To Sleep So as to Dream Blu-ray Review: Ode to Silent Japanese Cinema

What an odd film. To Sleep So as to Dream (1986), the directorial debut of Kaizo Hayashi is many things. But chief among them is odd. It makes sense. There’s a plot to follow. It has a central mystery with clues, and in the end it all makes sense. But the sense it makes it still odd, following a logic that works in this film world, but doesn’t translate to reality. And the film is fine with that.

The opening scenes are from a silent film – a jidaigeki, or period drama. There’s samurai, and a ninja. He’s seeking a princess, fighting bad guys. Then he declares the mystery is solved… and the movie stops. There’s no final reel.

Watching the film is a rich elderly woman, who contracts a detective agency to find a kidnapped girl, her daughter. The detective is a Holmesian eccentric, obsessed with eggs. His office is filled with hard-boiled eggs, which seem to be his entire diet, much to his Watson-esque sidekick’s chagrin. They investigate this girl’s disappearance, with a couple of million yen in tow from their client. But all of their investigations just lead to more questions, and more demands for money.

I feel a little odd myself, describing the progression of the story because it doesn’t really matter. It’s so strange, and so incidental to the interesting aspects of the film. To Sleep So as to Dream was an independent production made in the mid ’80s. It is essentially a silent film. There’s a soundtrack: occasional sound effects, dialogue from recordings like the kidnappers’ demands, and some music. But most of the movie is silent. When characters talk, occasionally there are intertitles with their dialogue.

It’s also shot in black and white, and framed and helmed like it was an actual silent film. The monochrome cinematography is beautiful, despite the film being shot on 16mm. And the sections from the silent film that forms the beginning (and ultimately the end) of the mystery look appropriately aged. They have the stiffer, formal directing style of a period film.

Available on video outside of Japan for the first time, To Sleep So as To Dream is so idiosyncratic that it’s hard to find a critical point of entry. The story is strange and a little silly, but it’s meant to be. The central mystery of the story becomes clear in the last moments of the film and revealing that would violate the main pleasure of watching.

But it’s a pleasure, and a story, for a limited audience. If you love film, and particularly the history of film, there’s a lot to be gleaned from this picture. In the early 20th century, Japanese silent films would have narrators called benshi. They were performers who would both describe the action on screen and fill in dialogue. Near the end of the investigator’s journey, they watch the same silent film their client sees in the beginning, narrated through by a benshi. And then the film begins to bleed into real life. Or vice versa.

To Sleep So as to Dream is essentially a film buff’s movie. The director Kaizo Hayashi had never made a film before, nor had any training. Films and filmmaking is in his blood. It’s about the strangest, least likely calling card film a young filmmaker could make. But for all its oddness, it has the strength of a passion project. Hayashi’s love for film and filmmaking permeates every frame of this film. The narrative takes wild twists and turns, but the sheer excitement that he’s making a movie comes through. It’s for a limited audience, but for those who catch To Sleep So as to Dream‘s wavelength it’s a unique treat.

To Sleep So as to Dream has been released on Blu-ray by Arrow video. Extras on disc include two commentary tracks: one by the director Kaizo Hayashi and the lead actor Shiro Sano recorded in 2000, and the second by Japanese film experts Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp, new for this release. Video extras include “How Many Eggs? Shiro Sano Talks” (29 min) an interview with Shiro Sano; “Talking Silents: Benshi Midori Sawato Talks” (19 min) a piece on Benshi narrators; “Midori Sawato performs The Eternal Mystery” (7 min) an example of benshi; “The Restoration of To Sleep So as to Dream” (4 min) about the film’s restoration; and “Fragments from Japan’s Lost Silent Heyday” (3 mins) scenes from Japanese silent films. There is also a booklet with an essay from the director, and an essay by Aaron Gerow about the film.

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Kent Conrad

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