IN the Western world, many moviegoers find Akira Kurosawa the towering giant of Asian cinema - a fact that reveals much about Western tastes and may help energize Western response to his newest picture, ``Dreams.'' Mr. Kurosawa is a master director by any standard. His medieval drama ``Rashomon,'' exploring the relationship of truth and memory through a complex murder-mystery story, brought Japanese cinema its first widespread Western attention by winning the Venice International Film Festival's grand prize in 1951. He continued to capture Western imaginations with many other films [see list at lower left].
What's revealing about Kurosawa's popularity outside Asia is that he is certainly the most Western-influenced of great Japanese directors, and is therefore the most easily assimilated by spectators from different cultures. He studied Western painting as a young man, mastering non-Asian ideas of form, color, and composition; and he has acknowledged his cinematic debt to John Ford, a quintessentially American director. Although he also makes use of Japanese traditions, the trappings of his films - their music, for instance - are usually Westernized enough for American and European audiences to find them readily accessible.
These considerations have allowed Kurosawa a popularity in the West surpassing that of such great directors as Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, even though many critics find them subtler and more profoundly Japanese artists. Westerners lean toward movies that communicate on Western terms; so it is surely Kurosawa, above all others, who influenced George Lucas to pattern the ``light sabers'' of his ``Star Wars'' trilogy after samurai swords and to name the heroic Jedi Knights after ``jidai-geki,'' the term for Japanese adventure films set more than 100 years ago. Nor is it surprising that Mr. Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola have given production help to some of Kurosawa's recent films.
``Dreams,'' the 28th movie directed by Kurosawa, is in some ways his most audacious project. It tackles a number of themes, some thoroughly Japanese but others as international and transcultural as the modern world itself. Its stories and characters are rooted in the most personal source imaginable: the filmmaker's own dreams, developed into an eight-part screenplay. Yet the movie aspires to universal appeal, dealing with subjects that are socially and politically urgent as well as deeply emotional.
The protagonist of ``Dreams,'' who appears at different ages from youth to old age, can be taken as a Kurosawa surrogate. Indeed, the beginning of the movie shows a house that (according to Warner Bros., the movie's American distributor) is an exact replica of Kurosawa's childhood home. In the film's first portion, called ``Sunshine Through the Rain,'' the little-boy hero witnesses an event straight out of a fairy tale: a wedding of foxes, which can happen - according to legend - when the sun shines on a rainy day. In the second portion, ``The Peach Orchard,'' the same boy witnesses a dance of dolls in a place where beautiful trees once flourished. These scenes are as childlike as they are dreamy, recalling (especially in the orchard sequence) the magical films made by Georges M'eli`es when cinema was first being invented.
The movie grows darker in its next episodes, ``The Blizzard'' and ``The Tunnel,'' dealing (respectively) with mountain-climbers in deadly peril and war victims who refuse to rest in peace. The film's most brilliant chapter, ``Crows,'' follows Vincent Van Gogh into the landscape of his own painting. ``Mount Fuji in Red'' warns against nuclear destruction, recalling ``I Live in Fear,'' a Kurosawa classic; ``The Weeping Demon'' visits the end of the world; and ``Village of the Waterfalls'' addresses the relationship between humanity and nature.
In making a film based literally on dreams, Kurosawa has ingeniously blended the personal and the universal; in dealing with nuclear issues, he mingles historical Japanese preoccupations with urgent international concerns. ``Dreams'' is thus Eastern and Western, specific and general, timelessly mythical and sociopolitically relevant at the same time. Appreciators of Asian culture can savor the pungent Japanese flavors that stand out, especially in the early portions; others can relate to the film's transcendent moods and vivid images, and to the delightful acting of American filmmaker Martin Scorsese in the ``Crows'' chapter, which will captivate moviegoers wherever Van Gogh's genius is known.
The concept of ``Dreams'' contains so many assets that one wishes Kurosawa parlayed them more successfully into a unified whole. Unfortunately, the film is uneven in style and pace; and its most urgent contemporary sequences bog down in preachy message-mongering. Like the disappointing ``Kagemusha'' of 10 years ago, ``Dreams'' is more interesting for its provocative ideas than for the starchy, even lifeless manner in which Kurosawa realizes many of them. The longstanding popularity of his eclectic vision guarantees the film an eager audience among Western moviegoers. But this picture should not be ranked with Kurosawa's best work, such as ``Ikiru'' and ``Throne of Blood,'' or with the more profoundly Asian cinema that has issued from his greatest colleagues.