The Edge of Dreamland : In ‘Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams,’ the filmmaker sees a world of startling beauty and surreal encounters; it wasn’t an easy movie to sell


A one-horned demon weeps over man’s destruction of nature. A little boy spies on a wedding procession of foxes moving through the forest. A young man steps into a van Gogh painting and meets the artist. Mt. Fuji is consumed by the flames from a nuclear power plant accident.

“Shooting,” says 80-year-old director Akira Kurosawa, “can be such a hassle.” The biggest hassle he faced during the eight months it took to shoot the eight separate stories that make up his latest feature, “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams,” was simply “getting these images inside my head onto film.”

Its contents aren’t the only things that make “Dreams” an out-of-the-ordinary project. At $12 million, it is about three times as expensive as the average Japanese feature film, making it roughly equivalent to a $69-million American film. The entire budget, at a time of increasing Japanese investment in Hollywood, had to be raised outside Japan. One of the dreams deals with an exceptionally sensitive subject most Japanese studios were loath to touch. Its top-lined star is a former professional rock ‘n’ roll musician whose acting career has never really taken off; a co-star is the leader of a five-man comedy team condemned by concerned-parents groups (including the Japanese PTA) for its “vulgarity.”


The omnibus structure of the film has perhaps only one real precedent in the Kurosawa canon, an obscure, one-week-in-the-making 1946 release, “Those Who Make Tomorrow,” which the director has since disowned. His last film to make prominent use of a dream was “Dodesukaden,” in 1970, his only unqualified box-office flop.

Donald Richie, author of “The Films of Akira Kurosawa” and the English-language subtitler of “Dreams,” confesses to mixed emotions about the film. Although Richie admires Kurosawa’s “obvious sincerity,” he is unhappy with what he sees as this latest example of the director’s increasing fascination with expressionism--”Nothing is more expressionistic than dreams,” he says. And he complains that Kurosawa’s later output has become “indulgent in the same way that films by people his age often are.”

Kurosawa is prepared for even stronger criticism. Director Martin Scorsese, who makes a cameo appearance in “Dreams” as Vincent van Gogh, recalls attending a press conference at which Kurosawa broke up the assembled Japanese journalists by declaring--twice--that the Japanese people will “hate” the film.

In conversation, the intensely private Kurosawa combines an almost endearingly shy demeanor with quotable outspokenness. He declares flatly, despite much evidence to the contrary, that he’s “not admired” by Japanese critics and calls executives at Toho, his longtime studio, “childish.” With a slight, dismissive wave of an ever-present cigarette, he says that writing the screenplay for “Dreams” went “just like that”--two months, maybe less, completed within a year of the 1985 release of “Ran,” his epic adaptation of “King Lear.”

“What took time,” he says, “was raising the money.”

“Dreams” is the 29th film in a career that began when Franklin Roosevelt was midway through his third term as President and Hirohito was younger than Dan Quayle. Twenty-three of those films--an average of about one a year--were made before 1965 and include “Rashomon,” “The Seven Samurai,” “Ikiru,” “The Bad Sleep Well” and “High and Low.” In the past quarter century, however, Kurosawa has made only six films, half of them financed wholly or in part by foreign sources. Asking why a man so widely admired for his cinematic achievements has such difficulty getting financing in his own country is a bit like asking what really happens in “Rashomon.”

Hisao Kurosawa, the director’s son and co-producer of “Dreams,” unsuccessfully approached “four or five” Japanese companies, but won’t divulge any names. His father is not quite so reticent.

Barely concealing his irritation, Kurosawa sounds unwilling to forgive any time soon his rejection by Toho, the studio for whom he has made the majority of his films. After being turned down, Kurosawa ran into “some people from Toho who’d heard I was going to be making a new film and asked me what it was about. When I told them, ‘I’m making a film from the script we showed you,’ they acted surprised that I’d been able to get the money for it. That’s how large the gap in understanding is between us now.”

