Akira Kurosawa's Dreams is a Japanese-American co-production - 'Stephen Spielberg Presents' are the first three words to appear on the screen, and Martin Scorsese cameos as Van Gogh. The film comprises eight stories, all based on the director's dreams at different stages of his life.
The first story, 'Sunshine Through the Rain', is about a little boy who ignores his mother's advice and goes into the woods on a day when the sun is shining, but it is also raining. In this weather, he is warned, foxes hold their weddings - and they do not take kindly to those who spy on them. The fox wedding, performed by masked dancers, evokes the wonder and terror of early childhood. The little boy is spotted by the foxes, and faces a terrible challenge.
The second story, 'The Peach Orchard', scores highly for me because a. it's about dolls coming to life, which is something all right-thinking persons should find disturbing and b. it is visually stunning. The little boy, having survived his vulpine ordeal, is lured to the remains of the orchard, which his family have cut down. The household dolls (apparently there is or was a festival called Doll Day) berate him for the crime against the trees, whose spirits they personify. But the boy's insistence that he wanted to save the orchard for unselfish reasons - and not just because he likes peaches - wins over the strange spirits, leading to a moment of magical beauty as the dolls perform a slow dance on the bare orchard terraces.
'The Blizzard' is less effective, perhaps because it offers an overly-familiar scenario and little real drama. A group of climbers are lost on a mountain, and as they begin to succumb to cold and exhaustion their leader is visited by a strange ghost-like creature. This is very like the 'Woman of the Snows' sequence in Kwaidan, but is rather weak by comparison.
'The Tunnel' also draws on conventional ideals of manliness, as an army officer returns home from a PoW camp after Japan's defeat in 1945. As he approaches a dark mountain tunnel he encounters are snarling dog that carries a pack of stick grenades - a genuinely disturbing variant on the 'dogs of war' idea. Then, having emerged from the tunnel, the officer is forced to confront his old platoon, which was wiped out thanks to his orders. Dead or alive, the soldiers will still obey orders. But what of the vicious beast that literally dogs the conscience-stricken officer? The dream imagery works especially well here, contrasting the supposed nobility of the warrior with the bestial nature of aggression.
'Crows' sees a Japanese student wearing Kurosawa's trademark hat venture into the realm of Van Gogh's paintings. Brilliant colours and rustic scenes predominate, and Scorsese's performance strikes me as pretty good. There's even a clever joke about poor old Vincent's ear. Many films have attempted to take the audience into the realm of the creative imagination, but this short sequence succeeds where more elaborate efforts have failed.
'Mount Fuji in Red' is interesting but oddly lacking in impact, despite being about the explosion of a Japanese nuclear reactor. While it obviously harks back to Chernobyl, it also seems prescient given more recent events at Fukushima. However, the combination of slightly naff effects (this is one case where CGI would definitely have done it better) and some very preachy dialogue undercuts the horror of the story. It is a nightmare vision, certainly, but - like most of the later stories - it clumsily foregrounds environmental concerns. Sincere, yes, but a bit irritating.
The same can be said for 'The Weeping Demon', in which the student of the two previous tales finds himself wandering a post-apocalyptic wilderness in which some people - the corrupt, rich, and powerful - have been transformed into demons. There's a nice, grimly humorous touch when a demon with one horn explains that this puts him at the bottom of the pecking order, because horns indicate status. However, horns also bring pain, so the higher the status the more suffering these immortal beings must bear. This is apparently a retelling of a Buddhist fable.
'Village of the Watermills' sees our hero find his way to a rustic idyll, where yet another garrulous character explains what's wrong with modern, technological society. The main flaw with AKD is simply that, whenever anyone talks for more than ten seconds, they tend to spout clichés. Here we learn that the modern world is too full of 'inventions', people don't really like their lives, we'd all be happier if we lived more simply. All this may be true, but it feels wrong in an exercise in magical realism. Fortunately, the final sequence culminates in a final, brilliant set piece that speaks far more eloquently of Kurosawa's dreams of pastoral contentment.
It's interesting that, while AKD is the work of one of cinema's greatest exponents, it has all the familiar strengths and weaknesses of the portmanteau horror genre. Some sections are simply weak and poorly-realised, some are over-long or otherwise self-indulgent. But it is also a treasure trove of wonderful images; dreams that may well inspire dreams.