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Film Club: Dreams (1990)

Akira Kurosawa's DreamsHappy new year! We kick off 2015 with Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (Yume), which will be our film club title for January. So, gather the leftover cakes and cookies, make a cup of tea and throw the film into your player!

Towards the end of last year, we watched Kagemusha and Ran, which were something of a comeback for Kurosawa’s career. While promoting the latter film, Kurosawa often indicated that he had poured all of his remaining creative energy into the work, yet soon after its release the director was already working on his next feature.

For this next film, Kurosawa chose a project very different from almost anything that he had done before. Although some of his earlier works like Kagemusha and Drunken Angel had included dream sequences, Dreams would be entirely based on the director’s own dreams.

Perhaps due to its personal nature, for the first time in over forty years Kurosawa wrote the screenplay alone, a process which took him around two months. The film was personal also in other ways, as his son Hisao who had already helped in the production of Kagemusha and Ran, took the role of a principal producer together with Mike Inoue, Kurosawa’s nephew whose script had thirty years earlier worked as the basis for The Bad Sleep Well. Kurosawa’s daughter Kazuko was also involved, working at the wardrobe department under Emi Wada, who had just won an Academy Award for her work on Ran. By his side were also many long-time friends and associates, including Ishirō Honda and Teruyo Nogami.

Although the estimated budget of Dreams was lower than those of Kagemusha and Ran, Japanese studios were still unwilling to back a Kurosawa production, and so Kurosawa turned once again to foreign investors. This time, he found a supporter in American filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who convinced the entertainment corporation Warner Bros. to buy the international rights to the completed film. This made it easier for Hisao, who was by now about to take over as the head of Kurosawa Production, to negotiate a loan which would cover the film’s production costs. With financing thus secured, shooting began on January 10, 1989, and took more than eight months to complete. Dreams premiered at Cannes on May 10, 1990 to a polite but muted reception, which was repeated when the film was released around the world.

Kurosawa’s stock remained high, however. Two months before the premiere of Dreams, on March 26, 1990, Kurosawa attended the 62nd Academy Awards in Los Angeles, where he received an Honorary Award “for cinematic accomplishments that have inspired, delighted, enriched and entertained worldwide audiences and influenced filmmakers throughout the world”. The award was given to him by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. In his brief acceptance speech, the 80-year-old filmmaker pondered whether the award was deserved and looked forward to continuing with his career: “I’m a little worried, because I don’t feel that I understand cinema yet. I really don’t feel that I have yet grasped the essence of cinema. Cinema is a marvellous thing, but to grasp its true essence is very, very difficult. But what I promise you is that from now on I will work as hard as I can at making movies and maybe by following this path I will achieve an understanding of the true essence of cinema and earn this award.”

Dreams is perhaps the most divisive of all of Kurosawa’s films, and thanks to its wide availability at a time when Kuroaswa’s earlier works were poorly available on home video, also one of his most watched. It is seen by many as simplistic, didactic and not very dreamlike, whereas others have praised it for its visuals, message and dreamlike nature.

What is your take on Dreams? Let us know in the comments or in the forums!

For more information about our Akira Kurosawa film club, see the film club page. For the home video availability of Dreams, see the DVD section.





Wow, that was kind of … disjointed. When it wasn’t random, it was didactic, but with the exception of Mount Fuji in Red, which didn’t much for me, I liked the didactic segments/dreams better than the others. The Tunnel, Crows, and Village of the Windmills were my favorites. While the obvious artificiality of some of the sets didn’t always work for me and the colors were hypersaturated, the scenes featuring grass and bright pastel flowers were visually arresting.

There’s been very little discussion of this film here previously. Anyone else have anything to contribute?


Vili Maunula

I guess we don’t really have much to say about this film, do we?

It is an interesting film, though. Together with Something Like An Autobiography, Dreams is the most directly autobiographical of Kurosawa’s works, as the order and content of the segments would suggest a biographical rather than psychoanalytic intent. It is something like a visual autobiography, to contrast with the textual one that he had published a decade earlier. Neither work is of course entirely factually honest, and they both fully admit it.

