There are certain genres and styles of film that seem to go in cycles: western movies were a big thing in the 1950s and 60s, horror and slasher movies were all the rage in the 80s, and today the comic book movie rules supreme in the cinema. Even after the heyday of certain movies seems to have passed you’ll still get a few throwbacks to these films released – well-received gangster films or buddy cop movies coming out long after the trend has finished. But one type of film whose day seems to be done is the silent movie.
This is kind of understandable, as silent movies weren’t made as a stylistic choice, but due to limits in technology when cinema was first created. As such, most people would dismiss this as a forgotten and useless form of the medium; you wouldn’t go back to using the phonograph when MP3s exist, right? One modern movie – though modern in relative terms, as this was first released in 1986 – that does take this leap back in time is To Sleep So As To Dream.
To Sleep So As To Dream tells the story of two detectives, Uotsuk (Shiro Sano) and Kobayashi (Koji Otake), who get hired to help investigate the disappearance of Bellflower (Moe Kamura), the daughter of ageing silent movie star Madame Cherry-blossom (Fujiko Fukamizu). The two detectives, and Madame Cherry-blossom’s elderly butler, engage on an investigation that sees them solving riddles, paying out large bundles of cash in ransoms, and getting into fights in their quest to reunite this broken family.
Despite being filmed in 1986, To Sleep So As To Dream takes many of its cues from much older films. The movie is shot in black and white, and for the most part it’s a completely silent film. There are times where we do have sound in the film, select noises – such as the ringing of a phone – that are used to highlight certain things in a scene, to build tension, or sometimes as parts of jokes. Other than that, all of the dialogue in the movie is presented through text cards that appear on the screen, giving the audience brief snippets of larger conversations. There are two moments in the movie where actual voices do appear, and much like the select sound effects these are used for specific purposes.
Because of the lack of dialogue, To Sleep So As To Dream tells much of its story visually, allowing the audience to follow along simply by watching what the lead characters do. Because of this, it’s pretty streamlined, and feels simple in places; yet director Kaizo Hayashi manages to make it a lot more layered than you might at first think. It soon becomes apparent that you can look at this film on a much deeper level, with Madame Cherry-blossom trying to get her daughter back, as a woman chasing her lost youth as she watches her old silent movies over and over again. There are moments where the film feels pretty unreal, where you’re not sure if you should be taking what’s happening at face value, and this can make for a strange viewing experience.
To Sleep So As To Dream is one of the strangest films I’ve seen in a while. It doesn’t quite feel like a silent movie, it does things that go against the conventions of the films of the silent era, because it’s simply using the aesthetic of those films. The film feels incredibly busy, despite being stripped down in a lot of ways, with odd stuff happening the the backgrounds of scenes and in set dressings. It’s got a strange sense of humour to it too, such as the ‘hard boiled detective’ eating so many hard boiled eggs across the course of the film. It’s the kind of movie that is so utterly unique that nothing else is really like it. It does its own thing in its own way, and even if its not to your taste it’s something that fans of cinema and the history of film should seek out, because this is certainly the kind of movie that will leave an impression.
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In addition to this newly restored version of the film there are some interesting extras on the new release. There’s a short presentation that shows how the film was restored from the original negative, which features director Kaizo Hayashi getting to visit the lab and watch it being done. There are also some interviews with star Shiro Sano, and an interview regarding Japanese film culture and silent film by Benshi Midori Sawato. There’s also a pair of audio commentaries for the film: one with director Kaizo Hayashi and actor Shiro Sano, and the other with film experts Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp.
To Sleep So As To Dream is not going to be a film that everyone likes, but as a unique piece of cinema that’s been presented in high quality for the first time this is a set that film fanatics will want to take notice of.
To Sleep So As To Dream is out on Blu-ray on 21st March from Arrow Video.