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‘Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 14, 1990


Akira Kurosawa
Akira Terao;
Martin Scorsese
Parental guidance suggested

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When someone wants to tell you about a dream they just had, this is a cue to check your watch and find someplace to be fast. But when Akira Kurosawa wants to talk about his reveries, skid to a halt, sit down and watch. Listen. Drink. And please keep your eyes off that damn watch.

"Akira Kurosawa's Dreams," eight fantasies by one of the cinema's last visionaries, is a magnificent, immensely absorbing experience. To be honest, only the hardiest of film aficionados will get through all of its two hours without some viewer fatigue. But this is the result of too much -- rather than too little -- poetry. This is overload of the most delectable kind.

The segments, all self-contained entities, have no narrative connection, although an "I" character (played mostly by Akira Terao) functions as Kurosawa's alter ego and journeys through each dream. What they also share is Kurosawa's complete, uninhibited trust in his sleeping visions, his utter repudiation of things left-brain. Certainly each selection has its beginning, middle and end. But the experience is distinctively surrealistic, an opportunity to float atop a masterful eddying of images, sounds and music.

The first two stories are centered around the "I" as a young boy. In "Sunshine Through the Rain," he steals out into the woods to witness a wedding procession of foxes, said to occur only when sun and rain mingle. In "The Peach Orchard," the boy encounters 60 ornately costumed human shina dolls angry that the boy's family has felled all the trees in a peach orchard.

The "I" character is seen as an older man, contending with, among many things, war, a fantasy meeting with Vincent van Gogh (played with a certain Western intrusion by Martin Scorsese!), and apocalyptic, nuclear explosions. The final three pieces ("Mount Fuji in Red," "The Weeping Demon" and "Village of the Watermills") flag a little, however, because Kurosawa drops his previous, childlike integrity for some post-nuclear finger wagging.

But these didactic transgressions are to be expected of an aging veteran in the twilight of his career -- and they are minor irritants. They are also vastly outnumbered by the many elements to savor: The interplay of light, mist and rain in "Sunshine," for instance, is breathtaking, as is the choreography of the vivid dolls in "Peach." The moaning wind, the distant rumble of an avalanche and the labored breathings of four exhausted explorers in "The Blizzard," are haunting, crisply atmospheric sounds. So are the noises of increasingly loud marching feet as a ghost platoon emerges from a dark tunnel in "The Tunnel."

"Dreams" ends on water, the one metaphor that has intrigued almost all the cinematic masters. After a lifetime of work, Kurosawa sees everything as perpetual flow: here now, gone tomorrow, back again in some other life.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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