A smaller gap in understanding momentarily hampered initial negotiations for financing outside Japan. In the spring of 1988, Yasuo (Mike) Inoue --the film’s other co-producer and Kurosawa’s nephew--sent longtime Kurosawa admirer Steven Spielberg an English-language version of the screenplay prepared by a professional translation service. Spielberg wrote back saying that he eagerly looked forward to receiving a final draft, thinking he had read only a sketchy treatment.

A retranslation by an embarrassed Inoue, whose own English is nearly flawless, and Greg Knapp, an American who had previously co-written the Japanese sci-fi thriller released abroad as “Virus,” drew a promise from Spielberg of full cooperation. By August, Inoue went to California accompanied by Akira and Hisao Kurosawa to meet with representatives of Warner Bros., including president Terry Semel. The meeting concluded with a verbal go-ahead, followed within two months by a completed contract giving Warner worldwide distribution rights and Kurosawa a share of the profits.

Though grateful for Warner’s participation, Hisao Kurosawa is slightly miffed by the widespread assumption in Japan that the studio simply handed over a pile of greenbacks. “We raised the money,” he declares. Warner agreed to a negative pick-up arrangement, promising to pay $12 million upon delivery of a completed film. With this agreement in hand, Kurosawa Productions--through its wholly owned American subsidiary, Akira Kurosawa USA--then secured a fixed-rate European loan from a California bank whose ownership was then changing from American to Japanese hands.

Two of the dreams in the original 11-dream script were dropped before shooting began. One, concerning Buddhist priests protesting a temple tax, was thought too arcane for overseas audiences; the other would have required budget-busting special effects to create the illusion of humans flying. There were fears that it would seem derivative to anyone familiar with the conclusion of Spielberg’s “E.T.” What was to have been the film’s final dream, in which TV newscasters from various countries announce an unexpected outbreak of world peace, was eliminated nearly three months into shooting, said Inoue, to enhance continuity and ensure that the film didn’t run too long.

Teruyo Nogamis has worked for Kurosawa for nearly four decades, first as a script girl, in recent years as his production manager (and, she adds mischievously, “baby sitter”). From her perspective, hassles--once shooting got underway in January 1989--have been held to a manageable number in this film.

There was the location on the southernmost of Japan’s four major islands that had to be abandoned --and Mt. Fuji substituted--when a volcano there began to erupt. Then there was the transportation of the 70-member cast and crew from a small town on the country’s northernmost main island back to Tokyo during the tail end of the Festival of the Dead season, a peak summer travel period.

A studio-created blizzard had a masked and goggled crew begging for mercy from the salt, alum and plastic-foam admixture substituting for snow and the three eardrum-shattering jet engine fans used to keep it blowing during 10 days of shooting.

Costume designer Eimi Wada, winner of an Oscar for the 1,500 period costumes it took three years to hand-make for “Ran,” was helped by Kurosawa’s daughter, Kazuko, who scoured rural Japan in search of traditional artisans, not all of them eager to have their wares displayed in a film by a world-famed director. One reclusive craftsman had friends circulate the story that he had died in order to discourage Kazuko, and reluctantly agreed to make headdresses for the film only on the condition that he be paid for them one at a time. He wouldn’t produce them in volume, says Kazuko, because “he couldn’t trust people from Tokyo.”

Theories abound on the reasons Kurosawa has such difficulty getting Japanese financing for his films. Nearly everyone connected with “Dreams” feels certain that prospective domestic investors were made very nervous by “Mt. Fuji in Red,” the dream sequence in which special effects from George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic and 1,300 extras are used to create a nightmarish vision of the nuclear destruction of one of Japan’s best-known national symbols. With the possible exception of a black comedy about the violent overthrow of the emperor, there is probably nothing Japanese companies want less to be associated with than a cautionary tale about the dangers of nuclear power. The dangers of atomic weapons, yes: There are frequent films or television specials dealing with the August 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Japan is more dependent on nuclear reactors for its electrical needs than any other country but France and West Germany.

“We only think we need nuclear reactors because the power companies have convinced us we need to use a lot of electricity in order to live well,” says Kurosawa. Since more than a quarter of all electrical output is generated by reactors, Kurosawa says, the influence and awe of the nuclear power industry are pervasive. “If one company were to back my film,” he says, “it’d have to worry that any other company it does business with would take offense.

