Japan Cuts 2021: To Sleep so as to Dream — The Eternal Mystery of Silent Film, Magical Noir, and the Birth of Japanese Cinema

Kaizô Hayashi had a dream that cinema could live forever. He dreamed monochrome dreams, of cinema as a radiant cherry blossom, where the story kept going even as the reels unspooled their last segment of film stock. Director Hayashi was a spry 29 when he made To Sleep so as to Dream (Orig. Yumemiru yôni nemuritai, 1986) yet exhibited wisdom and maturity beyond his years, with an understanding of foundational Japanese cinema but also of how to make it new. For many years, To Sleep so as to Dream‘s vision of the eternal cinema was lost to time. There was, until now, only a DVD version in circulation, in abysmal quality and for exorbitant sums on the second-hand market. Miraculously, the original camera negatives were found and the new crowdfunded restoration showing at Japan Cuts is not merely an important act of preservation, but an opportunity to fulfil Hayashi’s dream: that a film ought to stay with us long after the movie is over.

This mostly silent film begins with sound. A film reel is whirring its regular hum as it spreads a black and white image of a silent film over a projector. Madame Cherryblossom (Fujiko Fukamizu, herself a silent movie star, on hiatus for 40 years before this film) reflects back on her silent career as it plays out before her. The film she’s watching, called The Eternal Mystery, exists only in poor condition and an incomplete state. The final frames are missing. Madame Cherryblossom’s daughter Bellflower (Moe Kamura) has also gone missing. As the image of the film dissolves, we cut away to a detective agency. Only something peculiar happens. There is even less sound than before. The film has signalled that we ought to listen and then has removed any audiovisual cues.

A phone rings loud, cutting through the silence, and the detective speaks into it but does not make any sound. We receive the dialogue through intertitles instead. Our team of crack detectives have been assigned to the case of recovering the actress’s daughter. Now, these are movie detectives. Fourth-wall breaking detectives who only exist in a filmic way. They have their peculiar details about them: Uotsuka (Shirō Sano) engulfs eggs with the same ferocious hunger he has for mysteries, and his partner Kobayashi (Koji Otake) is amusingly aloof, always riding his machine toy horse and daydreaming, but is perhaps even more likely to fall into a solution to a problem. Neither ever speak. They demonstratively sleuth around old Japan — so much of the film’s joy is old urban Japan, frozen in time — they are Magical Noir protagonists plotted in a world of traditional Japanese film. It’s a smart concoction and even with the director’s willingness to break the fourth wall, it plays consistently into its created world of sound and silence.

As our story develops, so do the motifs. The film always stays in black and white while cinematographer Yûichi Nagata plays with shadows and perspective, now beautifully preserved in 2K. There’s a great scene where Kobayashi is falling asleep and the shadow of Uotsuka is cast large on the wall behind him, throwing back liquor and spinning a top that becomes a reoccurring visual identifier of the overall aesthetic. The new restoration is crisp and makes the footage feel new. Digitizing it has not in any apparent way dampened the resonance of the picture. It has, however, created a greater chasm between the occasional footage of the silent film inside the film and the present day action that happens outside of it.

There’s a great confluence of several key themes here. The overarching one is that film is never lost, if we have had the pleasure to experience it, and preserved it in our memory. There’s also the noir-throwback straight out of a pulpy novel. Not much really gets done in the way of sleuthing there but eventually they do crack the case. Beyond the installed interests in preserving film and jovial old detective stories, there’s another throughline. The film is chiefly concerned with cataloguing the history of women in Japanese cinema. It is a pointed reminder that women were there from the start, in some prominent rules, and the women of those early silent films paved the way for everyone who came after.

Eventually there is a break in the film’s commitment to the aesthetic. These films which mix sound and silence always seem to have something like that. It may have come out 25 years before The Artist (2011) but the denouement strikingly uses the same sort of trick as that film. Two characters break the soundless charade. The detectives do finally find the missing part of the picture and when they do, the ending points them to the missing daughter. What’s more striking than the resolution, however, is how it’s played: a Benshi (a silent film narrator) is our first character who breaks the fourth wall and speaks in the film. This allows the film to still relate the speech cinematically, in a created world where both silent and talking pictures exist, but one style of presentation has been favored, until it leads to something else. Following this logic, a film director is also allowed to speak right at the end. That only makes sense in Hayashi’s world, where directors tell us their dreams.

The crucial restoration allows To Sleep so as to Dream another chance to stay with us. A number of factors have prevented this great piece of ’80s Japanese cinema from seeing the audience it truly deserves. Restorations can do many things but the best thing they can do is expose us to some truly great cinema that has never risen above the radar. That’s exactly where To Sleep so as to Dream landed. Until now. With this great preservation effort, Hayashi’s dream of everlasting cinema has come true.

I want to leave you with Hayashi’s own words from the project’s Kickstarter campaign. May they serve as a reminder that we never have to stop dreaming, even after the film ends:

Through this project I can imagine young people in all over the world watching To Sleep so as to Dream on smartphone screens and dreaming of becoming film directors. You never know what can be possible in this world.

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