When Akira Kurosawa released his acclaimed epic Ran in 1985, many understandably took it to be the seventy-five-year-old director’s swan song. Even Kurosawa himself spoke of the film during its production as if it were his last. So it came as something of a surprise when he returned in 1990 with Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, an oddly quiet series of vignettes supposedly based on his own dreams over the years. It was like nothing the director had ever done before. For most of his career, Kurosawa’s cinema had been one of action, his characters men driven to extremes who find meaning and nobility in their efforts, even as the world collapses around them. Now, the director seemed to bid farewell to all that in a gentler film, purposefully devoid of dramatic conflict. Watching it today, however, for all its purported serenity, the film’s effect is deeply unnerving. Its prevailing mood feels more like one of helplessness—of humans at the mercy of a mercurial world and the consequences of their own carelessness. It is at once one of the calmest and one of the most terrifying works of Kurosawa’s career.
Opening with a wedding and ending with a funeral, Dreams follows the rough outline of a biography. The 1980s, and the period leading up to them, had been a time of introspection for the director. Kurosawa started off that decade by publishing a memoir, Something Like an Autobiography. And while Ran may have been a Japanese riff on Shakespeare’s King Lear, the filmmaker certainly also saw echoes of himself in its portrait of an aging leader wrestling with his legacy and his sanity. In many ways, Dreams is the culmination of this time of reflection. It would be the first produced screenplay the director had authored by himself (with some consulting by Takashi Koizumi, the film’s assistant director) since The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail in 1945. He composed the script in a brisk two months, and called the main character I, making the personal angle clear.
That Kurosawa was a living legend coming off of several triumphs—not just Ran but also 1975’s Oscar-winning Dersu Uzala and 1980’s Palme d’Or–winning Kagemusha—didn’t make it easier to find financiers. To many in Japan’s film industry, he was a bad bet whose projects rarely turned a major profit. Kurosawa was particularly stung by the fact that Toho, his regular studio for much of his career, rejected the script for Dreams. But he also felt he understood why Japanese companies refused to back the film—because the businessmen in charge of these corporations were concerned about its attack on the country’s nuclear power program.
As with his previous couple of projects, Kurosawa’s Western admirers came to the rescue. This time, it was Steven Spielberg who stepped up. The director of Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark had long been a great fan of Kurosawa’s and had even cast Toshiro Mifune in the ill-fated war comedy 1941; he was also a close collaborator with George Lucas, who had previously helped secure financing for Kagemusha. Spielberg had been sent a copy of Kurosawa’s screenplay, and he assisted in setting up a deal with Warner Bros. to release the new film. Lucas also pitched in again, arranging for his company, Industrial Light & Magic, to create the elaborate special effects at cost.
Though Dreams received some appreciative reviews, many critics knocked it for what they saw as overt didacticism and stasis. They found the main character (played as a child by Toshihiko Nakano and Mitsunori Isaki and as an adult by Akira Terao), to be frustratingly passive, and the director’s themes—his fears about humanity and nature—to be mired in simplistic moralizing. Such criticisms, however, fail to appreciate the layers of meaning in Dreams, not to mention its stylistic strangeness. The film’s surfaces may be gentle; the experience of watching it is anything but.
Dreams announces its autobiographical intentions from the very first scene, when we see the name Kurosawa written over the gate leading to the young I’s home. (Art director Yoshiro Muraki designed a replica of the filmmaker’s childhood residence for the movie, and actor Mitsuko Baisho was given specific guidance by Kurosawa on how to act like his mother.) This autobiographical quality is also poignantly reflected in the aforementioned passivity of the film’s lead. In his memoir, Kurosawa reveals that, as a young boy, he was so silent and inert, so uncomprehending of all that was occurring around him—a “foglike substance . . . clouded my brain,” he tells us—that his family feared he might be mentally disabled. He even relates a 1949 incident when, as a grown man, he had to walk out of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Forgotten Children “deeply moved and depressed,” because the subject of mentally handicapped kids hit too close to home.
The sources of I’s passivity may have cultural roots as well. The scholar Zvika Serper has discussed the influence on the role of I of Noh theater—a form whose impact can also be seen in Ran and Kagemusha. “In most of the plays, a waki . . . usually a traveler, visits a famous place where he encounters a local inhabitant, the shite . . . and asks to be told the story associated with the place,” Serper explains. “In Dreams, I’s character is revealed through the waki, who in each dream encounters a different shite performing his own story . . . [The waki’s] acting, therefore, is kept to a minimum.”
