By titling his new film "Akira Kurosawa's Dreams," the Japanese master has engaged in a little false advertising. "Pontifications" might have served as a more accurate header. Or better yet, "Sermons."
It's dreamy only in one respect: It's a snooze.
The mood of "Dreams," which is the 80-year-old filmmaker's 28th picture, is far from what you'd expect. Instead of finding the director in a ruminative, self-revelatory state of mind, the film shows him at his most ceremonial and grandiose. It shows the side of him -- the least interesting side -- that's obsessed with formal ritual and Kabuki theatricality; the side that, rather than dramatize his ideas, intones lofty philosophical pronouncements about the state of man.
As a result, "Dreams" seems to emerge more out of the superego than from the id. Though he is one of the undisputed masters of the medium, Kurosawa has never been a particularly personal artist; nor, for all his genius, could you describe him as a great thinker or an accomplished explorer of the unconscious. Still, it's common for artists, as they grow older, to grow more introspective, more reflective. And often with this comes a greater lucidity and simplicity of approach; by then the mechanics of the medium have become internalized, a matter of instinct.
This is what one had hoped for "Dreams." But while the impulse to look within seems to have been there, the inclination or the ability to follow through is missing. And instead of simplifying his techniques, in later films like "Kagemusha," "Ran" and now "Dreams," Kurosawa has placed even more emphasis on artifice. The importance of visual design, of costuming, makeup and the composition of the frame, all of which are dazzling here, has grown so pronounced that parts of "Dreams" play like dance or performance art; they're carefully choreographed pageants of color and form, ravishing but uninvolving.
The movie is a compilation of eight unrelated vignettes, and in form they bear a greater resemblance to fables than to dreams. The most successful of the episodes -- really only the first one is worth watching, though the second and third have their moments -- soft-pedal the didacticism. The first two are the only segments that could conceivably have emerged from genuine memories, and both, perhaps not coincidentally, feature children.
In "Sunshine Through the Rain," the first segment, a young boy is standing in front of his house as a rainstorm begins. His mother, who is busy moving things indoors, notices that the sun is shining brightly and tells him to stay home because it is during this kind of weather that the foxes hold their wedding ceremonies and they don't like to be seen.
Enticed by this notion, the boy runs off anyway and, hiding behind a giant redwood, witnesses a parade of solemn foxes as they march through the downpour. The episode is brief -- the film's briefest -- but in it Kurosawa conveys the perfect spirit of fairy-tale enchantment. What he captures as well, with his long shots of the forest in the rain, is a sense of the mysterious enthrallments of nature, that feeling we often get when we're alone in the woods and feel that spirits are hovering nearby.
The other segments, though, don't have the same resonant psychological layers. The second vignette, "The Peach Orchard," features a little boy who is lured into an orchard, where he is confronted by the spirits of the trees, which have taken the form of living ceramic dolls. But though there is a rapturous quality to the shots of the trees in bloom and the psychedelic intensity of the colors in the dolls' formal robes, the piece doesn't seem to have any particular focus or meaning.
The same is true of the third, called "The Blizzard," which begins with interminable snowy shots of mountain climbers trudging miserably through a storm, and ends with a fleeting but sublime payoff, in which the snow fairy who comes to comfort a collapsed climber is transformed into an angel of death and flies away.
The problem with this material is that it's not nearly as profound as Kurosawa thinks it is. If the points the director hoped to make in "The Peach Orchard" and "The Blizzard" are obscure, in the others the meaning is painfully obvious, so much so that there's nothing much to develop, and they seem labored and overlong.
All but one of the other episodes are social commentaries, or make sweeping social statements. In both content and style, these stories are at best commonplace and often much worse. In all of them, Kurosawa seems to have something to get off his chest, but the approach he's chosen is so distanced that any passion or conviction they might have had seems to have evaporated.
The only remaining episode -- "The Crows," which shows us a young painter's dream encounter with Vincent van Gogh (played by Martin Scorsese) -- gives us a peek at some of the filmmaker's thoughts about the creative process, but the journey is far from illuminating; it's like a special project commissioned by a museum for the purposes of art appreciation, complete with little walks through the paintings (courtesy of George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic, which did the special effects). Its only real vitality comes from Scorsese's spiky energy and staccato line readings.
It's shocking to see work this featureless and undistinguished come from a filmmaker as gifted as Kurosawa. There's so much uninflected, cautionary preaching, with so much sage advice being passed down, that you begin to feel as if you're watching some sort of epic after-school special.
The real problem with "Akira Kurosawa's Dreams" may be simply that the director's instinct to continue making films has outlived the inspiration needed for them to be worth the effort. As a younger man he might have had the energy to triumph over his bad ideas and his deficiencies of taste. It's hard to look at this movie, though, without thinking that it could never have been anything but make-work, something to do until something better came along. In making "Dreams," Kurosawa seems to working reflexively, making a film because making films is what he does.
Akira Kurosawa's Dreams, at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle, is rated PG.