To Sleep So As to Dream was the first film from Kaizo Hayashi, and was made in the 1980s—which some historians of Japanese cinema call a “lost decade.” That’s a bizarre thing to say, given that you had some great Kurosawa movies, Akira and the start of Studio Ghibli, to name just a few obvious points.
Coming in at around 80 minutes, To Sleep So As to Dream is mainly a silent movie, there’s not even much music in the film. It is a weird, dream-like movie about a private detective and his sidekick, with the set-up giving it a noirish aspect. The detective, played by Shiro Sano, and his friend are asked to investigate the kidnapping of Bellflower, who is the daughter of an aging former actress, Madame Cherryblossom. A ransom is being demanded, but logic soon goes out the window and things start to get very, very strange… The detective starts to have visions of a silent film from 1919, they follow a series of bizarre clues.
It doesn’t totally come together, but it’s undeniably very unique and worth seeing. One of the film’s big flaws is that there is a long stretch of the film without any music. That makes it difficult to watch at times, since you do kind of need music when watching a silent film. For example, The Passion of Joan of Arc while intended to be without music is better with Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light score. It’s a fun throwback, despite the shortcomings of the story and the fact that it’s a little gimmicky—it might actually have worked better with more dialogue. Still, it’s hard not to enjoy it, as there’s a lot to like.
The sets were done by Takio Kimura, who also was the art designer for the Suzuki films of the 1960s. It’s not as flamboyant as those films, nor did the filmmaker have the money that Suzuki had. It has a cool look nonetheless. Obviously it’s all in black and white, as it should be, and I’m sure that if you have a really deep knowledge of Japanese silent cinema you will get a lot more of the references than I did – there are clearly many layers to the film, some of which were probably lost in translation. It’s one I will go back to, and I’m curious to see more of Hayashi’s other movies. It feels very much like the Japanese equivalent of a Guy Maddin film.
The Blu-Ray from Arrow Video includes two commentary tracks: first up is a brand-new one from Japanese film experts Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp, and the second is an archival commentary with Hayashi and Sano. The other extras include a new interview with Sano, an interview with Benshi Midori Sawato, who is a narrator for Japanese silent cinema, and much more. The booklet, which is only in the first pressing, includes an essay by Aaron Gerow.