'Akira Kurosawa's Dreams' are neat little parables

September 28, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Akira Kurosawa's Dreams'

Starring Akira Terao.

Directed by Akira Kurosawa.

Released by Warner Brothers.

Rated PG-13.

** 1/2

My favorite Akira Kurosawa dream was No. 4, "Godzilla Tramples Minneapolis." No. 7 was great, too: "Zeros Attack P-38s over Guadalcanal and Send Them Running." I liked No. 9 almost as much -- "Two Neat Samurai With Ponytails Have Bloody Sword Fight all over Medieval Castle." And No. 2 . . .

Wait a minute. That movie, the one I was just describing -- that one was "Stephen Hunter's Dreams," Dream No. 1 being " 'Akira Kurosawa's Dreams' Is Great Fun." Alas, I was dreaming it while watching the real "Akira Kurosawa's Dreams," which opens today at the Rotunda, and is not much fun at all.

There's absolutely no doubt that Kurosawa is one of the world masters of cinema with a distinguished career stretching back to the early '50s. Even now, in his mid-80s, his work remains vigorous and astonishing, as witness his last film, "Ran," the amazing retelling of "King Lear."

But his dreams reveal him to be as banal as the rest of us. Of the eight episodes he commits to film, only three are really outstanding, though each of the others has an odd moment of delight, an arresting image or some such sense of the great RTC talent. But it also turns out, disturbingly, that the Great Man dreams in "Twilight Zone" episodes, complete to little twist endings.

In short, the dreams are entirely too coherent, too neat; they never acquire that gliding sense of dream-state logic, in which even the most outrageous permutations of reality seem completely organic. And again, there's a surprising lack of either eroticism (perhaps the elderly Kurosawa no longer dreams of such issues) and also of Freudian psychology.

Instead, the dreams tend to be neat little parables. In one, a party of mountain climbers is trapped in a blizzard and one by one succumbs to the press of the snow; finally, the last to collapse, the leader, yields, and as he does so, a mountain sprite, or goddess of cold death or siren of catastrophe or witch of hypothermia -- make up your own name -- comes to hover over him, lulling him to death with her song. But he fights her off, and recovers, only to learn -- twist! -- that the camp was only feet away, and not miles away as he had thought!

In another, a war veteran, the surviving commanding officer of an annihilated company, faces the ranks of his dead men, white-faced and solemn, and confesses to them his guilt and his sense of expiation after having suffered greatly in a POW camp. The men accept this and march away -- but the betrayed company dog (twist!), that's another story.

The two feeblest are apocalyptic fantasies, in which the imagery and much of the stupefying, speechifying dialogue appear derived wholly from Japanese monster movies. In one of these, as Mount Fuji erupts and pulls the plug on the home islands, a Kurosawa-like character (Akira Terao in trademark golf hat and golf sweater) wanders the carnage, until he finds representative characters -- a guilty nuclear executive and a young mother. They both carry on as if Rodan were about to snatch them away. The second end-of-the-world scenario discovers the familiar hellish, smoky landscape and something else as well: humans mutated into horned demons, who carry on as if isolated in some Boschian precinct of hell. It's diverting, but hardly profound.

The three best are more than diverting. In one, through the magic of American special effects (George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, the reigning movie effects house), the Kurosawa figure actually climbs into the oeuvre of Vincent Van Gogh, and while wandering through his gaudy, stunning landscapes (seen both literally, as if the painting has been re-created in depth, and realistically, as if Kurosawa has discovered the sites in rural Holland that inspired the great artist), he has an encounter with the mad Dutchman himself. Except that Van Gogh sounds like a GoodFella. (It's Martin Scorsese, a Kurosawa patron, behind red beard and ear bandage). It's a very funny dream, but more astonishing in its audacity than meaningful.

The first and last dreams are the most impressive: In the first, a small boy witnesses a wedding procession of foxes, angering them, and is dispatched by his mother on a troubling quest. It, and it alone, has the kind of weird precision of dreams, the equal weightiness of authentic and impossible. The last is a trifle, but it's a wonderful trifle. The Kurosawa figure, wandering in the countryside, comes across a village full of water mills, and an old man. Not much happens, but Kurosawa's streak of picturesque vitality remains undimmed and the sense of entering a different and lovely world is astonishing. It has the lulling vividness and conviction of something that might actually seep into your head.

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