Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams
Unfolding in a series of eight mythic vignettes, this late work by Akira Kurosawa was inspired by the beloved director’s own nighttime visions, along with stories from Japanese folklore. In a visually sumptuous journey through the master’s imagination, tales of childlike wonder give way to apocalyptic apparitions: a young boy stumbles on a fox wedding in a forest; a soldier confronts the ghosts of the war dead; a power-plant meltdown smothers a seaside landscape in radioactive fumes. Interspersed with reflections on the redemptive power of creation, including a richly textured tribute to Vincent van Gogh (who is played by Martin Scorsese), Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams is both a showcase for its maker’s artistry at its most unbridled and a deeply personal lament for a world at the mercy of human ignorance.
The Criterion Collection upgrades their Blu-ray edition of Akira Kurosawa's Dreams to 4K UHD, presenting the film in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a triple-layer disc with a 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition encode in HDR10. The master is sourced from the same 4K restoration (scanned from the 35mm original camera negative) used for Criterin's 2016 Blu-ray edition. The release also includes a standard dual-layer Blu-ray disc that houses a 1080p presentation of the film and all of the release's special features. Other than the disc art (which has been altered), it replicates the 2016 disc exactly.
The jump in improvement from high-definition to 4K is not as significant as what the jump from standard-definition to high-definition delivered (even though Warner's DVD wasn't all that bad, to begin with), but if this still doesn't look gorgeous. Most of that comes down to colors and black levels, which receive the most considerable boost thanks primarily to the broader dynamic range. The colors look spectacular, with bright, bold reds, clean blues and greens, and every shade in between. The vast range in colors is probably best shown within the gradation of the blues found in the blizzard and cave sequences. The ghosts of the soldiers in the latter sequence, with their pasty blue skin, jump out from the pitch-black background of the cave, and the shadow detail present in that sequence is outstanding. There's even more range to be found in the reds of the volcano sequence (with some beautiful hot spots, too), while the Van Gogh and peach tree sequences deliver as broad a spectrum of color as possible. The film has always been bright and bold on video, even on Warner's DVD, but nothing like this. It feels like an entirely different film.
The improvement in resolution also delivers a notable, if not as significant a kick to fine-object detail and the like, with better handling of the film's fine grain. It's not perfect, mind you, with moments here and there that look buzzy, but it still bests the Blu-ray's rendering (which I did give a perfect score at the time) and leads to a cleaner, film-like texture in the end.
The base restoration is, of course, still solid itself, the picture free of any notable damage or imperfections outside of what is present due to optical effects work, which expectedly leads to some slight degradation in quality (all to be expected, of course). All said, it's a gorgeous-looking upgrade.
[Captures Added Aug 21, 2023]
The film features what sounds to be the same 2.0 DTS-HD MA surround soundtrack found on the Blu-ray.
Again, the film's sound design is not what I consider showy, but it has a handful of standout moments. The snowy storm sequence makes ample use of the sound field, with effects being spread (in unison) to the rears. Range is extensive at times, like the volcano sequence, and the quieter moments still come off sharp. Fidelity sounds excellent, voices sound clear, and there is no distortion or damage to speak of. It sounds excellent.
Outside of an audio commentary recorded by Stephen Prince, no features appear on the 4K disc. All video features (along with the commentary) are found on the included standard Blu-ray disc that also houses a 1080p presentation of the film. The disc is a duplicate of Criterion's 2016 Blu-ray, so all content has been ported over.
For his track, Prince focuses on the film’s development and release, sharing details that include how Steven Spielberg and Warner Bros. came to the production's rescue, how Martin Scorsese was cast as Van Gogh, and what effects work Industrial Light & Magic did, while also bringing up sequences that were dropped from the film. All that proves interesting, but his most valuable contributions are around the influences for the various vignettes in the movie, explaining how the themes within each—ranging from mortality to the nuclear scare—reflect Kurosawa (and Japan to a degree) at the time, before going over the more autobiographical elements. Again, it's a thoroughly researched and wonderfully paced contribution worth listening to if one hasn't done so yet.
Criterion also includes the lengthy, 150-minute making-of documentary The Making of “Dreams,” directed by House’s Nobuhiko Obayashi. Put together from over 190 hours of footage, the film offers some terrific behind-the-scenes footage around the vignettes that make up the film. It also looks at the film’s art design and storyboards with comparisons to the matching scenes. Obayashi also animates the artwork for one of Kurosawa’s deleted dream sequences. Edited into all of this are clips from an interview between Kurosawa and Obayashi, where Kurosawa talks about the influences, not just on this film but his work as a whole (Abel Gance’s La roue, which he pays tribute to in Dreams, had a considerable impact on him). Unfortunately, this film was put together on video and is laced with lousy video effects while also being pretty terrible concerning video quality. Still, it’s a fascinating document on making the film and Kurosawa’s work leading up to it.
Another excellent addition is the 2011 documentary Kurosawa’s Way, a 52-minute piece on Kurosawa’s lasting influence, gathering together other filmmakers like Bernardo Bertolucci, Theo Angelopoulos, Alejandro Inarritu, Julie Taymor, Abbas Kiarostami, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Hayao Miyazaki, John Woo, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, and Joon-ho Bong. The filmmakers all recall their introduction to Kurosawa, what struck them most about the films, and how his influence can be found in their work (I particularly like Eastwood’s, who in some small indirect way probably owes his career to Kurosawa). Both Woo and Scorsese talk about Kurosawa’s editing, with Scorsese discussing a specific scene in Ikiru that sticks with him. Scorsese also talks about getting the role of Van Gogh in Dreams and his aim to make the filmmaker happy as best he could. I liked hearing from the filmmakers, particularly their personal stories, but I appreciated this piece more for showing the lasting impact of Kurosawa’s work.
The disc then features two interviews (recorded for Criterion's Blu-ray edition), one with script supervisor Teruyo Nogami and another with assistant director Takashi Koizumi. Both explain how they first came to work with Kurosawa (Nogami on Rashomon and Koizumi on the television documentary Song of the Horse) before discussing their work on this film. Nogami focuses mainly on Kurosawa’s hands-on work on the set and with other crew members. At the same time, Koizumi talks about the development of the script, some of the digital effects, and even Godzilla director Ishiro Honda’s participation in the film (it’s suspected here and on the commentary track that “The Tunnel” is based on his own WWII experience since Kurosawa wasn’t conscripted). Running about 17 minutes and 16 minutes, respectively, the two fondly recall Kurosawa and their work on this film.
The disc then closes with the North American theatrical trailer. The included booklet replicates the one found in the previous Blu-ray edition, featuring an excellent essay by Bilge Ebiri on the film’s structure and how it differs from the director’s other work. The booklet also presents an excerpt of the later abandoned ninth sequence (because of costs) from the original script.
Again, it's still disappointing that Criterion doesn't see any point in producing new features for their 4K upgrades, but it still features a satisfying collection of material that bests Warner's barebones DVD edition.
Criterion's 4K presentation for Kurosawa's late masterpiece delivers a considerable upgrade over Criterion's previous high-definition one, thanks primarily to the broader color palette afforded by the format and HDR.
[Captures Added Aug 21, 2023]