An anthology comprised of eight unrelated stories based on Kurosawa’s actual dreams, the 1990 work plays like a love letter not to sleepy time, but to the marvel of the medium of movies. How this was not nominated for Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy Awards is an absolute head-scratcher — nay, a crime. It’s one of the most enjoyable foreign films I’ve ever had the pleasure to see. Don’t look for conventional closure or surprise endings — some segments just fade to an abrupt exit, as real dreams are wont to do.
In “Sunshine Through the Rain,” from which the picture’s striking poster images is culled, a young boy walking in the forest experiences visions of a musical procession. But as the members draw closer, one notices their faces aren’t quite human. Similarly, the next segment, “The Peach Orchard,” has a child run into spirits outside — not the wispy, transparent ghosts as we would think, but painted faces in elegant robes. These spirits then perform a colorful, choreographed dance on four levels of land before disappearing.
With “The Blizzard,” “Dreams” starts to move into “Kwaidan” territory, as a quartet of ice pickers in a heavy snowstorm have trouble moving, breathing and seeing, save for a woman who shouldn’t — couldn’t — actually be there. In “The Tunnel,” a man walking through just that comes across a snarling red dog, then an army of blue soldiers.
“Crows” may be the most famous segment in America, if only for having the one “name” actor in the film. A man goes looking for Vincent van Gogh by jumping into one of his paintings. Eventually, he happens upon the artist (director Martin Scorsese, unrecognizable but for his voice) painting in a field. Accompanied by an outstanding Chopin number, our protagonist takes a visual trip through many van Gogh works, and while the effects may be primitive by today’s standards, the result is joyous.
Influenced by equal parts Hiroshima and Godzilla, “Mount Fuji in Red” is a slightly pulpy disaster tale in medias res as the title volcano erupts, causing the explosion of half a dozen atomic reactors and chaos among untold residents. In the aftermath, survivors try in vain to shield themselves from harmful clouds of plutonium-239, strontium-90 and cesium-137.
“The Weeping Demon” could be a direct sequel to “Fuji,” as a journeyman meets a former human, now a demon with one horn who laments that his field of flowers has turned into a desert. When flowers are seen again, they’re dandelions, but overgrown to the point that people are the size of bugs.
Finally, “Village of the Watermills” brings a peaceful end to the proceedings, as a young man visits a quiet village with no electricity. Explains the elder resident, “We try to live the way man used to. It is a natural life.”
Steeped — if not outright saturated — in Japanese culture, “Dreams” is by no means inaccessible, unless viewers are just dead-set against reading subtitles. If so, that’s their loss, because this is one of the most visually striking films I’ve ever seen — utterly, heart-crushingly beautiful. The only downfall to Warner Archive release is that it’s not on Blu-ray, where its colorful palette would be appreciated best. This is another masterpiece from a man who had more this his fair share, from “Seven Samurai” to “The Hidden Fortress,” “Rashomon” to “Ran.” —Rod Lott