Kaizô Hayashi’s debut film, To Sleep So as to Dream is a best-case scenario for when someone who loves film is able to make precisely what they want without any constraints, armed with their good taste and exceptional vision. It premiered in 1986 and, for the past 36 years, has remained relatively unavailable in any mainstream format outside of Japan. That remains the case with several of Hayashi’s other works, including his much better-known The Most Terrible Time in My Life (which I went searching for immediately after finishing Dream and came up frustrated).
The story follows hard-boiled detective Uotsuka (Shirô Sano) and his comical sidekick, Kobayashi (Koji Otake), as they follow the rabbit hole on a missing persons case, deciphering riddles and clues that don’t seem to make any sense into an odd postmodern underworld that makes even less. The captive is Bellflower (Moe Kmaura), daughter of Madame Cherryblossom (Fujiko Fukamizu), an aged star of silent Japanese films during the 1920s. The thread of Uotsuka’s investigation and the history of Cherryblossom’s final film intertwine, creating a metafictional narrative that blends dreams and physical truth.
There’s a deep and abiding love of 1950s noir and 1920s silent cinema throughout To Sleep So as to Dream, but it never feels like a film burdened by reverence. As someone who has never watched a single 1920s Japanese silent film, I wasn’t lost and actually felt like I was learning something through the eyes of the then-27-year-old Hayashi and his abiding love for that filmmaking era. Uotsuka’s investigation takes him into spaces where films were revered and then forgotten. Hayashi uses the format of silent films to tell his story but mixes in sounds and scored music in often eerie ways. It is technically magnificent.
Although it’s a detective story that follows some familiar beats, Hayashi has something particular to say with Uotsuka’s journey. It takes a postmodern / meta twist but not at the expense of the heart of its mystery. He at once pokes fun at staples of genre (Uotsuka, the hard-boiled detective, is always eating hard-boiled eggs) while embracing the utility of the storytelling format. It’s abstract and interpretive enough to laugh at the eggs and also contemplate just what that choice of food says about the layered, chronologically ambiguous narrative (the chicken or the egg, for instance). There’s plenty to unpack.
Arrow Video’s new restoration of Dream was crowdfunded in 2019 and brings the 16mm classic into a new era. In his liner notes, Hayashi approves the results. Many directors have troubled relationships with their first films but not Hayashi, which is good: I have a hard time imagining anyone disowning this. The first printing of the Blu-ray includes a booklet that features a statement by Hayashi and an essay by professor Aaron Gerow. Special features include interviews and commentaries about the film.