Even with Kurosawa’s biography firmly at the back of your mind, much of Dreams is expressionistic rather than explanatory. Yet, in contrast, when it comes to the topics that it raises verbally, the film is unabashedly direct, as if to make sure that what it has to say aloud is understood across all barriers, whether they are communicative, generational, linguistic or cultural. “These are the things that I care about”, it seems to say. It isn’t really bothered if these thoughts come across as unrefined or whether they really work narratively. It just wants them out there.

And yet again, in an interview in 1993 (published in Interviews), Kurosawa says that it is not his intention “to impose my specific philosophy on a film. If I had a message or thesis to express, I could do so in words, and it would be much cheaper and quicker to paint those words on a sign and carry it around for all to see.” For large parts of the film, Dreams seems like an exception to this declared intent, a painted sign. Alternatively, we must read more into the film’s directness than seems possible.

Dreams is also the film where Kurosawa creates himself the most opportunities to attempt to catch and understand those moments of pure cinematic beauty which, especially in his late career, he often talked about. It also experiments with sound design, probably being the most sonically adventurous of all of Kurosawa’s films.

It is a curious work.



I’m very far behind on my viewing, not least because of a difficulty I’m having with my non-Region 2 DVD’s, plus work pressures. I will hopefully catch up on the past few months films sometime over the next few weeks. Dreams is one of those AK films I haven’t actually seen yet. To be honest, there is something about the clips I’ve seen that don’t appeal to me.



I think that Dreams was the first film by Kurosawa that I ever saw and the last time that I watched it in full was more than a decade ago. Still, it left an impression on me – the fox wedding, the scene set in hell, the van Gogh sequence, and the Village of the Water Wheels, in particular.

When I lived in Nagano I lived very close to Azumino Dai-O wasabi farm where the Village of Water Wheels sequence was shot. There is at least one water wheel still in operation at the farm but I think the rest featured in the film were just props.

From recollection, the dreams featured in the film were based on actual dreams that Kurosawa had had. This idea of keeping a “dream diary” (Yume Nikki) seems to have been common in Japan historically with Buddhist monks keeping records, for instance. I also know that more recently there have been video games created using material from the developers’ own dream diaries. Are there any other Japanese film makers that you can name that have done anything similar?


Vili Maunula

That’s a great question, Shintsurezuregusa. It reminded me that I never finished the game Yume Nikki (didn’t even get very far), and that I once bought Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz’s book The Dreams, partly because I really like Mahfouz’s prose, but also with the specific purpose of comparing it to Kurosawa’s Dreams. I don’t think that I have opened it yet.

I can’t really think of other dream diary type of films, from Japan or elsewhere. Maybe someone else can help us here?

Of course, even with Kurosawa, while the episodes are supposedly recollections of actual dreams that he had, there is a unifying narrative arc, which has actually caused some reviewers to suggest that the episodes are not dream-like at all, and that they (especially the more didactic episodes) are too much like films to really be called “dreams”.

But I wonder if this type of criticism approaches the subject from entirely the wrong angle. Perhaps Kurosawa’s dreams really were quite film-like. I know that mine tend to be, and I would attribute that to the fact that even if I never ended up the filmmaker that I wanted to be when I grew up, I still seem to process much of the world in terms of film narration. It wouldn’t surprise me if the brain of someone like Kurosawa — who practically lived and breathed film — processed everything, including dreams, as something to be written and directed, even while sleeping.

I don’t know if that makes sense, but basically, in a large part of my own dreams I am either the director, the writer or one of the actors — or a combination of these — and the dream/film is being constructed while I am dreaming, often with multiple takes for the same scenes, and scrapped storylines when something doesn’t really work. As this happens, I am usually aware of it being a dream and therefore at least half consciously able to affect the process. There are even dreams that I have “worked on” on multiple subsequent nights, and I have also had dreams which are sequels to previous dreams.

So, if my brain does all this, how would the brain of a filmmaker process dreams?



There is a novel or rather a collection of short stories by Japanese writer Natsume Soseki ( first published around 1908 ) called Ten Nights Dreams. Each short story is a dream but I don’t know if he based these on his own dreams ?
The book was made into a film in Japan where each dream had a different director.
It was available on DVD a couple of years ago.
IMDB info



Thank you for the book and film suggestion Longstone! I’ve read several of Soseki’s stories but I don’t think that I’d even heard of Ten Nights of Dream before. (Speaking of Soseki, the Kon Ichikawa adaptation of Soseki’s Kokoro might be of interest to posters here).