Dreams’ roots in Noh are also evinced in its pointed artificiality. It’s there in the first episode, when young I is warned by his mother not to wander into the forest after a sun-shower, as he may accidentally witness a wedding procession of foxes, angering the creatures. The boy defies his mother, but the “wedding” he sees is made up of humans with elaborate makeup and fake whiskers; they don’t look anything like foxes but are rather stylized depictions of foxes, as might be seen in traditional theater or folk celebrations. Even their choreographed procession, which involves them marching in unison and turning to look to the side at regular intervals, is merely a ritual pantomime of seeing. Similarly, in the equally theatrical and bizarre second dream, I witnesses a group of elaborately attired figures in a field who represent the trees of a cut-down peach orchard—hina dolls come to life. Such dolls are traditionally displayed, along with peach blossoms, during Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival), which celebrates the health and good fortune of Japanese girls. In his memoir, Kurosawa vividly describes playing with hina dolls with his beloved sister Momoyo, who died suddenly when he was in fourth grade—“as if touched by a swift, evil wind.” This episode, ending on a haunting freeze-frame of young I’s brooding face, weds Noh stylization, dream-logic symbolism, and hallucinatory paralysis to weave an unusually unsettling and poignant mood.
In the ensuing episodes, Kurosawa further plays with form to keep us off balance. “The Blizzard,” about a group of stranded climbers, could have easily been an intense, suspenseful sequence of the sort Kurosawa built his career on; he was an avid mountaineer in real life. Instead, he gives us a fake snowstorm and climbers moving in what is clearly slow motion—in a sequence that stretches for an almost absurdly long time. Meanwhile, he foregrounds the men’s breathing on the soundtrack in profoundly unrealistic fashion. But the stultifying quality of these images and sounds—their in-your-face tedium—creates its own sense of entrapment, so that our frustration mirrors the characters’. We feel an unease born of the scene’s very artificiality and relentlessness.
The individual segments in Dreams all exist between the naturalistic and the imagined, between immersion and alienation. That is, of course, the defining quality of a dream: something that feels real yet can’t be so, always “off” in some way. It’s telling that these vignettes often end in the midst of an action—also true to the logic of an actual dream, where one often wakes up when things get too intense or threatening, but also underscoring I’s innate helplessness, his impotence as an observer.
Inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Kurosawa had kept a journal of his dreams for much of his life. But in truth, the film’s sources are probably a mix of dreams, fantasies, folklore, and memories. Indeed, one of them may not come from Kurosawa at all: In “The Tunnel,” the fourth episode, I returns from the war and runs into the ghosts of his platoon, all of whom were killed in action. As Kurosawa’s biographer Stuart Galbraith IV notes, this seems more like something from the life of the director’s close friend Ishiro Honda, the famed director of Godzilla and other monster movies, who carries a “creative consultant” credit on Dreams—and one of whose unrealized projects was a film about the ghost of a soldier returning from war. Honda had served for years in the Japanese Imperial Army, fighting in Manchuria in the 1930s and spending six months as a prisoner of war at the end of World War II. By contrast, Kurosawa had been turned away from his army physical in 1930 thanks to a sympathetic officer; when he was finally conscripted at the end of the war, it was already too late to serve.
But while this section, a tender, disturbing tale of survivor’s guilt, may be informed by Honda’s memories, that doesn’t make Dreams any less personal. Consider the arc the film has followed so far. The early episodes showed us young I’s discovery of the forbidden knowledge of nature beyond his family’s gates; the massive rainbow that ends the first dream feels like the initial step in an epic coming-of-age journey. “The Blizzard” and “The Tunnel” both show his attempts to vanquish the forces of nature. In the former, I resists a yuki-onna, a “snow woman,” to keep from falling asleep and freezing to death; in the latter, he commands a ghost platoon back into the beyond.
“Crows,” in which I meets Vincent van Gogh (played by Martin Scorsese), demonstrates humankind transforming nature through art. Kurosawa had wanted to be a painter in his early years but gave up on the idea after realizing that he didn’t have, as he puts it in his memoir, “a completely personal, distinctive way of looking at things.” The director recalls that looking at a painting by Paul Cézanne or Van Gogh would momentarily “change the way the real world looked to me”—which, come to think of it, could be a concise summation of the story of “Crows.”
I’s meeting with Van Gogh completely upends the very world around him. The artist’s canvases turn everyday beauty into otherworldly paintings, but the presentation of them changes over the course of this episode. At first, I walks through immaculate reproductions of the painter’s landscapes. After talking to Van Gogh, he passes through them again—though now they are no longer exquisite re-creations of nature but actual artworks—starting with black-and-white sketches and moving on to giant paintings, in which I walks against giant brushstrokes, thick as trees. We have gone from an authentic replication of the natural world to something far more manipulated—beautiful and strange and fearsome. It is as if I’s eyes have been opened up.
There is more to “Crows,” however, and it is hinted at by the casting of Scorsese. Even as he was giving up painting, Kurosawa had been falling in love with cinema. In a documentary on the making of Dreams, he himself notes that the Chopin piece we hear during “Crows”—the Prelude in D-flat Major, also called Raindrop—is a specific reference to Abel Gance’s La roue (1923), which helped him understand the power of film as a youth. In other words, this dream represents both artistic disappointment and possibility.
