Director: Kaiz么 Hayashi
Screenplay: Kaiz么 Hayashi
Starring: Shir么 Sano, Koji Otake, Fujiko Fukamizu, Yoshio Yoshida, Moe Kamura
Country: Japan
Running Time: 83 mins
Year: 1986
BBFC Certificate: TBC

Whilst Japanese cinema has been well-loved by Western cineasts since the early 50s, when Rashomon became the first of the nation鈥檚 films to find success outside of Asia, there are some eras that are somewhat less well-regarded or at least remembered. The 50s were full of classics and the ensuing new wave of the 60s then the genre movie boom of the 70s provided ample favourites. Critics and film buffs that enjoyed the work of Ozu, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi in the 50s went back and sought out their earlier work too which, in the case of Ozu and Mizoguchi, dated back to the silent era. The 鈥榚xtreme Asia鈥 boom of the 90s and early 2000s is another popular period. However, a decade less fondly remembered in Japanese cinema is the 80s.

Plenty of Japanese films in the 80s found success at festivals at the time but, for whatever reason, many of them have become forgotten over the years, whereas those from previous and future eras seem to have been much talked about and enjoyed numerous re-releases on DVD and Blu-ray etc. Looking to address the balance is Arrow Video. They released the rather wonderful Sailor Suit and Machine Gun back in November (my review can be found here: https://blueprintreview.co.uk/2021/11/sailor-suit-and-machine-gun-arrow/) and now they鈥檙e setting their sights on Kaiz么 Hayashi鈥檚 To Sleep So as to Dream.

The film is near silent, with a few sound effects here and there and snippets of dialogue coming from recordings or benshi performances (a benshi was a person that narrated silent films for the audience) as well as periodic music cues. It follows private detective Uotsuka (Shir么 Sano) and his assistant Kobayashi (Koji Otake) as they take on a case given to them by the mysterious Madame Cherryblossom (veteran actress Fujiko Fukamizu) via her personal assistant Matsunosuke (another veteran, Yoshio Yoshida).

The detectives are told Cherryblossom鈥檚 daughter, Bellflower (Moe Kamura), has been kidnapped and they must solve several cryptic clues in order to get her back. This leads the young pair on a surreal journey where nothing is quite what it seems and everything appears to be connected to an old silent film that is missing an ending.

As if David Lynch directed The Artist, To Sleep鈥 is a beautiful ode to the early years of cinema (complete with numerous in-jokes and references), yet one that has a strange dreamlike quality, playing with the idea of films being like dreams. The line between fantasy and reality is frequently blurred, particularly towards the end, and magic tricks and circus performances feature heavily too, reminding us of cinema鈥檚 near-magical quality in its early days as well as its place as sideshow entertainment.

The director Kaiz么 Hayashi was only 27 when it was made, but To Sleep鈥 is a remarkably assured debut. He had little to no experience in making films prior to this and it was made on a shoestring budget, but Hayashi was involved with Tokyo鈥檚 underground theatre, which helped him get some very talented people involved.

Some of these luminaries merely made cameo appearances and some would become more famous in later years, but an important part of the crew that already had a name for himself was Takeo Kimura. He was the production designer/art director on a number of Seijun Suzuki鈥檚 films, including the great Tokyo Drifter, and does a wonderful job here too. Period details are beautifully realised and his art direction adds greatly to the atmosphere.

Also impressive is the high-contrast, shadowy black-and-white cinematography. DOP Y没ichi Nagata had largely only shot 鈥榩ink鈥 films prior to this but received great acclaim for his work on To Sleep鈥 and ended up shooting most of Hayashi鈥檚 later films. I liked how he altered styles when shooting in Cherryblossom鈥檚 mansion here, using slow, fluid camera moves to provide a graceful, ghostlike sensation, whilst the detectives’ lives and work are largely shown through static frames, mirroring early silent films.

