Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams literally is Akira Kurosawa‘s dreams–8 of them, in fact, successive through his lifetime. The Liberal Ironist accepts dreams as our way of telling ourselves things we already believe but don’t want to think about, where our rational defenses are down.
Granting that assumption, it’s noteworthy that most of the dreams Kurosawa thinks worth sharing are actually nightmares, and even those that aren’t are distinguished by a pervasive wistful melancholy. Many of these dreams are demon-haunted, or based around the great director’s sense of a need (or personal failure) to protect life. Almost all focus on the weight and consequences of guilt, whether his or others’. Reflecting on the transformative intensity of his sense of guilt makes Dreams succeed as a fully-autobiographical work. In apparent relation to the recurring theme of guilt, the dreams also gradually shift towards the apocalyptic.
Kurosawa is of course known for his adaptations of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky–in the former case, notably Throne of Blood and Ran. Kurosawa’s interest in adapting Shakespeare to dramatize Japan’s own long phase of feudal lawlessness emphasizes the fragility of life, as well as the 2 subtle dangers he seems to think can ruin a man faster than any adversary or disaster: a man’s own pride, and an ill-intentioned woman. Rashomon is his most-emphatic such film statement, as far as I can tell. If you watch a few of Kurosawa’s movies–enough to find you have a taste for their beauty, their deliberate pace and the “heat” of their violence–Dreams offers interesting perspective on the director’s motives in storytelling. Anyone who has seen Throne of Blood or Ran will be unsurprised at the observation that Kurosawa had an an acute but expansive mind’s eye at a very young age.
These vignettes are wonderful examples of the subconscious-driven dream-logic. Occasionally they refrain on the director’s own naive Rousseauian idealism and nostalgia. The juxtaposition of apocalyptic visions with his naive desire for a “return to Nature” strikes the Liberal Ironist as the greatest weakness of the film–though perhaps the weakness was only in the director’s subconscious, and his film is actually flawless. My own feeling was that the rosy final dream was the least-interesting–until its final moments. Still, this unevenness is more of a fact than a flaw. It reminds us that this is a series of dreams spread far across the director’s life; the result is not for everyone, whether at times or as a whole.
That said, if you are the sort of person who thinks of dreams as wonderful gifts you have unconsciously given to yourself, some of Akira Kurosawa’s dreams will probably affect you as deeply as if you were having them yourself. My personal favorite is “Crows,” in which Kurosawa so eagerly pursues Vincent Van Gogh (hoping to learn the secret to his art) that he rushes through several of the master painter’s most-famous landscapes, apparently unable to recognize what Van Gogh saw in them.