CHICHIBU, JAPAN, SEPT. 13 -- Akira Kurosawa, Japan's greatest filmmaker and considered by many the best in the world, says he once had a dream in which rain fell on a sunny day and he came upon a wedding procession of foxes. "My mother used to tell me a story like that when I was little," he recalled today in a relaxed mood at a press conference in this wooded mountain valley northwest of Tokyo. "I really believed that there were these fox weddings in that kind of weather. My mother told me that if I ever saw one something terrible would happen to me."

Kurosawa has always tried to turn his dreams into film -- from his masterpieces "Rashomon" in 1950 and "The Seven Samurai" in 1954 to "Ran" in 1985 -- but now, with the help of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, he has made an entire movie devoted to those nocturnal visions. The fox wedding, in a wet, lush forest of bamboo and Japanese stone lanterns, has been transformed into "Sunshine Through Rain," the first segment in the eight-part "Akira Kurosawa's Dreams," opening in Washington Friday.

Although the "dreams" seem less like dreams than memories or fantasies, Kurosawa said today that "those eight dreams are my actual dreams, but I did make adaptations." The most chilling dream is "The Tunnel," in which the dreamer, a man in a military officer's uniform, walks through a dark tunnel, then hears footsteps behind him. He turns to face an entire platoon of ashen-faced soldiers. They are all dead; the man, as their commanding officer, led them into battle and saw them killed.

"I have never joined the service myself," Kurosawa said, "but dreams are a very strange phenomenon. I once asked myself: If I had been drafted, and gone into the service, and was killed, what would have happened? And it actually came out in a dream." Another of the dreams occurs in a blinding snowstorm on a mountaintop. Four climbers struggle interminably, and finally collapse to die; a beautiful woman in white with dark hair flying fantastically in the wind -- a "snow fairy," in Kurosawa's words -- appears to cover one of the climbers with a glittering blanket.

"When I was young, I was a mountain climber, and I got lost several times in the mountains myself," Kurosawa said. "But I added the snow fairy. Mountain climbing is a very good sport. The mountain is so huge that you realize how insignificant human existence really is."

The notoriously imperious Kurosawa, long ago dubbed "The Emperor" by the Japanese press, met reporters today on location while making his next film, his 30th, called "Rhapsody in August," which is about the mysterious things that happen to an 80-year-old woman when her four grandchildren visit her at her remote farmhouse one summer. The film also touches on the lives of the survivors of the atomic bomb that American forces dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

Richard Gere plays the woman's nephew, a Japanese American who also comes to visit. At a press conference in a mountain resort outside Tokyo last month, Gere said he had been in Japan two months earlier and had run into Kurosawa at a party, where the director had asked him to play the part. Gere accepted on the spot, and then said after filming began that "I thought I would be a nervous wreck, but I've felt quite comfortable." Gere also told reporters that he has three photographs of himself in his house that show him with someone else: "One is the Dalai Lama, another is {blues singer} John Lee Hooker, and the third is Kurosawa-san."

Gere was not on the set today, much to the disappointment of several Japanese women. The weather was another disappointment. It rains all the time in Japan, but this summer has been unusually hot and dry, and the press was looking forward to a pleasant September day in the countryside watching Kurosawa at work. But it rained in torrents, with great cinematic cracks of thunder, forcing the master to work inside on lighting problems in the thatched-roof farmhouse he had constructed for the film.

So the press crammed in around him, copiously taking notes as he conferred at length with his lighting director about whether they should open three, or only two, of the wooden sliding doors for the best effect. It was to be a nighttime scene, with the four grandchildren in bed. (Kurosawa's perfectionism is legendary. People still talk about how he ordered the entire castle set in "Throne of Blood" rebuilt because it had been constructed with steel nails, which were not used in the 16th century. In the film's final scene, he determined that when rebellious troops fired arrows at the hero, the actor Toshiro Mifune, the barrage should look real. "I'm sorry, Mifune," Kurosawa said, "but we'll have to shoot you.")

Today, as Kurosawa conferred, the actors waited patiently under blankets on their futon mattresses on the tatami mat floor of the farmhouse. After more consultations on lighting, Kurosawa finally determined that he could make no further progress because a wooden post holding up the farmhouse was in the way. He ordered it cut down, then adjourned to a nearby hotel for the press conference.

"I am sorry I wasn't able to demonstrate my shooting to all of you who came such a long distance," he apologized. "I have to blame it on the weather tonight." Kurosawa, despite his reputation, mumbled polite and expansive answers in Japanese as he slumped comfortably in his chair and enjoyed several cigarettes. In a salmon sport shirt, blue jeans and sneakers, he was a vigorous-looking 80. He insisted he will never retire. "I will be the happiest man," he said, "if I die when I'm saying, 'Yo -- start shooting.' "

His good humor these days may be because he is suddenly at work again after long, debilitating years of looking for money to make his films. "He's stronger when he's working," said Hisao Kurosawa, the director's son and producer. It is a well-known irony in Japan that Kurosawa has had to go outside the country for financing for almost two decades. Although Kurosawa's films are successful in Japan and he is held in awe by many Japanese, Japanese studios have never liked his perfectionism, his relatively high budgets and his popularity in the West.

In 1971, Kurosawa attempted suicide by slashing his wrists; at the time, friends said he had grown increasingly depressed by his slumping fortunes. "Rashomon," which is based on four different versions of a murder and rape as related by the participants, has become a classic exploration of human self-deception and the relativity of truth, but Donald Richie, the American authority on Japanese film, has written that when "Rashomon" was released, many Japanese were confused and insisted: "There must be a correct solution; now just who was telling the truth?"

Although "Dreams" was backed by Steven Spielberg, distributed by Warner Brothers and provided with special effects by George Lucas, "Rhapsody in August" is Kurosawa's first film since 1971 that is entirely financed by the Japanese. It is also the first time since 1965 that Kurosawa has made two films back-to-back; normally, there are five-year gaps as he tries to raise money. Japanese film executives say the reason for Kurosawa's productivity is the now-constant need for good new films for video and cable television.

Kurosawa not only is friendly with Spielberg and Lucas, but also is part of the loose fraternity of the international greats of film: Fellini, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Satyajit Ray, Martin Scorsese. Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg and Scorsese have all visited Kurosawa in Japan, and have been guests at his favorite tempura restaurant in the old downtown section of Tokyo; Scorsese even makes a cameo appearance in "Dreams," as Vincent van Gogh in the segment in which the dreamer imagines that he walks through some of the artist's most famous paintings. "The first time my father met Scorsese," Hisao Kurosawa recalled this week, "he thought he was like van Gogh."

Last April, when Kurosawa received an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, he said in his acceptance speech, "I'm a little worried because I don't feel that I understand cinema yet." Today, when asked about that statement, he elaborated.

"I am trying to get closer to the essence of cinema step by step," he said. "Every time I make a film, I always find several areas where I think I have created real cinema. But there's no film I have made where I feel the entire film is real cinema."

Special correspondent Shigehiko Togo contributed to this story.