“It’s no use trying to tell companies that ‘Mt. Fuji in Red’ is a dream; they’re just too conservative to deal with this subject,” Kurosawa says.

Acknowledging that a worried concern for nature underlies this and other dream sequences, Kurosawa does not exactly leap to defend Japan against charges that it is a worldwide environmental predator.

“There’s some truth in that,” he says. “Man is part of nature, and if nature is destroyed, where does that leave man? Where does that leave the earth?”

Actress Mitsuka Baisho, who was cast in “Dreams” as a character modeled on Kurosawa’s mother, is quick to point out that Kurosawa--who wanted a January-to-August shooting schedule in order to incorporate as many of Japan’s four seasons as possible--is no late convert to the save-the-planet movement.

“Look at his early films,” she says, “and you’ll see that when the wind blows, it really whooshes , and when the rain falls, it comes down in sheets. He’s a man who respects nature because he knows what it’s capable of doing.”

Hisao Kurosawa believes that if his father had decided to repeat himself and direct “another ‘Yojimbo’ ” (the 1961 period film remade by Sergio Leone in ’67 as “A Fistful of Dollars”), finding financial backers in Japan would have been easy. “(‘Dreams’) is not what you’d call ‘fun for the whole family’ like the Indy Jones series. If you were just to read the screenplay, I don’t think you could understand what the film is about.” Much about “Dreams” is highly personal, and in Tokyo, as in Hollywood, potential investors equate personal with inaccessible .

The delicate, fairy tale-like “Peach Orchard”--in which a young boy sees dolls come to life and a former peach orchard bloom again--seems to have been inspired by a fondly remembered moment in Kurosawa’s own childhood when he and his favorite older sister, Momoyo, played before a display of startlingly lifelike dolls. March 3--the date on which the dream takes place, and on which this particular incident occurred in Kurosawa’s life--is known to Japanese as both the Doll Festival and the Peach Festival. The first of the two ideograms in Kurosawa’s sister’s name is that for “peach”; it is also the first ideogram in her kaimyo, or the name given to Buddhists upon their death. But how much of this, if anything, do audiences need to know in order to understand this particular dream?

“The most important thing,” Kurosawa says, “is for viewers to feel the integrity of the experience. A film isn’t a book--the audience can’t flip back a couple of pages and reread a difficult passage. The director can’t interrupt the story to put in an explanatory footnote.” Though Kurosawa appears pleased and a little surprised that anyone would take the time to learn something about his past, he sidesteps confirming the connections between that past and any of his eight dreams. Scorsese, who readily acknowledges the autobiographical content of some of his own films, appreciates Kurosawa’s reluctance to spell out the overlaps between reel and real life. “When you use the word autobiographical, “ he says, “people think it happened to us in exactly that way. No! The events have been transformed.”

Regularly displaying what daughter Kazuko calls an “indifference to who is salable,” Kurosawa has driven studio executives to distraction by using actors unknown, forgotten or, as in the case of the female impersonator he cast in “Ran,” unusual. As in the past, he served as his own casting director on “Dreams,” and a few of his choices left even some admirers nonplussed. One, film critic Nao Kisaragi, speaks for many colleagues when she says of the film’s lead actor: ‘He can’t act particularly well, and he’s not very attractive, either.” “Dreams” received mixed reviews when it opened in Japan in May.

Son of one of Japan’s most revered actors, Akira Terao released the country’s top-selling LP in 1981 and hasn’t come close to duplicating that feat since. His TV and film work (he had a substantial role in “Ran”) have not made him bankable in either medium. But suggestions that Terao owes his part to a longtime friendship with the director’s son, who supposedly pulled strings, may be wide of the mark.

The senior Kurosawa readily concedes that Terao, after nearly two decades in show business without a box-office hit or a major critical award for his acting, is not yet a “big star,” but maintains that’s “probably because he doesn’t want to be a big star. These so-called big stars don’t have anything about them anymore that can truthfully be described as natural. That, I think, has a very bad effect on the other actors they work with and hurts the whole film.” (Terao refused requests to be interviewed).

