written and directed by Akira Kurosawa
Hitting 80 at the time of this film's release, Kurosawa's life and career were starting to slow down. So after using RAN to vent his rage and despair at the younger generations that shoved him aside, he seems to have cooled and took this film, a collection of his actual dreams, to reach back and reflect on his life.
Sunshine Through the Rain
When it starts to rain on a sunny day, a boy is told by his mother that he should stay indoors because this is the weather the foxes of the forest have their weddings in (picture a Noh routine from the cast of CATS), and they don't appreciate the prying eyes of us humans. So, of course, the boy goes to watch.
Right up front, the cinematography is among the finest in Kurosawa's career. Not as piercing as his early use of wide angle lenses, nor as distant as his recent love-affair with telephoto, this finds a nice balance between the two with a polish and glow that show he's finally got a firm handle on the colors he once so vibrantly blew to life. And I believe this is the first use of F/X in his films that I can recall, with a beautiful composite matte over a field of shimmering flowers.
The Peach Orchard
In another childhood dream, a boy follows the fleeing figure of a girl to a staggered field where a peach orchard used to grow. There he's confronted by the dolls used in an annual celebration of the fruit, who berate him for the neglect his family showed to the trees.
While little more than an excuse to slip some more Noh theatrics on the screen, Kurosawa arranges it masterfully with a colorful, multi-teared performance. And props to his inventiveness for immediately following their traditional music with a western bit of pipe organ praise, which is in turn followed by the jingle of a xylophone.
A quartet of men trudge through a frozen wasteland. Their faces are frostbitten and their clothes caked with ice. They can't agree what direction they're heading in or how long they've been out. All they can do is put one foot in front of the other.
This one starts out a pure, haunting nightmare, filmed entirely in agonizing slow-motion with no sounds at first aside from rasping breath, clomping footsteps, and the endless howl of wind. I really have to give Kurosawa props because I could absolutely feel the hell these men were stuck in and wished I could wake up.
Unfortunately, it takes a sidetrack with the sudden appearance of a spirit which significantly cuts the horror.
Following the war, a retired soldier is walking down a road, when he comes to a tunnel. It's guarded by a demonic dog and seems to be filled with the spirits of his fallen comrades.
This one starts off strong with what I'd call Kurosawa's closest attempt at a pure horror flick, but once the dead soldiers pop up, it falls flat with nothing new to offer that I haven't seen in a dozen TWILIGHT ZONE imitators. I know this segment was either partially or entirely directed by Ishiro Honda, but I don't think that's the problem because there's no significant difference in the filmmaking quality that I can spot. I just think it's a mediocre story.
Here is where we're introduced to a recurring character who we'll follow throughout the rest of the flick. He's a young man I call The Director, because his lanky build, clothes, and signature hat are obviously modelled after Kurosawa.
While looking over the works of Vincent van Gough at a museum, The Director find himself entering one of the paintings and, after meeting up with the eccentric painter, goes on a journey through more of the masterful works.
As with all of his appearances in the film, Akira Terao makes for a nice protagonist as The Director. He keeps things subtle and doesn't draw undue attention, acting mainly as an everyman point of view for the audience. And who's that as Vincent Van Gough? None other than director Martin Scorsese! While I wish someone would've polished up the translation of his dialogue just a tad, he cuts quite the figure as the eccentric painter who dishes out just a tiny bit of advice before the sun compels him to wander off and paint something more.
Kurosawa takes this opportunity to stage a few brilliant recreations of the master's painting, capturing everything but the thickness of the strokes. I almost wish the budget was higher because most of the later journey through art is done with some painfully obvious blue screen and it would've been neat to see Kurosawa bring more of them to life.
Mount Fuji in Red
We're back to nightmare mode as nuclear anxiety literally erupts across the screen. It seems all six of those newfangled nuclear reactors in Japan have gone the way of Chernobyl and all the atomic energy they've pumped into the atmosphere is driving Mt. Fuji into full-on eruption.
Through The Director's eyes, we see the striking composite work of the chain reaction, the screaming crowds with nowhere to run but the depths of the sea, and the slowly gathering clouds of radiation waiting to gobble up whoever's left behind.
The Weeping Demon
In what might be considered a sequel to the last short, The Director wanders through the deserts outside of a rubbled city. The only plants that grow any more are giant dandelions, and it's in a grove of these weeds that he meets a demonically horned man, the victim of nuclear mutation, who discusses with him the fate of a humanity with nothing left to consume but itself.
Let me take a moment to point out the excellent production design work here. Not only are the giant dandelions flawlessly realistic, but the horned humans are pulled off in a way that feels operatic and tragic instead of silly, which I honestly thought they'd be.
Village of the Watermills
After the apocalyptic hell of the last two nightmares, brightness once again prevails as The Director finds himself in a little riverside village filled with watermills. Here the people are free of modern convenience and pesky science, live full lives up to 100 or older, and take each passing as an opportunity to celebrate life instead of mourning death.
And thus we come full course. We started with the simple fears and desires of a child, then the deeper scenarios of a developing mind, the anxieties and existential questioning of adults, and finally the acceptance of old age. While I can't say I agreed with the fatalistic messages of a number of the shorts, Kurosawa was 80 at the time and had certainly earned the right to feel what he felt.
But the filmmaking, man was it beautiful. I thought his technique was starting to slip in RAN, but here it's not only still alive with his depth of color, composition of camera, texture of fabric, vibrancy of nature, and smoothness of editing, but I won't hesitate to say that this is some of the sharpest filmmaking of his career. While I don't think it's a movie for everyone and some will likely be turned away by its episodic nature and dream logic, it's truly worthy of the word masterpiece.
(internet movie database)