That Akira Kurosawa is one of the greatest directors who ever lived is hardly questionable. That didn't prevent him from making a number of weak films, however — Record of a Living Being comes to mind — and Dreams is arguably on the same level. That doesn't make it bad, because even at his worst Kurosawa is still far more interesting and enlightening than many other directors at their best. The term "experimental," when applied to art, usually never takes into account the possibility that the experiment can fail. We are compelled to applaud the effort rather than the results — it's not that the bear dances well, but that it dances at all.
Dreams was inspired, or so goes the story, by a series of dreams that the director himself has had at one time or another in his life. Some are drawn from his own upbringing in rural Japan; some are ruminations on his own mortality or failings; some are flat-out nightmares; some are gentle introspection.
The images are the main reason for the movie's existence, but there is a curious paradox associated with them. Because they are so distinct, and yet so peculiar to the director's own sensibility, they wind up meaning far more to him than they do to us. Kurosawa hints at what all of this might be adding up to here and there, but when he tries to assign specific meanings to his ruminations, they become silly. Curiously, the whole of the movie is more compelling than its parts — it's breathtaking in toto, but when you look at them up close, many of the individual sections are simply dull or flat-out shallow.
Sunshine Through the Rain, the opening segment, brings out a haunting childhood moment: Kurosawa as a young boy strays from home and witnesses a wedding procession of foxes (done up in kabuki-esque outfits) creeping through the mist. When he returns home, his mother spurns him so that he might ask their forgiveness, and he leaves home underneath the arch of the rainbow. Like many of the other segments, it does not end on a plot point or even an emotional beat, but an image.
The Peach Orchard has the same sort of elusive, off-center sense of guilt: a mysterious girl in pink haunts the young boy, who turns out to be the spirit of the peach trees cut down so ruthlessly by his family. When he weeps, the spirits absolve him. (It seems outwardly illogical for the guilt to be vested in the boy, who had nothing to do with it, but there is a persistent belief among Japanese that guilt and shame go from generation to generation regardless of circumstances.)
The Blizzard is the most monomaniacal of the segments, shot entirely in a blue-grey haze, with a gang of mountain climbers struggling through the snow. They encounter a yuki-onna — a snow demon of Japanese origin — who seems to embody their delusions about the blizzard when they grow delirious with cold. Most of the sequence is shot in slow motion, and achieves a kind of painful, single-minded grandeur, like Jack London's "To Build a Fire." Simple sound effects — the clattering of tools, the fluttering of a flag — are amplified until they take on an unsettling dimension.
The Tunnel has gained notoriety (along with Mt. Fuji in Red and The Weeping Demon) for not actually having been directed by Kurosawa — word has it that Ishirô Honda directed and wrote these segments, uncredited. That said, The Tunnel is chilling if only for the simple audacity of its image: a whole platoon of troops marching out of the mouth of a darkened tunnel under a mountain, only to be turned back by a single, guilt-ridden figure.
Crows contains the most insight and genuine complexity. Kurosawa (here now as a middle-aged man) finds himself entering Van Gogh's paintings, wandering through them as one might explore a strange house. He finds Van Gogh himself (played, wonderfully, by Martin Scorsese), looking for all the world like one of his own paintings, furiously sketching a simple haystack: "Why aren't you painting? To me this scene is beyond belief!" Kurosawa himself wanted to be a painter, and many of his own works have the same overpoweringly bright colors as Van Gogh's visions. What we come away with is the sense that Kurosawa felt a kinship of burning ambition with Van Gogh: "Without movies, I am nothing," he said once. This segment alone is worth the movie, and is dazzlingly executed and assembled.
Mount Fuji in Red and The Weeping Demon are arguably the worst segments. The former features Fuji erupting no thanks to man's meddling, and the latter takes place in a landscape forever altered by radioactivity. Both of them are painfully obvious "message" stories, but the problem is that Kurosawa has nothing really profound to say about the by-products of modern living except that they're bad. That leads directly into Village of the Watermills, Kurosawa's Eden, wherein man lives in harmony with nature and even a funeral can be a joyous occasion. This last segment somehow works if only because of the simplicity and loveliness of it all, and the final images — weeds drifting back and forth underwater — are wonderfully memorable.
Kurosawa shoots all of these scenes not in the hazy soft-focus manner that we have come to associate dreams with in movie clichés, but with sharply-realized and striking shots. His visuals alone make the movie worth the experience, but he tries to inject more pontificatory material into the movie than it can really support — especially towards the end, when it becomes annoyingly sanctimonious and preachy. By trying to find "meaning" in the images, he winds up subverting their very power, and the movie works best when the images speak for themselves and are not hemmed in by his own second-guessing.
One particularly unkind review of the film dismissed it as a pretentious vanity project. I wouldn't stoop to that, but it is a movie that clearly requires you to abandon a great many of the safeties of conventional movies (including plotting, contiguous characters, etc.). Whether or not it's worth the effort is going to be yours to decide. It's a beautiful and finely-made movie, but in the end — like the similarly gorgeous but somewhat uninvolving Kwaidan — it's about far less than you might think. I enjoyed what I saw, but I could not help but feel that there was so much more as yet unsaid.