Cinema: Night Tales, Magically Told

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AKIRA KUROSAWA'S DREAMS Directed and Written by Akira Kurosawa

Death has always haunted Akira Kurosawa. How we face it and evade it, how we sometimes embrace it, and how we are sometimes granted temporary reprieves from it -- these are matters he has taken up in almost all his movies, no matter what their other preoccupations.

That death therefore haunts his Dreams, his 28th film, is not surprising. In the first of these eight short narratives -- all, according to the great director, drawn from incidents and images of his sleep -- a child, obviously the young Kurosawa, is introduced to the idea of mortality. On a day both sunny and rainy, his mother warns him not to leave the house. In such weather foxes hold their weddings, and they take a terrible vengeance on those who spy on their secret ceremonies. Of course, the boy must see this woodland spectacle (wonderfully realized by masked dancers) and is himself seen. His mother then tells him that if he hopes to live, he must beg the creatures' forgiveness. The episode closes with the child in search of the rainbow, under which the animals are said to live.

In the final episode, a lovely pastoral set in a village of water mills, a 103-year-old man explains the secret of longevity to the figure (Akira Terao) who is Kurosawa's surrogate in six of these tales. In essence, he tells him to live in harmony with nature, avoiding the tempting conveniences of technology. But the night is so dark without electricity, the young man complains. "It's supposed to be dark," says the old fellow, who is last seen benignly dancing in a funeral procession.

Between first acknowledgment of mortality and this final acceptance of it, we see death attempting to lure a mountaineer lost in a blizzard; we share the guilt of an army officer -- the only member of his unit to survive the war - -- as he confronts the ghosts of his fallen comrades; we literally enter Van Gogh's paintings and find the artist (played by director Martin Scorsese) indifferent to death, obsessed with capturing nature's true spirit. In one of Kurosawa's most magically told tales, a child is forced to confront his hidden feelings about his family's carelessness in cutting down a peach orchard. It prefigures two later dreams (rather conventionally apocalyptic, alas), about an atomic accident and about postnuclear life, in which the human family heedlessly destroys its entire world.

Kurosawa's delicate but insistent linkage of individual fate with the world's fate permits Dreams to avoid solipsism and grants it a certain cautionary urgency. What really compels one's attention, however, is not what he is saying but how he is saying it. At 80, Kurosawa, like many an older artist before him, is impatient with artifice; he has long since proved himself a master of complex narrative. Now he wants to tell what he knows as simply as possible. There are no wild juxtapositions of the creatures of his sleeping world with the images of his waking world. They are, after all, products of the same sensibility. The rhythms of his editing and his staging are serene -- hypnotically so. His is not to shock us into surrendering to his visions but to seduce our consent to them. And this he does in one of the most lucid dreamworks ever placed on film.