Is Akira Kurosawa the greatest filmmaker of all time? There have certainly been crazier claims than that. Such unimpeachable masterpieces as Drunken Angel, Rashômon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Yôjimbô, Sanjûrô, Red Beard, and Ran are the basis of a pretty solid résumé. Regardless of where your loyalty as a film fan lies (there’s a great many respectable answers to such an utterly unanswerable question) he’s without doubt among the worthiest of contenders. Given the various contributions made to Kurosawa’s Dreams by Hollywood royalty including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese, it’s clear that at the very least he’s regarded as one of the greats by his American counterparts. How else would Kurosawa have found the cash to produce what is undoubtedly one of the most indulgent projects of all time?
Dreams opens what might be referred to as Kurosawa’s ‘twilight trilogy.’ Followed by August in Rhapsody and Maadadayo, the three films – although notably different to each other – form a trio preoccupied with the sort of existential themes that tend to trouble an artist in their autumn years: life and its meaning(s), the artistic process, mortality, and, that big one, legacy. Of the three, Dreams is the perhaps both the most arresting and, for all its better qualities, the most opaque and frustrating. The film is composed of eight vignettes, each based upon a recurring dream from throughout Kurosawa’s life. While it is always breathtaking to behold (a matter made more apparent by the recent remaster) it often finds itself at a loss in the search for some higher meaning. But then it’s fair to want to slow down by the time you reach your eighties. As such, Dreams was Kurosawa’s first feature since 1985 when Ran, an internationally-adored adaptation of King Lear, took the world by storm (and earned Kurosawa an Oscar nomination for directing). There will be no argument here against the majority who argue that Ran was, indeed, the final masterpiece of Kurosawa’s career. But that should not discourage a reconsideration of Dreams, which continues to beguile audiences with its striking cinematography, philosophical allusions, and (at least partially) autobiographical nature.
One of the primary problems with Dreams is that Kurosawa is reaching beyond his established strengths. Kurosawa is not an overtly philosophical filmmaker. Sure, his films engage with some of the big themes – not least in Ikiru, perhaps his most authentically moving feature – but, for the most part, his meaning is wholly contained within the stories he tells (for an American point of reference, think Scorsese, the craftsman, beside Malick, the quintessential filmmaking philosopher). The dreams of Dreams are, for the most part, either far too ambiguous to really mean much at all (‘The Peach Orchard’) or a little too obvious in their meaning to truly engage the viewer (‘The Tunnel’). Kurosawa’s attempts to aggressively orchestrate profundity rarely equate to the transcendental moments he so desperately seeks, rather manifesting as clumsy grasps for deeper meaning. In his lesser films Malick is guilty of this same tendency to foreground pretty photography in lieu of, and not in aid of, a bid for sublime meaning (we’re looking at you, To the Wonder).
If photography alone has the capacity to facilitate the introspection that Kurosawa is clearly after, then this film’s photography is capable of it. Sadly, film doesn’t work like that. While some sequences are truly breathtaking, it is in their resounding beauty that the folly of Kurosawa’s endeavour is painstakingly revealed. It is ultimately in the artificiality of Kurosawa’s visions, resplendent as they are, that Dreams unravels; leaving behind the harsh truth that even the prettiest of pictures cannot supplant the need for cogent ideas. One of the problems with bringing magical realism to film is that a filmmaker must give equal weight to both the magic and the lived reality to which it alludes. Dreams does no such thing: instead, it flits between the realms of the spiritual, the intellectual, and the purely aesthetic while often leaving little to nothing to cling to. It seems as though Kurosawa is so intent on accessing and giving life to the intricacies of his id that he fails to take into account the ego’s tendency to distract from the heart of the matter.
Of course, there are things worth praising also. The cinematography comes courtesy of Kurosawa regulars Takao Saitô and Shôji Ueda, who had worked together with Kurosawa on Ran and 1980’s Palme d’Or winner Kagemusha. Some of the images produced in Dreams are so searing that once they get hold of you they simply don’t let go; not least the ostentatious allure of a young surrogate Kurosawa setting across a field in bloom beneath a complete rainbow (‘Sunshine through the Rain’). There is poetry in images such as this. The most famous sequence, ‘Crows’, is perhaps most famous for the fact that it stars Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh engaging with an art student in one of his paintings. The segment was produced by George Lucas’ effects company Industrial Light & Magic and actually plainly expresses one of the most enticing aspects of Dreams.
The fact that Dreams is fundamentally flawed should not undermine the audacity of Kurosawa’s vision which, in small ways, comes close to providing an intimate portrait of a great artist, or an unconventional autobiography of the ideas that inspire and haunt a master of his craft. ‘Crows’ captures Kurosawa, the art student, coming to terms with the very nature of art itself. The artistic process and Kurosawa’s attempts to fathom art’s true nature are processes haunted by existential longing and, ultimately, death (manifested in the titular crows of Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Crows). But it is a process that brings the spectator closer to the creator. It is in these small moments that one comes to find that Dreams was made for no one except Kurosawa himself. For all that, though it remains a fascinating and personal entry in his filmography.
The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of Dreams is available now. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and Emfoundation for providing a copy.