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Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (4K UHD Review)


The Film
The Video (Overall)
HDR Effect
The Audio
The Supplements


In this late career work director Kira Kurosawa creates eight tales directly from his dreams in vivid color-scapes.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

For his follow-up to 1985’s Ran, Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa switched modes from the historical epics that had defined much of his output to the more cerebral and personal themes of Dreams.

The film unfolds in eight vignettes, centering around the “I” character, a stand-in for Kurosawa. It starts with the young I as a boy as he witnesses a forest wedding procession of fox spirits, before the same boy, in another vignette, has a conversation with peach-tree spirits after the entire peach tree orchard is cut down. Moving on to an older I, the film shifts to a group of men struggling through a snowstorm to make their way back to camp, a World War II soldier exiting a haunted tunnel who has survivor’s guilt and is confronted by ghosts of dead soldiers. The film then shifts into the world of Van Gogh, as I, sporting Kurosawa’s signature floppy hat, enters the artist’s painting The Crows and converses with Van Gogh (Martin Scorsese). Then the dreams turn to nightmares as I witnesses a nuclear disaster at Mount Fuji, feeding into the Japanese anxieties over nuclear energy in the post-war era; there’s a segment with nuclear mutants, and lastly, I meets a 103-year-old man in a seemingly utopian village.

The explorations of life, love, death, rebirth, the disaster of war, nuclear threats, and the creative spirit of humanity are deeply philosophical in Dreams. Not every vignette works as well as some of the others, but there is still a cohesiveness and a throughline in the stories that takes us from youth to death. The opening vignettes with the young I standout for their optimism and stunning visuals, their references to Japanese folklore, and Noh. When the tone shifts to more serious examinations of the struggle for life, like the tunnel or the snowstorm, Kurosawa falls back onto his equally powerful aesthetics of fog, long lenses, and shallow focus to home in on the solitude of man.

There is much to take in in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, and not the least of which is his signature color era style of a more vivid than life palette that would have fit in well during the three-strip Technicolor era. This is a beautiful film that shows a stunning use of color probably the best of the filmmaker’s color work, even ahead of Kagemusha, itself a stunningly vivid film.

  • Akira Kurosawa's Dreams  (1990). Screen grab courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
  • Akira Kurosawa's Dreams  (1990). Screen grab courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
  • Akira Kurosawa's Dreams  (1990). Screen grab courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
  • Akira Terao in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990)
  • Akira Terao in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990)
  • Akira Terao in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990)
  • Akira Kurosawa's Dreams  (1990). Screen grab courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
  • Akira Terao in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990)
  • Akira Kurosawa's Dreams 4K Ultra HD Combo (Criterion Collection)

The Video

The digital master for Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams was created from the 35mm original camera negative, which was scanned in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner under the supervision of cinematographer Shoji Ueda. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio in a HEVC 2160p (4K UHD) HDR10 encodement on 4K disc and AVC 1080p SDR on the Blu-ray Disc from the same new 4K restoration.

The opening two ‘dreams’ are stunners that set the tone for this release. The indoor scenes with the cherry blossoms in the background and the little boy have exceptional contrast and shadow detail. The textures and granularity are crisp and organic. The colors of the scenes with the fox spirits and the peach-tree spirits ‘pop’ vividly, with vibrant, vermillion reds and other primary colors. Moving on, the image becomes much more diffuse and layered in coarse grain and visual effects like snow or fog, as has always been a signature of Kurosawa’s visual style. These do not take away from the natural presentation of the film, but, in the ‘dream’ with the snowstorm, for example, detail and focus are necessarily limited, but the image still looks good, clean, and free from source damage. Another standout scene is the one with a nuclear disaster over Mount Fuji that shows brilliant reds and shadow details. This is a fantastic release on 4K. The Blu-ray looks equally strong for an HD release, with the colors being a bit more muted and contrast not quite as stark, but textures and detail are strong and the image is clean.

The Audio

The Japanese 2.0 surround mix has been remastered from the original 35mm magnetic track and supplied in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The sound mix presents the sound effects like rain as well as the score with lush atmospherics in the surround channels, but there are moments where the dialogue clips. This is the only flaw in this otherwise Dolby Surround Pro Logic encoded mix.

The Supplements

The documentaries, included essay, and script for never-filmed dream sequence make this a hefty release full of quality extras. The essay provides some deep insight into Kurosawa’s film. A standout is the 2011 documentary Kurosawa’s Way, which includes interviews with several top filmmakers on how Kurosawa influenced them.

Bonus Features:

  • Essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri and Kurosawa’s script for a never-filmed ninth dream, introduced by Nogami
  • Audio commentary featuring film scholar Stephen Price recorded for the Criterion Collection in New York in 2016. (4K & Blu-ray)

On Blu-ray Only:

  • Making of “Dreams” (1080i; 02:30:39) – This 150-minute documentary, directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi (House) on the set of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, features behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew.
  • Kurosawa’s Way (1080p; 00:52:10) – Released in 2011, Kurosawa’s Way is a fifty-two-minute documentary directed by Kurosawa’s longtime translator Catherine Cadou, who interviews eleven major film directors on how Kurosawa’s films have influenced their own work. The interviewees include Bernardo Bertolucci, Clint Eastwood, Abbas Kiarostami, Hayao Miyazaki, and Martin Scorsese (who discusses playing the role of Vincent van Gogh in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams).
  • Teruyo Nagami (1080p; 00:17:23) – Teruyo Nogami worked closely with Akira Kurosawa as his script supervisor for more than forty years. In this interview, recorded for the Criterion Collection in Japan in July 2016, Nogami recalls her relationship with the great director and the difficult process of bringing Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams to fruition.
  • Takashi Koizumi (1080p; 00:16:03) – The assistant director on Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Takashi Koizumi, worked alongside Kurosawa on the filmmaker’s last five films. This interview with Koizumi was conducted for the Criterion Collection in Japan in July 2016.
  • Trailer (1080p; 00:01:47)

The Final Assessment

A stunning, surreal dreamworld from the mind of the Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa, Dreams looks beautiful, is a thoughtful film, and feels right at home in the Criterion Collection catalogue. Recommended.

Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams is out on 4K Ultra HD Combo August 8, 2023 from Criterion Collection.

  • Rating Certificate: PG
  • Studios & Distributors: Akira Kurosawa USA | Warner Bros. | The Criterion Collection
  • Directors: Akira Kurosawa | Ishirô Honda
  • Written By: Akira Kurosawa | Ishirô Honda
  • Run Time: 120 Mins.
  • Street Date: 8 August 2023
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
  • Video Format: HEVC 2160p (4K UHD)
  • HDR Format: HDR10
  • HDR10 Metadata:
    • MaxLL: 524 nits
    • MaxFALL: 103 nits
  • Primary Audio: Japanese DTS-HD MA 2.0 Surround
  • Subtitles: English

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In this late career work director Kira Kurosawa creates eight tales directly from his dreams in vivid color-scapes.Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (4K UHD Review)