Criterion Corner: Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990) - Reviewed

In the late 1960s the great world famous Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and fierce competitor of Yasujiro Ozu found in the wake of Red Beard and the botched Tora! Tora! Tora! stint increasing difficulty in getting financing for future projects in his homeland.  Often considered too Western and following a suicide attempt after the failure of his first color film, Dodeskaden, both the director’s brisk pacing and the frequency with which he directed feature films decreased significantly over the next three decades.  While he was able to garner funding from Russia for Dersu Uzala and later financing from American filmmakers George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola for Kagemusha, his most personal project of his respective career, Dreams, could not find financing in Japan due to the film’s anti-nuclear power sentiment and his own reputation in the face of Japanese financiers.  It wasn’t until Steven Spielberg swooped in to the rescue, reuniting Kurosawa with Lucas and Coppola before landing a deal with Warner Brothers to finance the project in full that Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams finally became a reality.  Considered to be the director’s most self-indulgent work to date, the episodic artistic foray into magical realism consisted of eight dreams the director claimed to have experienced several times over the years and became Kurosawa’s first film in which he was the sole author of the script. 

Something of an anthological journey of seemingly disconnected stream of consciousness vignettes while linked by the nameless protagonist (intended to be Kurosawa) is seen aging from adolescence to adulthood over the course of the picture, providing viewers with a kind of summation of various kindred themes the director had been working on his whole life.  Aided by Lucasfilm’s special effects company Industrial Light & Magic with a special effects sequence which made use of one of the first digital cameras ever made, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams is like a collection of Aesop’s Fables come to glorious fantastical life with some very wise and often hard life lessons that bring the viewer closer to the director’s sensibilities than ever before.  Though the film was initially not well received upon release, it has since gained a strong and dedicated following over the years among Kurosawa aficionados and briefly was released on a remastered DVD by Warner Brothers before going out of print.  

With much of Kurosawa’s oeuvre having received the deluxe Criterion Collection treatment over the years (my first Kurosawa being a Criterion laserdisc of Seven Samurai back in the 1990s), the demand for a definitive home video release of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams intensified over the years.  After getting briefly re-released on DVD by the Warner Archive label, the prospect of a Criterion Dreams disc seemed like wishful thinking until out of nowhere the company dropped a major announcement that it would be receiving a full 4K restoration for an upcoming blu-ray edition along with plentiful extras including a 2 ½ hour making-of documentary by Hausu director Nobuhiko Obayashi.  The wait is finally over as Dreams at long last hit shelves this week, providing Kurosawa fans with one of the finest home video releases of the year containing a wealth of content that will take even the most dedicated viewers days to get through.

The Video

Originally shot in 35mm and exhibited theatrically in 1.85:1 with some segments making use of the new digital cameras at the time, Dreams was a laserdisc favorite for many years and remembered as one of the few VHS tapes to have letterboxing.  This new 1080p transfer supervised by the film’s cinematographer Shoji Ueda looks leaps and bounds better than the Warner Brothers DVD if not better than I could have possibly imagined.  Almost like a tapestry of pure art, Dreams has always been a work of stunningly beautiful images and closer to a moving painting than a piece of narrative cinema.  

While the DVD did look gorgeous, I felt this time around I could see minutiae and detail buried in the previously lower resolution image.  Take for instance the iconic poster image of a young boy standing before a mountain with a perfect rainbow formed above the summit.  This fantastic image is the centerpiece of the film but looking at it again in this new 4K remaster, I could see beams of sunlight traveling across the green mountain rock with the tiniest little raindrops spraying about, something invisible to me previously.  Brightness and contrast is much stronger here as well with a standout sequence being the famous special effects montage where Kurosawa as a man traverses through Vincent Van Gogh’s painted landscapes.  The only areas where the transfer seems to falter somewhat involve the Weeping Demon segment where the matte lines dividing the shot of a man walking away from a derelict war torn Japan are painfully obvious.  Despite this minor shortcoming which was likely inherent to the source, this edition of Dreams is perfect demo material for anyone wanting to show off their new 4K televisions to their friends, illustrating the endless possibilities of what you can do with the visual medium and how beautiful it can really be.

