To Sleep So as to Dream (Japan, 1986) [JAPAN CUTS 2021]

Kaizo Hayashi’s 1986 film, To Sleep So as to Dream, re-emerged like a dimly remembered fantasy onto cinema screens last year after receiving a crowd-funded 2K restoration. Hayashi is probably best known for his Mike Hammer detective trilogy – The Most Terrible Time in My Life (1994), Stairway to the Distant Past (1995), The Trap (1996) – and the recently released Fukushima disaster-inspired omnibus movie BOLT (2020). However, his debut, which he made at the age of 29 and with zero experience on a film set, deserves to be more widely seen. Pulling off a narratively audacious meta-cinema narrative, To Sleep So as to Dream is an eerily beautiful paean to Japan’s silent cinema past and the joys of silver screen illusions.

Showing his genre-bending intent immediately, Hayashi begins with a film-within-a-film conceit as we join an elderly woman watching a swashbuckling movie involving ninja and samurai only it to be revealed that the final reel is missing. The plot then kicks into gear as we watch the adventures of courageous private detective Uotsuka (Shiro Sano) and his plucky assistant Kobayashi (Koji Otake) in Tokyo circa 1955. The pair have been hired by ageing silent film star Sakura Tsukishima (Fujiko Fukamizu) to track down her kidnapped daughter, Bellflower (Moe Kamura), who is in the clutches of M. Pathé and Company. A nefarious group of cinema-mad villains, they demand a ransom and leave riddles that lead Uotsuka on a merry chase through films, dreams, and Showa-era Tokyo. Visiting old cinematic and cultural areas of Asakusa, he encounters a cast of magicians, street vendors, vaudeville acts, and theatre-goers. 

Appropriately, the tone of the film appropriately feels like a serial adventure, especially as the story is replete with derring-do and a damsel in distress for our hero to deliver to safety. Proceedings mostly mimic silent films in the way that sound is limited to Bellflower’s singing, the odd special effect, a couple of haunting music-box musical motifs, and benshi (a silent film narrator) and orchestra who occasionally provide the film’s score in the latter half as we see them in action at reconstructions of early cinema screenings. The aesthetic feels spot on in capturing that atmosphere of early cinema as it is shot in monochrome and features intertitles, plus period-specific props and costumes that make To Sleep So as to Dream feel like an authentic lost treasure from the early 1900s. Verisimilitude and monochrome allows Hayashi and his team to use light, shadow, and set design to create some really striking shots. This dedication to depicting the early days of cinema conjures an enrapturing experience which allows the audience to get lost in the story and its multiple narrative layers.   

The way that the characters move between dreams, films, and reality is handled adroitly with segues that fit the story, from dazed visions after a fight to an imagination ticking over after figuring out a clue. This easygoing jumping allows the dreamlike proceedings to turn into a lovingly sentimental piece of meta-cinema as we see characters traverse the borders of reality and fiction through the art of film and the magical experience that film confers to people who adore it. When the detective plot runs its course, audiences will find an ending that transfigures different past incarnations of cinema and the characters in the film into one of the most heart-achingly and beautiful sequences committed to celluloid. Thus, To Sleep So as to Dream fully realizes the power that film has to move people and grant them dreams.

To Sleep So as to Dream was streamed in the U.S. from August 20 to September 2 as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film.