Hayashi must still get a lot of credit though, despite being surrounded by more experienced cast and crew members. His script and direction are tight, delivering a short and sweet film that breezes through its brief running time (even if, in his commentary, Hayashi claims the low budget forced him to keep things to a bare minimum).

His story also strikes a nice balance between simplicity and cryptic surrealism, never lurching too far in either direction to feel slight or confusing. It鈥檚 all tied together neatly in a head-spinning but satisfying finale too. I must admit, I guessed early on where the film鈥檚 puzzles might be heading (not helped by some mild spoilers in some of the film鈥檚 blurbs I鈥檇 read), but it鈥檚 still nicely delivered.

There鈥檚 plenty of humour in the film too, keeping things moving along and adding charm and warmth to the noir-like visual atmosphere. Some of the jokes, most notably the running egg gag, are a bit bizarre, but it all adds to the surreal style. The egg bit is alluding to the idea of a 鈥榟ard-boiled鈥 detective but having it stretched throughout the film makes it rather strange.

All-in-all, To Sleep So as to Dream is a hypnotic homage to the strength and fragility of cinema. Imbued with humour and romance on top of its more unusual stylistic flourishes, it鈥檚 a pleasure to watch too. Let鈥檚 hope Arrow鈥檚 release gives the film a new lease of life and helps encourage labels to dig deeper into Japanese cinema from the 80s.

Film:

To Sleep So as to Dream is out on 21st March on Blu-ray, released by Arrow Video. The transfer looks gorgeous, with a great depth of contrast and sharp details. The mono audio is crisp and clear too, though be sure to switch off any auto 5.1 settings on your equipment, as I accidentally had it on and was getting no sound at all when I first tried to watch the film.

SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS

– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
– Original uncompressed mono audio
– Optional English subtitles
– Brand new audio commentary by Japanese film experts Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp
– Audio commentary with director Kaizo Hayashi and lead actor Shiro Sano recorded in 2000
– How Many Eggs? Actor Shiro Sano Talks, a brand new interview with the film鈥檚 lead actor
– Talking Silents: Benshi Midori Sawato Talks, a brand new interview on early Japanese film culture and the art of the benshi silent film commentator
– Midori Sawato Performs 鈥楾he Eternal Mystery鈥, an exclusive benshi performance to the film within the film
– The Restoration of To Sleep So as to Dream featurette
– Fragments from Japan鈥檚 Lost Silent Heyday, a selection of scenes from silent jidai-geki films from the Kyoto Toy Museum archives
– Original Theatrical trailer and English-language restored re-release trailers
– Image gallery
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by David Downton

One of the commentaries is helmed by the Japanese cinema expert ‘dream team’ of Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp. Having worked together on establishing Midnight Eye back in the day, they have a strong rapport and provide a huge number of facts about the cast and crew of To Sleep鈥

The Hayashi and Sano commentary clearly shows how the film was born from a genuine love for cinema. They discuss how little experience they had back then and how they roped in lots of friends and such to make the most of the minimal budget. It’s an enjoyable track with the pair having fun whilst they reminisce.

The interview with Sano is engaging and informative too. There’s a little crossover with his commentary, but not a lot.

The Midori Sawato interview gives a fascinating history and background of the benshi in Japanese cinema. These are people who would provide live narration for silent films during screenings. Sawato is an enthusiastic speaker with lots to say in her 18-minute piece. She also appears in an extra feature where she does a short benshi performance of the film within a film of To Sleep鈥

The restoration piece is only short but I appreciated being able to see the difference the work made to the print.

I loved seeing the clips from the old silent chanbara films too. It’s a shame they’re only short, as they look great. The sword fighting action is surprisingly well choreographed and shot for the era, particularly the second clip. I wish more of these were fully available.

I didn鈥檛 get a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.

Overall, it鈥檚 a brilliantly compiled release of a wonderfully unique film so comes very highly recommended.

Disc/Package:

To Sleep So as to Dream - Arrow
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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