Ed note: For the next several weeks, composer and film aficionado Lewis Saul has agreed to supply us with in-depth commentary about the films of Akira Kurosawa, now showing in an extended festival at the Film Forum. Even if you're unable to stop by the Forum, we think Lew's insights will deepen your appreciation of these important movies.
PLAYING January 28th at The Film Forum
This is Kurosawa's 28th film.
I cannot think of another Kurosawa film which engenders such wildly divergent feelings as this one.
For example, personally speaking, of the eight dreams, I can watch four of them endlessly. I find them beautiful and like to linger in their colorful worlds over and over again. I never get tired of them!
That leaves four additional dreams. I cannot put it any other way -- I detest these four sections, and at times like these, when I feel I must watch them again in order to write something coherent -- I realize just why I dislike them so much. I notice myself squirming in my seat waiting for it to be over and for one of my "favorites" to come up!
I'll let you know which is which in a few more sentences -- my opinions are far from universal; many of my favorite critics love the episodes I hate and vice versa.
As usual, the story behind the making of the film is pretty fascinating, and again it involves Kurosawa's nephew, Mike Inoue: "One day I got a call from my uncle, who said, 'I need your help. Why don't you come over?' He said to me, 'I received a letter from Steven Spielberg which doesn't make any sense.' So I went over to his home and he said that he had written a script called 'Such Dreams I Have Dreamed' and that he had sent a translation of that script to Spielberg for possible financing. I read Spielberg's reply, which said, 'Thank you for sending the synopsis, and if you do a script, please send it to me.' I said, 'Uncle, what did you send to him?' And he said, '[I didn't send a synopsis.] I finished the whole script and sent it to a translation company, and they sent it on.' I read the translation he sent. It was terrible and missing many important nuances from Kurosawa's original Japanese script. I then volunteered to re-translate. It took me over a month to complete my translation as I had to commute to his home frequently to ask him about the nuances he intended to express between the lines. A few days after we sent my translation to Spielberg, we received a fax from him stating that he was highly impressed with this script and offering his help to find a financier. He brought in Warner Brothers who gave us a Negative-Pickup guarantee for the film to be directed by Kurosawa." (Negative pickup means that WB bought the finished film but did not finance it. Kurosawa did so with bank loans) [Galbraith, p. 603].
- "Inoue and Kurosawa decided to meet with Spielberg at Universal Studios. When they greeted each other, they kept bowing, and Spielberg refused to sit down before Kurosawa did" [p. 604].
- The film cost $12 million.
- Sunshine Through the Rain -- Exquisite. An explosion of color and a powerful dream of richly realized symbolism. The rain falling in sheets in the dappled sunlit forest is stunning. The ending is jaw-dropping beautiful -- except for the terrible mistake of Kurosawa once again demanding something stupid from his composer; in this case, a pissy imitation of the second movement in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, "Il vecchio castello (The Old Castle)".
- The Peach Orchard. It is the Doll Festival (Hina Matsuri) and the young narrator/dreamer's older sister and her friends are gathered before the seven-tiered doll set. The boy (Isaki)'s acting was harshly criticized by the critics ... but he doesn't seem that terrible to me. The music, dancing and costumes are all breathtaking. The peach blossom storm ~ epic!
- The Blizzard. Uh ... no. Man, this is bad. Painfully obviously studio-bound, the level of believability is below zero (har har har har) ...the segment is saved only by the appearance of the yuki-onna (Snow Woman) and the very fine weird audio effects which make her voice seem "warm."
- The Tunnel. Eeesh. This one really hurts because it could have ... it should have been good. Probably directed by Kurosawa's assistant Ishirô Honda (who actually was in the army), the episode is marred by too many terrible decisions to mention in this short post. Notice the grenades strapped to the dog.
- Crows. Galbraith hates it -- I think it's pure genius. I find nothing wrong with Scorsese speaking English nor the way "I" traipses through the SFX Van Gogh landscapes. Good decision using Chopin's D-flat Major Prelude -- it really fits!
- Mt. Fuji in Red. Another complete failure, unfortunately. The effects are terrible and the short script ludicrous rather than terrifying. In theory, it seems that dreams six through eight were perhaps meant to connect in a more meaningful way -- as it is, at this point I just can't wait for Dream Number Eight!
- The Demon. The over-sized dandelions are cool. Also, if you are familiar with Kagemusha (The Double/Shadow Warrior) , see if the scenes of the demons around the ponds don't remind you of the "dream" episode in the earlier film ...
- Village of the Waterwheels. Chishû Ryû was 86, playing 103! This entire episode almost manages to remove the bad taste of the previous miscalculations. Notice the very last shot ~ as "I" walks up the path and leaves the frame, the camera holds ... and suddenly (look carefully!) a little yellow butterfly swoops in front of the lens and flits away! The music (Caucasian Sketches, Suite No. 1 by the Russian composer Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov) changes and the camera pans down to the river weeds, gently swaying in peace.
- There are no wipes in this film.