The 2007 Nikkatsu production TEN NIGHTS OF DREAMS (YUME JU-YA) is a monument in Japanese genre filmmaking. I don’t mean it’s one of the greatest such films, mind you, just a highly unusual and important one. The same can be said for its source material, the legendary short story collection by Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), which remains a milestone of Japanese supernatural fantasy.
Natsume Soseki, widely viewed as one of Japan’s foremost writers (his face was on the 100 yen note until 2004), first published his collection YUME JU YA, or TEN NIGHTS’ DREAMS, as a newspaper serial in 1908. It was a highly atypical undertaking for this pioneering author (whose other works include the novels KOKORO, BOTCHAN and I AM A CAT), detailing 10 apparent dreams in straightforward, unadorned fashion. Characterized by an air of frank surrealism and uniformly open-ended conclusions, the collection is notable for moments of mind-scraping weirdness—a murderer informed of his true nature by a talking infant strapped to his back, a man forced to punch out hundreds of charging swine–equal to nearly anything you’ll experience.
It’s been a longtime subject of debate as to whether these stories were inspired by actual dreams, as Soseki alleged, or if they were even original to him (correspondence from the time suggests that at least one of the ten dreams came from a colleague). Furthermore, I don’t feel Soseki’s is the best book of its type (which in my view would be Uchida Hyakken’s similarly themed REALM OF THE DEAD from 1922/34, whose contents have an authentically dreamlike feel that TEN NIGHTS’ DREAMS only intermittently achieves). However, it deserves to be read: if nothing else it’s short and reader-friendly, and readily available in English translation (it can also be found online here).
Soseki reportedly claimed that he wanted people “of 100 years hence to solve my riddle.” Appropriately enough, Nikkatsu’s omnibus film adaptation appeared in 2007, nearly 100 years after YUME JU YA’S initial publication.
In the partially animated film the ten dreams of the collection are presented in the order they appear in the book. Each was adapted by a different director, among them the late Kon Ichikawa and THE GRUDGE’S Takashi Shimizu. Some of the helmers follow Soseki’s writing quite closely, others not so much.
This is a rare case, I believe, in which reading the original text is highly beneficial to one’s understanding and enjoyment of the film. After all, Soseki’s book conveys what the film’s makers were attempting to achieve better, frankly, than the film itself.
In the film’s (and book’s) first dream a frustrated writer finds himself trapped with his beloved but deathly ill wife in his provincial home. As she dies she asks him to stay by her side for a hundred years. He complies.
The direction of the late Akio Jissoji is sharp and slick, utilizing jump cuts, superimpositions, spotlighting and distorted lenses to create a hallucinatory atmosphere. However, I think Jissoji overcomplicates the tale, which in its original form was admirably simple and uncluttered.
The second dream has a seemingly normal man, informed by a priest that he’s actually a samurai, desperately attempting to gain enlightenment—and becoming extremely agitated when he doesn’t.
The director was Kon Ichikawa, who lenses largely in black and white. With his unerringly stately and precise filmmaking, Ichikawa is quite faithful to Soseki’s original tale, even utilizing its text.
Dream #3 has another frustrated writer—identified as Natsume Soseki—afflicted with horrific dreams. And he’s not the only one: his wife also has a nightmare in which she breaks off the head of a sacred statue. Shortly after this Soseki finds himself carrying a grotesque talking infant on his back through a forest (the point at which the original story began), who reveals to Soseki the source of his nightmares: years earlier he killed a child…and then himself!
Director Takashi Shimizu, of JU-ON fame, utilizes all his horror expertise in this segment, the most overtly horrific of them all. Among other things, Shimizu adds a lengthy prologue to Soseki’s tale. But as with the first segment, this adaptation suffers from an overly complicated rendering of a tale that works better in its original, and far simpler, form.
In the fourth dream a man finds himself caught in a surreal loop of destruction that calls to mind a terrifying childhood memory. The text version centered on the protagonist and a weird old man. Director Atsushi Shimizu adds a gaggle of demonic schoolchildren, an ominous train station, a toxic fog and an earthquake. The segment is a mind-boggler without question, with an all-pervading mood of lunatic surrealism.
