Of course, having just described Akira Kurosawa as a great populist filmmaker I immediately turn my attention to one of his movies that very much does not fit that description – Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, one of the last features he made, and probably the most opaque and esoteric of them. But what can I say? It’s a curiosity that I haven’t seen before.
The movie is exactly what its description is: it consists of eight vignettes based on dreams that Kurosawa had at different points in his life, creating a sort of subliminal autobiography.
The initial two feature a child (Mitsunori Isaki), and have a fairy tale quality to them. In the first, the child illicitly spies on a fox wedding procession, and winds up in a dangerous situation; in the second, he encounters the spirits of some peach trees. For the third, an adult (Akira Terao) replaces the child as part of a team of mountain climbers lost in a blizzard; the fourth finds him confronting the ghosts (literally) of his fallen WWII comrades.
For the fifth, he goes inside a Vincent van Gogh painting to talk with the artist (played by, uh, Martin Scorsese). The sixth and seventh ones both deal in rather nightmarish nuclear apocalypse situations, with the latter mixing in supernatural elements as well. Finally, the last one has him visit a serene, luddite village where he meets an old man (Chisu Ryu(!)) who has made peace with life and with his own mortality.
As befits the nature of dreams, all these vignettes are pretty fragmentary and nonsensical, and I’m not sure if it’s worth parsing them any more than I have here. And, like a lot of real dreams, they’re pretty unsatisfying qua narrative; only the first, and third feel like they could stand on their own as experimental surrealist shorts. It feels almost like Kurosawa was attempting to make his own version of a Fellini film in crafting sequences made up entirely of imagery and memories that are of deep personal significance to him.
It’s staggeringly beautiful to look at; Kurosawa was an intensely visual, sensual artist, and his later colour movies in particular used an extremely lush, bright colour palette that fits this one’s oneiric nature quite well. If nothing else, it justifies itself in being a visual delight (even if some of the ILM provided special effects look a tad unconvincing now).
I can’t say I enjoyed every moment of it, or what my overall verdict on it is, but I’m haunted by its imagery, and the more I think about it, the more it sinks in. Watching it almost feels less the point and more the means of downloading it into your mind so that it can be assimilated into your own subconsciousness. But I know I’ll be returning to it sooner or later.