The end of Akira Kurosawa’s career followed the trajectory of an epic, half-century-long narrative, climaxing in the late-period majesty of 1980’s Kagemusha and 1985’s Ran, and closing with a quiet denouement in minor, more intimate works like 1991’s Rhapsody In August and 1993’s Madadayo. In the time between these four films, the aging Kurosawa got some attention from Hollywood, first in a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1989 Oscar ceremony, and later when several of his most prominent champions—Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese among them—helped get Warner Brothers to support 1990’s Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, a curious anthology project that’s unlike anything he’d ever attempted before. Though he was a great conjurer of images, Kurosawa was never given to abstraction, so his “dreams” are more like fantasies—some whimsical, some foreboding, and all serving as a repository for long-running themes and concerns. It’s simple, often beautiful, occasionally leaden, and unquestionably one-of-a-kind.
Covering eight “dreams” in two hours, the film is sequenced loosely but deliberately, beginning with colorful childhood fables and ending in the nightmares and wishes of a man in twilight. “Sunshine In The Rain” and “The Peach Orchard” are lovely storybook primers about a little boy learning not to trifle with nature, reinforced by wondrous images like a wedding processional of foxes in a “sun-shower” and animated life-size dolls standing up for felled peach trees. The film then makes an abrupt shift to the end of the continuum with “The Blizzard,” a grueling vision of men confronting the certainty of death, and “The Tunnel,” the first and most powerful of three “nightmares,” about the survival guilt of a Japanese army veteran haunted by his ghostly comrades-in-arms.
The second half fares less well, starting with “Crows,” which squanders the great premise of an art student entering a Vincent Van Gogh painting and taking pointers from the man himself, though Martin Scorsese’s jittery turn as Van Gogh is a hoot. Kurosawa’s worries about nuclear catastrophe seem prophetic in light of the recent damage done to the Fukushima nuclear power plant, but the one-two of “Mount Fuji In Red” and “The Weeping Demon” cover such a tragedy and its aftermath with too heavy a hand. He regains his bearings for the final segment, “Village Of The Watermills,” an idealized fantasy about a village that achieved happiness by rejecting the advances of the modern world.
Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams could never be confused for David Lynch’s Dreams: Kurosawa doesn’t have a feel for the odd logic and ever-shifting landscapes of dreams or nightmares, and his stories are all simple, distilled to their essence. Still, the concept allows him the freedom to create some magic with the camera—and teams of special-effects artists—and express himself in a new way. And for an 80-year-old filmmaker, that’s rare.
Key features: None.