The Audio

Kurosawa was a master of sound design with specific uses of foley effects in key scenes to achieve the director’s intended effects and is remembered as a pioneer of surround sound for using the Perspecta 3.1 channel surround sound on The Hidden Fortress.  While Dersu Uzala is cited as having received a 6-track mix being shot in 65mm and all, it’s unclear whether or not the 5.1 mix for Ran was true to how it was originally exhibited.  Staying true to form, Criterion has gone with a 2.0 PCM stereo surround mix for Dreams, as it was in theaters, rather than bumping the audio up to 5.1 surround.  Although it isn’t nearly as overpowering as the visuals the PCM mix is still an enveloping and evocative listening experience and will bring your home theater to life.  Take for instance one of the early segments, The Peach Orchard, where living dolls bring a dead peach tree back to life once more and dance to Etenraku.  The score starts off quietly before slowly, gradually blossoming into a full exultation of sound and music. 

For only being in 2.0 PCM, this is one of the best uses of music in a film starting from the front channels before the rear channels come to life I’ve ever heard.  Another standout segment involves The Blizzard which depicts four mountaineers trapped in a blizzard.  The faint sounds of distant avalanches, mountain gear clanging about and heavy breathing against freezing cold air range from being silent as a pin drop to as loud as an explosion.  Kaiju sound effects in Mount Fuji in Red sound akin to your typical Gojira film but considering Ishiro Honda was a co-director on the project and the images themselves were something of an answer to the Kaiju film, that’s not surprising.  Most of all, Shinichiro Ikebe’s haunting and often devastating score comes through loud and clear free of any distortion or drop outs.  Overall one of the strongest 2.0 stereo mixes you can play on your amplifier.

The Extras

With a film with as many stunning visual effects, history and personal connection to the artist behind it as this, one would have thought back when the Warner Brothers DVD came out there would be something in the way of extras.  Unfortunately up to this point, every Dreams release has been bare bones with only the trailer as an extra.  For Criterion’s new special edition, they have gone above and beyond what I expected for a Kurosawa release.  Typically on Criterion releases, we get documentaries about Kurosawa’s work in general, but here we get a magnificent 2 ½ hour documentary from Nobuhiko Obayashi that takes us behind the scenes through every single aspect of the production of the film including bits where George Lucas shows up on set and Kurosawa troubleshoots the Mount Fuji in Red sequence.  Before we were only allowed glimpses through still photos and recollections as a way into gauging the creative process of Akira Kurosawa, but now we’re right on set with the master himself and get a tangible feel of what it was like to work with the man.  

Clearly a passionate and painstaking perfectionist, we watch entire scenes go through multiple takes with the slightest alterations imparted by Kurosawa in a manner that echoed the difficult perfectionism of Stanley Kubrick.  Also included are new interviews with Bernardo Bertolucci, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, Martin Scorsese, Hayao Miyazaki and many more.  The film also includes a running audio commentary by film scholar and Kurosawa historian Stephen Prince, which provides an educated and informative interpretation of Kurosawa’s film as well as the creative process behind it.  Having seen the feature length documentary Kurosawa which drew heavily from the director’s own autobiography Something Like An Autobiography and various interviews with former colleagues, I can say I learned more about Kurosawa’s process in this Obayashi documentary than anything previously aired.  For Kurosawa fans, this is a revelation and as such a vital supplemental feature.

Final Verdict

Pretty close to being the #1 blu-ray of 2016, the long awaited high definition domestic release of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams gets what we can safely call the definitive release of the film.  Until the resolution for home video mastering and projection increases over time, I can’t see a better edition coming out than this one.  You get the film in pristine condition with a making-of documentary that exceeds the length of the film itself, informative interviews, a commentary and a collectible booklet featuring essays on the artist and his most divisive work to date.  I will watch this disc for years to come, which beyond exceeded my expectations and brought me closer to the heart of the man than ever before, even after taking a class devoted entirely and only to Akira Kurosawa.  Buy with confidence!

- Andrew Kotwicki