While in the West anthology films are gaining a renewed interest, they never really left the picture in Japan. They are a great window for fresh talent, there's plenty of room for experimentation, and they often make for a diverse evening. I love anthology films and was quite excited to see Ten Nights of Dream announced as the premise only seemed to reinforce the strong point of these films.
Ten Nights of Dream (or Jume Ju-ya) is based on a book written by Natsume Soseki, one of Japan's biggest writers. In honor of his prophecy - he claimed that 100 years after writing his book they'd still be unravelling his mysteries - Ten Nights of Dream was born. An eclectic group of directors was drawn to the project, and they were each given one dream to work with. The result is 10 shorts spanning around 10 minutes each, bundled inside one anthology film.
I've never read the source material myself, but even from the title you can guess most shorts are pretty sketchy when it comes to solid storylines. They are all based on dreams and some of them have hardly any solid ground underneath them. Most shorts are to be experienced rather than understood. Like it or not, but it gave the directors a lot of freedom to explore the fun side of cinema.
The first short was directed by Akio Jissoji, no small fry as he is famed for his work on Ultraman. Not long after finishing his short he died at age 69 of stomach cancer, but his age never really shows in his work. It starts of pretty normal but slowly stage effects start creeping through the cracks of the film and not long after that we are on the stage itself, watching the actors go about their work. Thumbs up for some awesome lighting effects and the level of involvement he remains to hold even when the audience is pulled out of the film time and time again. A very worthy opener. 4.0*/5.0*
Second short was in the hands of Kon Ichikawa, another Japanese oldie that died not long after this film was released. As opposed to the first short, his contribution does show his age as the black and white visuals are quite classical both in form and editing. It does go well with the "silent" treatment and intertitles his short houses, but looking back it's one of the most faceless contributions to the anthology. Apart from the atmospheric music there's little to catch one's attention. 3.5*/5.0*
The third short brings us in more modern waters, as horror icon Takashi Shimizu himself picks up the controls. He treads in familiar water with the third dream and consequently doesn't really surprise, though the effect is there alright and his short contains some creepy segments. Not really the thrill scares but much closer to his work in Reincarnation. 3.5*/5.0*
Up next is another Shimizu who's slowly making a name for himself by picking the right projects. Atsushi Shimizu was one of the few that could manage the low budget in the Umezu Kazuo anthology and proves again that he knows how to take care of limited means. The CGi isn't technically accomplished, but he makes sure it doesn't hurt the atmosphere of the short and uses his 10 minutes remarkably well to build up a mysterious whole. His short is probably one of the most solid inside this anthology. 4.0*/5.0*
Concluding the first "normal" part of the anthology is Keisuke Toyoshima, setting his short in the same field as the work of Takashi Shimizu but giving it a creepier swing. The shrouded figures are pretty whacked-out, the tale dark and strange and the effect of the short is all-round weird. A good and atmospheric short with a marvellous ending that makes a clean bridge to the weirdness displayed in the second part of the anthology. 4.0*/5.0*
When Matsuo Suzuki takes the stage, things are about to get real fun. Shot as though the short is 50 years old, it features a Kurosawa-like setting of farmers gathering to watch a mysterious wood carver. It's all pretty vague until some 90s dance music starts playing and our wood carver starts doing a robot dance. From there on, the weirdness goes completely off the scale. All the dancing leads up to a mystical single blow to a block of wood. Suzuki's short is in black and white and with the dance music playing it does resemble the early work of Sogo Ishii and Shinya Tsukamoto a fair bit, though the effect is a lot tamer and more focused on humor. Pretty cool short though. 4.0*/5.0*
Definite eye catcher of this anthology is Yoshitaka Amano's piece. A mixture of 2D and 3D, for the first time his artwork really comes to life on the big screen. Even though this is not the first time his artwork is used on animated projects, it never felt as much as Amano as it does in this film. Sadly the English voice acting is terrible and the character animation is pretty bad, but the colors and designs are so overwhelming it's easy to forget about the negative points. One of the best visual artists out there, and I can only hope to see his work evolve in this direction on the big screen. Simply stunning. 4.5*/5.0*
Nobuhiro Yamashita is another young director making a name for himself, dabbling in comedy and drama. It's hard to say much about this short as there was no way at all I could make sense of it. As a dream it works wonders but the difference in style and tone made me lose track a couple of times in these short 10 minutes. A fun short and probably the one that stays closest to its dream roots, but it completely lost me after only a short time. 4.0*/5.0*
Miwa Nishikawa is the only director of the bunch that goes for a purely dramatic approach and succeeds quite well. Her short features a nice tale of a family shred to pieces by war, with all pieces of the puzzle slowly coming together. Nothing quite original as many Asian "horror" tales end as a simpler, down-to-earth tragedy, but Nishikawa pulls it off rather convincingly within the little time she has. 4.0*/5.0*
Closing off the anthology is cult-favourite Yudai Yamaguchi. The man is nothing short of a madman genius and from the moment his weird tale of pig mutation starts there's no holding back the weirdness. Yamaguchi is one of the few that has the flair to bring typical manga and anime elements to live action cinema and again he succeeds with passion. 4.5*/5.0*
Many criticize anthology projects for their lack of unison, I praise them for their diversity. There's not really a straight line running through this anthology, which would be quite impossible with the range of directors participating. The dreams of Natsume Soseki form the basis for each story, but each director is able to make the story its own. It's a wonderful collection of shorts, visually pleasing, fun to watch and from time to time refreshingly weird. I wonder if anyone has unravelled Soseki's puzzle yet, maybe we can have another one of these in a 100 years time. The result is more than the sum of its parts.