The fifth dream has a woman desperately riding a horse to save her husband from certain execution. She’s pursued by an evil demon who contacted the woman earlier, warning that if she didn’t reach her husband by dawn he and their young daughter would die. The man, it seems, has crashed his car in the forest with the girl inside, and is nearly dead. What neither of them (initially) know is the demon’s true identity—or that it has a mate!
Keisuke Toyoshima helmed this dream, and removes it from the feudal setting of Soseki’s original. Toyoshima intercuts his woman protagonist’s nighttime horse ride with memories of her none-too-contented home life, where the demon first made itself apparent. Said demon, a ragged, mummy-like creature, makes for an unforgettable sight chasing after the woman’s horse-bound figure in the dead of night (the tacky CGI aside).
The sixth dream concerns a weird dude named Unkei, a robotic dancer and sculptor. He’s damn proficient at the latter profession, with a talent for chopping woodblocks from which fully formed sculptures emerge. An onlooker decides to use Unkei’s method to create his own sculptures, and, needless to add, fails.
Suzuki Matsuo does a decent job directing this nutzoid segment, even though he lavishes far too much screen time on a fruity dance performed by the protagonist, who looks like an underage reject from THE ROAD WARRIOR. This is the most overtly “cultish” of the film’s segments, with the performers encouraged to overact wildly and a distracting techno beat underscoring it all.
Dream seven, conveyed via animation, is set aboard a Byzantine cruise ship on which a top hat wearing man suffers unbearable solitude. He falls in love with a woman he spies playing a piano in a hallucinatory ballroom, but this does nothing to cure his depression. He ends up hurling himself into the ocean, wherein he comes to the realization that he wants to live after all.
Yoshitaka Amano & Simmei Kawahara did the directorial chores on this animated fantasia. It’s not manga, or least not the type of manga we’ve grown accustomed to, having been done up in a jerky rotoscope style similar to that employed in WAKING LIFE and A SCANNER DARKLY. This segment is quite slow, and I mean that literally: everything seems to move at a fraction of normal speed. I found it difficult to tell if this drudgery was an artistic choice or simply a result of substandard animation. Probably the latter, although the segment overall is nothing if not eye-pleasing—and the ending, in which the protagonist turns into a colorful fish, is damn silly!
The eighth dream concerns a kid who catches a large turd-like sea serpent. He takes it home to his mother, who won’t allow it inside. The kid’s overworked father, meanwhile, goes to sleep and dreams of an author trying to write a story…or is it the other way around? Director Nobuhiro Yamashita diverts mightily from the original tale, which is set entirely in a barber shop. The segment all-but overflows with nonlinear weirdness, along with ghosts, monsters and Natsume Soseki himself seen struggling to write the very tale we’re viewing.
In dream nine a soldier leaves his wife and young son to fight in WWII. His wife prays for his return via a series of complex rituals performed at a nearby Buddhist temple. It’s all for naught, alas, as the man’s dire fate has already been sealed. This segment, from Miwa Nishikawa, is the most straightforward and non-showy of the dreams (just as it is in Soseki’s original), presented as, essentially, a tragic melodrama…albeit one with distinctly dreamlike overtones that intercuts past and present in suspenseful fashion.
The final dream begins with the studly Shotaro arriving back in his hometown after disappearing for several days. He’s in extremely bad shape, with his eyeballs and brains literally falling out of his head. It seems he ran off with a mysterious vixen who inducted him into a gruesome netherworld of cannibalism and craziness, topped off with Yoshino metamorphosing into a mutant pig. Yudai Yamaguchi was the director. His work is flat-out nutty, with excess swish pans and noisy sound effects complimenting a bevy of special effects and toilet humor. It’s very much in the mold of guys like Ken Russell and Takashi Miike at their most outrageous.
Natsume Soseki’s novel TEN NIGHTS OF DREAMS is a justified classic of surreal apprehension, while the 99-years-after-the-fact film version is a bold and fascinating experiment. What the film lacks in quality and cohesiveness it largely makes up for in audacity and sheer weirdness—particularly when taken in conjunction with the original text!