Vili Maunula. I agree that dreams can sometimes follow a narrative arc- and aren’t always a hodgepodge of disjointed imagery as the surrealists, for instance, have tended to represent them – and even when they don’t follow a typical narrative arc or logical sequence, they often will when we try to remember them or explain them to someone else later. The description of the dream isn’t the same as the dream, but nor is the film the director makes the same as film the director has in his or her head.

It probably says a lot about how much we are affected – or conditioned – by cinematic conventions that our dreams are often cinematic (I’m sure other people have had dreams with, for instance, an accompanying soundtrack – I’ve even had dreams with an “ending credits” scroll!).

Dreams are forgettable and unsettling when they don’t follow a narrative arc. When dreams do have some sense of structure to them then they become memorable, and possibly filmable. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched that over an 80 year lifespan Kurosawa would have had eight dreams substantial enough – and memorable enough – to be turned into sequences in a film!



Vili said:

I don’t know if that makes sense, but basically, in a large part of my own dreams I am either the director, the writer or one of the actors — or a combination of these — and the dream/film is being constructed while I am dreaming, often with multiple takes for the same scenes, and scrapped storylines when something doesn’t really work. As this happens, I am usually aware of it being a dream and therefore at least half consciously able to affect the process.

That’s very much like those of my dreams I remember. I don’t know if they qualify as lucid dreams, but I am both in and experiencing the dream and a director viewing what’s going on in the dream. I am always conscious I am dreaming even as I am dreaming. As I am dreaming, I often wonder “why this?”

Settings tend to be surreal — witness a recent dream where the front of the building it took place in, housing a group home/foster home, was a 60s/70s contemporary ranch that was much nicer than I’d expect from such facilities, and the back was a former elementary school. One corner of the home’s kitchen had a wide entryway connecting the house to the school. For some reason, setting is often key in my dreams. Who knows why!



I think that setting – or “dream-scape” – tends to be the most striking thing for a lot of people. Even when I think of Kurosawa’s Dreams I tend to be able to recall the settings more clearly than any of the dialogue, e.g. The fox wedding forest, the peach tree grove, the giant dandelions, “hell”, the mountain in the snow, the railway tunnel, the watermilll village, etc.

Speaking of the watermill village, I found some of the photos that I took when I went there for the first time. I used to visit Dai-O Wasabi Farm quite regularly when I lived in Nagano.







Vili Maunula

Shintsurezuregusa: Dreams are forgettable and unsettling when they don’t follow a narrative arc. When dreams do have some sense of structure to them then they become memorable, and possibly filmable.

I think you are absolutely right here. I have also often wondered whether since I seem so aware of those dreams being dreams I am actually already half awake rather than really dreaming, which would also explain why a large part of the dreams that I can remember are the ones where I can control them to some extent.

Anyway, it’s great to hear about similar dream experiences from both of you. No one I have talked with about this before has confessed to experiencing anything similar, so maybe I just hadn’t talked to big enough film buffs. 🙂

Thanks for the pictures, Shintsurezuregusa! The Dai-O Wasabi Farm looks like a lovely place also in real life.



I don’t consider myself a film buff particularly and don’t think there’s a connection between how I experience my dreams and what I think of film. But I just noticed you weren’t being entirely serious about that, either. 😉

As for the question of whether you’re half-awake when you dream like that, I think the consideration is more where in the sleep cycle the dream occurs. I wake up no less refreshed after dreams like that; if anything, I might feel as though I got more sleep, or more restful sleep. Plus to the extent I can check, a fair amount of time has elapsed, indicating I was in fact asleep. I have fairly bad insomnia, so waking up and checking my Kindle Fire and thus the time isn’t uncommon.

I should also make it clear that all of my dreams that I recall share this quality. It may have more to do with personality or personal hardwiring than anything else.

Another interesting question that came up recently on a book review/academic blog I frequent is how the way one perceives the world influences writing style. I perceive the world largely visually, so when I write, I write cinematically — that is, so it conveys to a reader what they would see and hear if they were watching the events unfold as if it were a film instead of a story.

The actual question raised involved what distinguishes lit fic from other fic, and the blgoger’s answer was the extent to which the book’s effects could not be duplicated in another medium, such as film; the subject of adaptation was also broached.

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