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18th December
2008
written by Tony
1990

1990

Okay. So, apparently everyone thinks Kurosawa is a genius. The best Japanese director ever. Don't get me wrong, it's not that he's necessarily bad at what he does, it's just that what he does tends to leave me high and dry, especially in the case of this particular film. I've seen Seven Samurai, even liked most of it (God, it is long), but as films go it wasn't transcendental or even really all that remarkable. Now wait, before you crucify me, let me explain. It is a good film, and it is deserving of the heaps of praise lauded upon it over the last 50 years. However, it's a good film for reasons that don't really play into my viewing enjoyment. It was the inspiration for The Magnificent Seven, and it is often cited as the first film to use the plot device of gathering heroes to fight a battle. It was an enormous success when it was released in Japan and is one of the few Japanese films to gain wide recognition in the west. On and on and on, the innovation and the power and the glory. So what? What does this do for me, a viewer in 2008 who has been exposed to numerous films that do what he did, only bigger, better and prettier? I'm not sure, to be honest. I think there is an inherent cultural difference that takes a lot of the power out of Kurosawa's work, at least from a western standpoint, and I'm willing to bet this is why I was never amazed by his work, not to the extent that some claim to be. There are certain traditions and ideologies that are inherent in Japanese culture that are simply unheard of here. And, while cultures change and we are all becoming more homogeneous (blah, blah, blah), there are certain images and themes that just resonate more for members of one society than another. From an artistic standpoint there are things I can appreciate about Kurosawa.  Kurosawa was a perfectionist, and it shows in his work. Wikipedia has this to say about Kurosawa:
Other stories include demanding a stream be made to run in the opposite direction in order to get a better visual effect, and having the roof of a house removed, later to be replaced, because he felt the roof's presence to be unattractive in a short sequence filmed from a train.
Kurosawa had other trademark techniques, beyond simply being a control freak, that were evident in Dreams, such as his use of a long lens and extremely realistic (in the used sense) costuming. Use of weather to create mood and a strong emphasis on plot and characterization over anything else are also present. I appreciate all of this, a lot, in fact. His films show a level of thought and caring that is sorely lacking in many contemporary western films (I'm looking at you Legally Blonde 2. Sorry, I had to pick something). Okay, so the movie. Right. I felt I had to give such a prominent director his due. Dreams is a set of eight short films, and, as far as I can tell, it starts with some pretty fundamental Japanese issues and dogma, and moves toward more universal themes as the movie progresses. Spoiler alert! I didn't finish the movie. The first dream is about a boy who sees some "foxes" getting married in the forest. Really. According to his mother, conditions are perfect for this kind of thing (rain without clouds). She also warns him that he should stay in, because seeing the aforementioned wedding will anger the foxes, and you know what kind of shit storm that will lead to. Yes, you do. Let me state, for the record, that the Japanese can dress like no other, and their conceptual idea of a "fox" is certainly... unique. From there we go to a child who apologizes to mysterious dolls who are the personification of an orchard of demolished peach trees. Angry peach trees. Kabuki peach trees. Yeah he did. From there we move on to guilt about World War 2 and some poorly dubbed dog noises. Then it's Martin Scorsese's self indulgent portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh. This is perhaps one of the more production-heavy pieces, and interestingly enough my least favorite visually and conceptually. Later, some mountaineers get lost in the snow and meet a weird snow fairy with a lot of sparkly blankets. From there we move on to a heavy dose of nuclear paranoia (two whole dreams of this) and after the cannibalistic one-horned demon's lament while sitting in front of gigantic, plastic dandelions I kind of checked out. I liked the visual style overall, but I'll admit that I'm spoiled by big budgets, and this film clearly did not have one. Or maybe it did, and it was just 1990. Who knows? Kurosawa's constant use of the telephoto lens for every shot flattens everything out (which he admittedly prefers) and also creates some very shaky shots that are kind of hard to watch. These factors lead to a distinctly un-cinematic feeling that lowers the production value perceptibly. As a casual enthusiast of things Japanese, I certainly appreciate the glance into the culture and Kurosawa's visual idioms are at once interesting and off-putting, so this film was a mixed bag for me. For the hard-core fan, this is probably a must see. For the more casually inclined, this one is more likely a pass. 2.5 out of 5

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