and underlying fault lines. In the segment, we see coloured fumes of dyed radiation waft through the air and engulf the surroundings, and while one miserly man who has made peace with death at the hands of human recklessness (ie. nuclear devastation) attempts to convert a younger couple to his worldview, Kurosawa sides with the latter. He wants better, and he knows that we can do better.

A more cosmopolitan vignette, ‘Crows' sees a young artist in a gallery spellbound by Van Gogh's Bridge at Arles – in a scene similar to the opening of Argento's The Stendhal Syndrome, he finds himself inside the painting, where he asks for a lady for directions to find Vincent Van Gogh (Martin Scorsese). She obliges, with the warning “They just released him from an asylum.” Undeterred, and perhaps even invigorated, the unnamed student sets off and soon finds his idol. The pair have a conversation about the importance of art in our lives, and the painter points his admirer to the sun as his main source of wisdom. The student squints and looks off into the distance to take in what his hero has said, and is subsequently transported into various landscapes painted by his hero, while Chopin's ‘Raindrop' prelude plays.

Kurosawa and Scorsese's mutual friend George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic were responsible for this sequence, which has an unnerving effect as the unpeopled background's stasis contrasts with the artist's bemusement and panic. Like all of the dreams, it highlights nature's indifference to humanity, which can be amplified in a dream where our subconscious sets the rules and we can be paralysed.

Kurosawa never shied away from didacticism, and Dreams carries messages about the evils of war, the greed of humanity, the irreparability of environmental damage and the importance of humbling ourselves with art. Like a fine musical album, Kurosawa orders his episodes perfectly, and chooses the best possible note to end the film with, in ‘Village of the Windmills''s encounter between a young traveller who asks a local 103-year-old man about his modest village's aversion to modern technology and is curious about a flower-laden memorial.

Throughout his career, Kurosawa was frequently criticised for not making his films distinctly ‘Japanese' enough and was often accused of being too ‘Western,' but this episode exemplifies the way a great storyteller will transcend borders and connect with anybody. Part of the genius of this section is the simplicity of the visuals – in one long shot, the bridge across a small brook spans the whole height of the frame, but rather unlike the famous Hollywood shot of the Yellow Brick Road and palace, everything beyond the bridge is cut off from the frame. What lies beyond is probably very modest, but it's still up to us to fill in the image beyond what we see. 

It feels weird to see Lucas, Spielberg and even Kurosawa's names on a film so formally abstract and with such limited apparent commercial appeal, but on further thought it all makes sense. Kurosawa's American admirers are all dreamers – E.T., Star Wars and One From the Heart are passion projects that tell fantastical yet human stories of friendship, conflict and troubled love and it's a true privilege to see them all join forces.

Dreams is a late masterpiece by one of the world's most important filmmakers, a film that dares to explore the power of the subconscious and to carry some important messages about how we live our lives. It's a formally innovative film that demonstrates how even in old age, Akira Kurosawa was unafraid to delve into questions of the spiritual, political and sociological and treat his audience with the respect they deserve. 

Dreams is released on Dual Format 4K UHD and Blu-Ray on 22nd April by the Criterion Collection.

4K UHD + BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES

  • 4K digital restoration, supervised by cinematographer Shoji Ueda, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
  • One 4K UHD disc of the film presented in HDR and one Blu-ray with the film and special features
  • Audio commentary featuring film scholar Stephen Prince
  • Feature-length documentary from 1990 shot on set and directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi
  • Interviews with production manager Teruyo Nogami and assistant director Takashi Koizumi
  • Documentary from 2011 by director Akira Kurosawa's longtime translator Catherine Cadou, featuring interviews with filmmakers Bernardo Bertolucci, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Hayao Miyazaki, Martin Scorsese, and others
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri and Kurosawa's script for a never-filmed ninth dream, introduced by Nogami
  • Cover painting by Akira Kurosawa