In the next two sections—the movie’s most despairing—nature gets its revenge: In “Mount Fuji in Red,” I finds himself in the middle of a mass evacuation, as the volcano erupts and sets off the six atomic reactors circling it. Then “The Weeping Demon” finds him walking through a postapocalyptic landscape, where he comes across a creature who reveals to him that the corrupt have been punished with immortality, doomed to live as cannibalistic ogres writhing in agony and consuming one another. They pass by giant plants that have been twisted by radiation and look as fake as the massive paintings of the Van Gogh episode. Similarly, the tacky spectacle of Mount Fuji exploding wouldn’t have looked out of place in Honda’s creature features from the 1960s. But counterintuitively, these unreal effects are disquieting. The sickly hues of “Mount Fuji in Red,” with its color-coded clouds of radioactive materials drifting toward our helpless protagonists, even recall the multicolored, surreal armies of Ran.
But if Dreams is a memoir, are these episodes Kurosawa’s prophecy of atomic doom—a cautionary tale? Perhaps. The specter of nuclear annihilation was often on the director’s mind. He had already tackled it in I Live in Fear (1955), and he would revisit the theme in his next film, Rhapsody in August (1991). But there’s also a hint of allegory here. “Mount Fuji in Red” is, in some senses, a vision of the atomic nightmare that Japan had already lived through—a dream that could as easily have been prompted by the events of August 1945 as by anything that came after.
Interestingly, “The Weeping Demon,” though it takes place in a blasted, postnuclear world, isn’t really about war. The demon talking to I was not a soldier or general but a farmer who “dumped tank trunks of milk into the river to keep prices up.” This could easily be a portrait of the runaway capitalism of postwar Japan, with its tangle of shame and hubris. We may be in a hypothetical postapocalyptic landscape, but it’s also possible we’re in the more immediate moral wasteland Kurosawa saw when he looked around at his own country.
The original ending of Dreams—scripted, scheduled, but reportedly abandoned several months into production—was to show I waking up in a foreign city and hearing the sounds of artillery fire and airplanes overhead. Concerned that another world war had finally broken out, he would instead discover that world peace had broken out, and that these were the sounds of celebration. Reporters from every country would joyfully announce the incredible news. (“All nuclear weapons, without exception, will be dispatched to a dead planet, in outer space, never to return!”) Imagine what the critics who derided Dreams as being too didactic might have made of that! While there is little doubt that Kurosawa could have found a fascinating way to shoot all this, it’s perhaps a bit of good fortune that he didn’t. The final dream was scrapped, according to producer Inoue at the time, “to enhance continuity and ensure that the film didn’t run too long.” It would also, frankly, have cost too much, with a cast of thousands and shooting scheduled in the U.S.
Instead, Dreams ends on the similarly optimistic but significantly less fantastical, more understated vignette, “The Village of the Water Mills.” In it, there is no sign of the prior horrors we’ve witnessed. I arrives in an idyllic village and speaks to a 103-year-old man (Ozu regular Chishu Ryu), who tells him they have abandoned the conveniences of the modern world—that they use no electricity, and burn wood only from trees that have fallen on their own. “Scientists . . . may be smart . . . but so many of them are completely deaf to the beating of nature’s heart,” the old man laments. “They work so hard inventing things that make people unhappy.” This episode is also the one least marked by artifice: the village looks authentic, and there are no strange effects to be seen anywhere. After those bloodred skies, and comically huge plants, and larger-than-life brushstrokes, we are now finally in the realm of the real. One might even argue that it’s as if we’ve woken up from a dream.
But look more closely and you see that this segment is also steeped in death: I comes across a stone covered in flowers, which he learns is the grave of an ill stranger who once passed through the village. Later, the old man joins the carnival-like funeral of a ninety-nine-year-old woman. The jovial mood of the ceremony marks a sharp contrast with the forbidden, forbidding wedding procession of foxes that opened the movie. At the same time, it’s hard to tell exactly where I is positioned in this world. A perpetual outsider, he eventually leaves the village—and Kurosawa films his departure in a way that sets him apart from his lush surroundings.
“The Village of the Water Mills” may not have been the original intended finale for the film, but it does provide a beautifully ambiguous note to go out on. If we’ve been watching an autobiography, is this Kurosawa’s idealized vision of his own death? Or is it a look at a utopian ideal that he knows he will never achieve? When the director’s stand-in walks out of the frame at the end—to the strains of Russian composer Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov’s “In the Village,” from his Caucasian Sketches—it’s the first time that he’s been allowed to leave the scene. Kurosawa knows that he will continue wandering, and dreaming. But after unmooring us for two hours, and laying bare his own fears, he sees fit to keep us in this gentle, happy reverie for a little while longer. He wants us to be at peace, even if he is not.
Bilge Ebiri is a film critic for the Village Voice. His writing has also appeared in New York magazine, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times, among other publications.