To Sleep So as to Dream 夢みるように眠りたい (1986) Director: Kaizo Hayashi [Japan Cuts 2021]

To Sleep So as to Dream   To Sleep So as to Dream Film Poster

夢みるように眠りたい Yumemiru you ni nemuritai

Release Date: May 18th, 1986

Duration: 84 mins.

Director: Kaizo Hayashi

Writer: Kaizo Hayashi (Script), 

Starring: Shiro Sano, Koji Otake Moe Kamura, Kenji Endo, Fujiko Fukamizu, Baiken Jukkanji, Kyoko Kusajima, Kazunari Ozawa, Morio Agata,

Website IMDB

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) but his debut, which he made at the age of 29 and with zero experience on a film set, deserves to be more widely seen as he pulls off a narratively audacious metacinema narrative that 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 for the final reel to be revealed as missing. The plot then gets into gear as we watch the adventures of a courageous private detective named Uotsuka (Shiro Sano) and his plucky assistant Kobayashi (Koji Otake) in Tokyo of 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 who demand a ransom and leave riddles that lead Uotsuka on a merry chase through films, dreams, and Showa-era Tokyo as he visits old cinematic and cultural areas of Asakusa which are populated by a cast of magicians, street vendors, vaudeville acts, and theatre-goers. 

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 visual aesthetic feels dead on in capturing that atmosphere of early cinema as it is shot in monochrome and features intertitles and lots of period-specific props and costumes that make this feel like an authentic lost treasure from the early 1900s. This verisimilitude and monochrome allowed Hayashi and his team to use light, shadow, and set design to create some really striking shots that really capture the eye. This dedication to depicting the early days of cinema creates an enrapturing experience which fits the gentle pacing of a film, all of which allows audiences to get lost in the story and the 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 film turn into a dreamlike experience that turns into a lovingly sentimental piece of metacinema as we see the 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. The characters are all treated tenderly and when the detective plot runs its course and the full meaning of the opening ninja movie and the mystery of Bellflower and Sakura is revealed, audiences will find an endearing 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. To Sleep so as to Dream, thus, fully realises the power film has to move people and grant them dreams and it is such a wondrous and moving ending to experience that I was moved to tears.

An edited version of my review appeared on V-Cinema on September 08th.

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