Chosuke Ikariya, on the other hand, is a big star, though not in films, and his working with Kurosawa, at first blush, seems as incongruous as the idea of Robert Bresson directing Milton Berle. From 1969 to 1985, Ikariya and four other slapshtickers known collectively as the Drifters hosted a Saturday-night comedy-variety TV program that regularly stomped the opposition and inflamed the wrath of protect-the-kids organizations. The group, which occasionally still does popular TV specials, were known for showing blackened teeth, female breasts and male genitalia to get laughs.

Playing the title character in the dream sequence entitled “The Weeping Demon,” Ikariya says he frustrated Kurosawa with his inability to “see” what the screenplay describes as a “scene of utter desolation.” Finally, the director asked the comedian to recall the Westerns of John Wayne. “He said, ‘Remember how the actors in those films convinced you they were looking at the Old West even though the Old West was no longer around? That’s what you’ve got to do.’ ”

If these factors were not enough to sink the project, there was what Inoue calls the director’s reputation for spending money. Although $12 million is practically chump change by Hollywood standards, only five films--three American, two Japanese--earned rentals in excess of this amount in Japan in ’89 (compared to 46 films in the American-Canadian market the same year). As Nogami says, “It’s no idle rumor. He does go over budget.”

When Hisao Kurosawa began the search for financing four years ago, his father still held the dubious distinction of having directed two of the three most expensive Japanese films ever made. Kurosawa admits needing a lot of money, but rails at stories charging him with Michael Ciminoesque profligacy. “The press once claimed that I hired a private chef because I didn’t like the food (the Toho studio) was serving. A private chef!” he snorts. “My wife was fixing me boxed lunches.”

By most accounts, Kurosawa agreed to appear in televised commercials last year for an electronics firm and a whiskey distiller not for private gain, but to have cash to plow into the film, if necessary. “I don’t think he particularly wanted to do them,” says Nogami. Two Japanese corporations paid dearly for Kurosawa’s services; Despite the difficulties he faces getting his films made, the director is still regarded by the Japanese public as a world-class superstar.

Kurosawa is bothered by domestic journalists who take a predictable approach in their stories about him. “I’m a normal human being, so I do get angry, but I’m not angry all the time. Journalists, however, have reached a consensus about the type of person I am, so whatever they write reflects this one opinion. Naturally, this upsets me.” When Nogami interjects that the press has demonstrated a “great deal of goodwill toward (“Dreams”),” Kurosawa remains silently noncommittal.

Seated in the shade of an inn garden in Kyoto, Kurosawa says that he has a recurring dream of a huge mountain where a Tokyo train station should be. He pauses, then confesses, “I’m afraid I can’t tell you what it means.”

As he talks, he rubs his legs, complaining that they often give him trouble. He has to be helped to his feet after sitting at floor level for long periods of time. He sometimes rotates his arms in an effort to steady his balance when climbing steps. “I’m sure,” Togami confides, “many of the people we talked to about financing were worried about his age. They just wouldn’t say so out loud.”

Not everyone shares those worries. Shochiku, one of Japan’s four major studios, agreed to finance the octogenarian’s next film, whose working title is “Rhapsody in August.” Kurosawa began shooting the project--in which Richard Gere plays a half-Japanese man--a month and a half after the opening of “Dreams” in Japan.

Behind the tinted glasses Kurosawa has to wear after a lifetime under studio lights are the undimmed eyes of a perfectionist. About 15 feet away from where he sits is a small, five-tiered stone sculpture. There’s something that bothers him about it and, after tilting his head slightly, he realizes what it is. “The middle tier is misaligned,” he declares.

The inn’s owner at first disputes this. Though it’s not glaringly obvious, Kurosawa is right. He gets up slowly and pads over for a closer examination, pointing out the barely perceptible flaw. He nods to himself, satisfied that nothing imperfect can pass his inspection.

* THE JAPANESE MASTERS: A 16-film festival of the post-war era, Page 38.