You might think there could be no more diametrically opposed directors than Akira Kurosawa – best known for his naturalistic (by jidaigeki standards anyway) three hour epic Seven Samurai, and Nobuhiko Obayashi whose madcap, psychedelic, horror musical Hausu continues to over shadow a far less strange career than might be expected. However, Dreams is a major aberration in Kurosawa’s back catalogue, eschewing his more straightforwardly conventional approach for an exercise in surrealist social commentary inspired by classic noh theatre traditions. Obayashi was also on hand in an ancillary capacity, capturing the making of a late Kurosawa classic. This is no mere “making of”, as the opening crawl makes clear, but an in depth examination of Kurosawa’s career to date conducted director to director with reverence and sensitivity for a veteran talent.
Broadly moving through the film chronologically, Obayashi includes a decent amount of typical “behind the scenes” footage from the first episode in which the young I unwisely peeps on a solemn fox wedding, right through the to classic turn from Chishu Ryu as a wise old man living a natural life in harmony with the rhythms of the Earth. The footage is captured on a selection of video cameras typical of the time with all of their low grade resolution though they often capture unexpected sides of the production process. On set, Kurosawa is a genial if sometimes exacting presence, taking the time to apologise after speaking a little too harshly to a child actor, thanking his crew for waiting around so long in the cold, and reminding them to take care travelling home on the icy roads.
Where the film differs from the general “making of” DVD extras is in the typical Obayashi touches in the presentation of his material which is assembled from over 190 hours of footage and runs half an hour longer than the film itself. Obayashi is very keen to showcase Kurosawa’s artistic storyboards, often contrasting the illustrations either with the raw live footage or completed film by means of super imposition or split screen. Later he also adds in animatic storyboard manipulation, overlapping with the completed footage similarly bleached into a manga-esque black and white outline. Obayashi then spins the other way with an even more meta approach by incorporating classic cinematic references as in the opening and closing of the iris, classic Kurosawa side and horizontal wipes, and setting Kurosawa’s meeting with a foreign director inside the frame of a film negative itself. Neatly moving from a concept drawing to placing the finished image within that same panel, Obayashi takes us from thought to realisation by means of a simple yet effective visual technique.
The second biggest draw is in the intercut footage from a long discussion between the two directors in which Obayashi interviews Kurosawa about his long career and working methods. Illuminating his ideas of Dreams in particular Kurosawa states his intentions to chart the course of a life very similar to his own, but also emphasises what he feels has become the central theme of his work – humanity and its refusal to choose the path of happiness. Obayashi also raises the sometimes controversial topic of the position of women in Kurosawa’s cinema which is often said to be overly masculine. Kurosawa semi-rejects this view of his work, but admits that early criticism left him less willing to engage with women’s stories. After casting Setsuko Hara in No Regrets for Our Youth, her character was frequently criticised as being “unwomanly”, or appearing too masculine in her behaviour. A claim Kurosawa rejects, but this unwillingness to accept the existence of “strong” women from critics looking for reflections of their own world view seemingly put him off the idea of attempting to capture women’s stories, lacking the confidence to do so properly.
Moving from black and white to colour and using montages and super impositions, Obayashi re-orders and re-imagines his recollections just as van Gogh does his world through his paintings in one of the film’s most elaborate sequences. “Making of Dreams” therefore becomes a much more interesting title than it first appears, not only detailing a “making of” this particular film but all films in so far as a film is a dream. A meeting of minds in more ways than one, Obayashi’s film demonstrates his reverence and affection for the veteran director but his contribution amounts to more than a simple exchange of views and experiences in a mutually illuminating commentary on the careers of these essentially very different artists.