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Ten Nights of Dreams
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by Jay Seaver

"A legend unites filmmakers as diverse as Kon Ichikawa and Yudai Yamaguchi."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: The bit that opens this film has legendary Japanese novelist Soseki Natsume admitting that the book "Ten Nights of Dreams" is meant to be a mystery, one which might not be solved for a hundred years. He says this in 1906, and the maid he's addressing comments that she'd have to reincarnate to see that. A hundred years later, ten notable directors have each made a short film based on one of the book's surreal stories, and while the results must often be quite far from what a Meiji-era writer imagined, they are nearly all fascinating.

The first dream is realized by the late Akio Jissoji, and gets the anthology off to a suitably surreal start: It features Soseki himself, speaking to his wife (Kyoko Koizumi) and, in true dream-like manner, feeling unstuck in time. Jissoji frequently pulls the camera back to show that Soseki's home is nothing more than a pair of sets on a stage. It's a theme that other directors will come back to - that Soseki not only wrote about fantasies, but was himself somewhat disconnected from reality.

The second dream comes from Kon Ichikawa, in which a samurai (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) is briefly visited by a wise man who challenges him to find enlightenment on a deadline. Presented as a silent film pastiche, it playfully tweaks the idea of enlightenment and understanding as something that can be strived for.

Takashi Shimizu is up next, and as you might expect from the man behind the Grudge franchise, his third dream is a nightmare, as a grotesque child leads Soseki through his wife's dream about broken idols and miscarried children being reincarnated in her womb. Shimizu draws upon Soseki's life from after the publication of Ten Nights to add an extra level of eeriness, and also demonstrates that he's well able to create scares without relying on his usual standbys. He also has room for a little wit, as his Natsume ponders that he cannot remember his own childhood clearly, and his own children sometimes seem alien to him.

Atsushi Shimizu (no relation, I presume) follows similar themes in the fourth tale, which has Soseki Natsume returning to a place he vaguely remembers to give a lecture to have his curiosity piqued by by a strangely familiar report of missing children. There's a vibe of rational dreaming here, as Natsume remembers something in his dreams that he cannot in life. Shimizu is the first to not feel bound by the constraints of the author's lifetime (Natsume died in 1916); the setting is clearly post-WWII, yet the story still feels of a piece with those that came before.

The fifth tale initially seems to return to the Meiji era; Keisuke Toyoshima presents us with a woman (Mikako Ichikawa) running from a disaster in her home on horeseback, pursued by a mummy intent on catching her. The the mummy morphs from an ominous figure in the shadows to a bizarre CGI creation, and the end, which takes place in a more modern setting, is funny and sweet.

Suzuki Matsuo injects some twenty-first century elements into the sixth tale, as villagers go to watch a wooden guardian being carved - and are surprised as the audience to see this accomplished in one blow of the hammer after the sculptor spend gloriously insane minutes dancing to a pumping electronic beat. It's a great showpiece for dancer "Tozawa", as he and Matsuo create a great performance piece that could not possibly have been dreamed quite that way a hundred years ago, but is filled with delirious energy.

The seventh dream is animated, the work of Yoshitaka Amano and Masaaki Kawahara, and stunning in a completely different way. The story of a boy riding a gigantic boat on a seemingly infinite sea is gorgeous, looking less like traditional anime or CGI than a living painting. It keeps the audience staring wide-eyed even as it tells its story of two people sharing their loneliness in a strange world.

In contrast, the eighth dream has a somewhat more cynical bent, as Nobuhiro Yamashita presents us with a boy who wants to keep the giant tentacled beast he finds while he and his friends were fishing for crabs, then an old man climbing into a bunkbed, then Natsume himself, looking blocked and ready to write down just any old thing. It's a funny, odd little piece, and manages to come off as charmingly irreverent and self-deprecating rather than mocking of the whole enterprise.

The ninth dream in some ways resembles the fifth, in that Miwa Nishikawa alternates between Meiji and a later era. A young mother takes her son to a nearby shrine to pray for his father's safe return from war, while pondering that this is not why she married him. The differences between the time periods are subtle, underscoring the universality of the story.

Subtle is the last thing you'll get from the final film, as Yudai Yamaguchi unleashes his particular brand of double-barrelled crazy on the audience with his story of a handsome but lazy shopkeeper who goes off with a beautiful woman only to find himself punished for his crimes toward the less attractive. Features a rocket-propelled walking stick, trap doors, a midnight murder, and a wrestling match against a giant anthropomorphic pig. It's an absolute gas.

Naturally, as the film ends, we're nowhere close to solving a mystery. But Natsume and his later admirers have managed to laugh and think and gasp in delight at their sheer imagination. The second bookend suggests we may have to wait another hundred years for the "mystery" to be "solved", but if that means that people will continue to be inspired by Natsume's work in the meantime, that hardly seems like a horrible fate.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16328&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/09/07 13:31:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2007 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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