Blu-Review: Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990) - Criterion Collection

by Jason Suzuki

Having released the majority of his work, specifically his Toho output, Criterion have finally released the Kurosawa omnibus film Dreams. Instantly this should have any fan craving them to give the Criterion treatment to Rhapsody in August (MGM) and The Quiet Duel - which despite being nothing too spectacular has less presence than any of his other films - or even Madadayo which Criterion released on DVD as one of the only previously unreleased discs of their 2009 centenary box set but has yet to see a standalone iteration. Beyond speculation as to what's next for their Kurosawa releases, Criterion gives us a lot to take in right now with their release of this highly personal collection of stories, probably the most well-received of his 90's output.

Despite its unevenness, I always found Kurosawa's 90's output to be exciting. He seemed to be turning inward moreso than the film's which made him an international master filmmaker. Granted he was now writing the scripts by himself, something he had not done since the start of his career, but it seems after the ups and down between the 60s and the 90s he felt the freedom to make whatever he wanted more than ever before. His impressionistic storyboards, fully colored, translated well to film. And some of his most striking images came from this period. Two from Rhapsody in August come to mind: the parade of ants witnessed by the straying eyes of a child at a funeral and the grandmother going against a thunderstorm, her umbrella turned inside out due to the winds. Dreams is filled with these sort of images which will stay with you. Sometimes criticized for a simplistic didacticism, despite some of his more celebrated films being equally didactic (The Bad Sleep Well), Kurosawa achieves the sort of inexplicable qualities dreams possess, making sense on a moment to moment basis but ultimately answerless.

There is a wealth of additional material that Criterion has included on the disc. On top of an audio commentary by Stephen Prince there are two newly shot interviews with longtime assistant/collaborator Teruyo Nogami (17min) and assistant director Takashi Koizumi (16min). Also included is "Kurosawa's Way" (52min) a 2011 documentary shot by translator Catherine Cadou. And finally there is a whopping 150 minute making of documentary shot on set by none other than Nobuhiko Obayashi. Who self-describes his film, pulled from almost 200 hours of footage shot during the production of Dreams, as an interpretation of the experience, not a straightforward making of feature. Obayashi also had time to record discussion between himself and the great director. It's greatly appreciated to see more Obayashi get released stateside even if it is in the form of bonus material.

By now any Kurosawa should be more than familiar with Teruyo Nogami (now 89). Anyone who has read her book Waiting on the Weather will be recognize some of the anecdotes she has from the production, specifically the releasing of the crows in the Van Gogh sequence. Assistant director Koizumi gives a lively fifteen minutes worth of discussion. Present for the screenwriting process as well as the production he not only has behind the scenes insight but provides worthwhile takes on the themes of the film. Some interesting contradictions arise between the different materials. A given considering the age of the those involved and the nature of memory in the first place (Rashomon anyone?) but one I enjoyed in particular was whether Chishu Ryu had a hard time with his monologue in the final sequence. Nogami says he did, forcing Kurosawa to use cuts to disguise this. Prince on the other hand puts more emphasis on the ovation Ryu received when he finished his take rather than on the amount of takes needed.

The Prince commentary is like having an excited friend watch the movie with you. Loaded with behind the scenes information and analysis, Prince is very good at just walking you through the formal details of a scene and its construction, to notice cuts or angles. He has a technical knowledge and sometimes it's nice to be made aware of things which would seem too obvious to point out, like the widescreen used in Dreams is a different ratio than the one Kurosawa had used before on films like The Hidden Fortress.

Catherine Cadou's Kurosawa's Way was one of the better examples of a documentary where other filmmakers talk about how much they love the filmmaker in question. Probably what makes it so much better than say Hitchcock, Truffaut (shots fired) is the personal dimension to the film. Cadou was Kurosawa's translator for many years and he even asked her to be the woman who gives protagonist I directions to Van Gogh in the film. The variety of people she interviews is interesting: Julie Taymore, Shinya Tsukamoto, Hayao Miyazaki, Bong Joon-ho, Abbas Kiarostami, Bertolucci, Scorsese all appear along with a few others. Their appreciations are cross cut with that of another when appropriate. It really feels like a serious appreciation for Kurosawa's work rather than a pop fluff piece.

This is easily one of my favorite releases of the year. While maybe they could have spread the disc content out to another disc so that Obayashi's doc (more of his work needs to find its way to the states so he's not just known as the Hausu guy) could have been afforded HD, economy of disc and its effect on bitrate is no stranger to Criterion i.e. the television cut of Fanny and Alexander squeezed onto just one disc. I wonder what this means for Rhapsody in August if they have it or a potential single release of Madadayo as they could have been bundled with the more well known of his last three films. What's here is great and there is a booklet as well, making this essential.

Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.