To Sleep So as to Dream
Two private detectives hunt for an actress trapped within the reel of a silent ninja film in the dreamlike debut of Kaizo Hayashi (Circus Boys, Zipang), a magical double-handed cinephilic homage to the movie worlds of the 1910s and 1950s.
When private eye Uotsuka (Shiro Sano, Violent Cop, Shin Godzilla) and his sidekick Kobayashi are approached by an aged former actress, Madame Cherryblossom, to go in search of her kidnapped daughter Bellflower, their investigations lead them to the studios of the mysterious M. Pathe company. Here Uotsuka has a strange vision in which he comes face to face with the beautiful star of a 1915 chanbara film that appears to have no ending. From then on, things begin to get a little strange…
Among the most impressive and critically regarded Japanese films of the 1980s, To Sleep so as To Dream finally makes its home-video debut outside of Japan in a brand new restoration supervised by the director himself. Drifting between illusion and allusion, it is chockfull of references to Japan’s rich cinematic heritage and features cameos from a host of veteran talent and baroque sets created by Takeo Kimura, the Nikkatsu art designer fondly remembered for his flamboyant work with Seijun Suzuki in the 1960s.
Kaizo Hayashi’s 1986 film To Sleep So as to Dream comes to Blu-ray from Arrow Video, presented here on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 in 1080p/24hz high-definition. I believe this marks the film's disc debut in North America, if not its home video debut (it may have had a VHS release but I have not been able to confirm if that was the case).
Coming to this I was expecting an older master only to be greeted by an all-new 2K restoration, scanned from the 16mm original Kodak black & white negatives. A caveat or two aside I thought the end results were just wonderful. In an included feature on the restoration it sounds as though the original materials had held up incredibly well over the years, the restoration work more than likely limited to fixing splices, removing dirt and debris, and so forth. The end results are astonishingly clean, with remaining blemishes limited to the silent film-with-the-film, but even then, that film doesn't look all that shabby, just appearing to be grainier most of the time with a few scratches.
Speaking of grain, it has been left intact and can vary in coarseness, depending on the scene's design and the film stock used, but there is a slightly managed look about it. It's not bad, and in motion it dances around nicely, but there are instances where there's a slight digital texture to it. Still, if some filtering has been applied it hasn't impacted the picture in any significant way as fine details and textures, from fine patterns and stitching on jackets to the dank underground setting in one sequence, are all cleanly rendered. The black-and-white photography also receives a wonderful boost, blacks and whites looking clean with a wonderful level of range to be found in the grays, allowing some of the finer shadow details to creep out. Gradients are also gorgeously rendered, leading to some striking smoky and dreamy-looking sequences throughout.
The film, which is essentially silent, makes use of Japanese intertitles throughout. These look to have been digitally recreated (confirmed in the included restoration featurette), but they still blend perfectly in with the film and don't stick out.
In all, the film comes out looking brand new while still retaining a wonderful photographic quality despite some possible digital manipulation. It's a superb looking presentation.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD MA single-channel monaural. Paying homage to Japanese silent cinema the film is silent in nature. Well, sort of. The film still features music and some sound effects, and dialogue can be heard through what are supposed to be recordings or something similar, but most of the dialogue is silently mouthed on screen and delivered through Japanese intertitles, with optional English subtitles.
The soundtrack overall is very sparse and can sound artificial (by design I’m sure), but it still offers some effective and creative moments. Audio still comes out sounding crisp and clean with modest range and fidelity, and the restoration has removed any signs of distortion or damage. Again, it’s a very limited soundtrack, but it does sound great when all is said and done.
Arrow throws together a nice little special edition that, like the film, also manages to act as its own tribute to the Japanese silent film era. They first throw on a Japanese-language audio commentary (with optional English subtitles) featuring director Kaizo Hayashi and star Shiro Sano, recorded in 2000 for a Japanese DVD edition. The director, claiming at one point that the film is the byproduct of “decades of thinking,” gives background to the production, from script writing to eventual release, even mentioning that he had been approached about an American remake despite the poor distribution of the film in the States (he says that the script exists, but as far as I know nothing has come of it). Unsurprisingly the film had a tiny budget and Hayashi had limited resources, which included actual film stock, with that latter limitation leading to a lot of single takes, very few (if any) deleted scenes and its short 83-minute runtime. Sano gets in there as well to share stories about the production, vividly recalling instances around several sequences, and the two also talk a bit about the detective story influences, Raymond Chandler even coming up. I wasn’t sure how this track would play out but it ends up being a surprising bit of fun.
Arrow then includes a new commentary featuring Japanese film experts Jasper Sharp and Tom Mes, who sound to be participating remotely. The track ends up being mostly a blended discussion around the Japanese silent film era (with a large majority of those films missing from the period) and the relatively overlooked 80’s period in Japanese cinema, effectively covering both the period in which the film was made and the period it pays loving tribute to. When it comes to the 80’s period I found the track didn’t really have much of a center, and I don't know if the remote situation is throwing off their vibe, but it comes to life when the discussion focuses on the film itself and the silent era, with Sharp offering up a significant amount of historical context, from the M. Pathe studio mentioned in the film (which was real) to benshi performers, which were in-house silent film narrators, the act being an artform unto itself. Despite a handful of hiccups, when the two find their footing it’s an effective academic track.
Arrow also pulls together a couple of new interviews, including a 29-minute one with star Shiro Sano. Impressively, 36-years later, Sano manages to recall a lot about the production, sharing stories around what was a rather unorthodox shoot due to the limited budget, making do with what they could. He even recounts the sword play for the film-within-the-film and muses about some of the film’s odder touches, like his character’s thing with hard-boiled eggs (the Sharp/Mes commentary does confirm his suspicions that the hard-boiled egg is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the hard-boiled detective).
I’m impressed at Arrow going out of their way to get the interview with him, but not as impressed as I was with Arrow also getting a new interview with one of the few remaining benshi performers remaining in Japan, Midori Sawato. For 18-minutes she explains the history behind the practice, why it was employed, and the effort that goes into it. She expands on subjects covered in the Mes/Sharp commentary, building on their comments about her former master, Shunsui Matsuda, who also worked tirelessly to preserve whatever silent film footage he could, even being recognized for it in the 80's. It’s a great history lesson with the added bonus that she also offers her own narration over The Eternal Mystery, the fake silent film central to To Sleep So as to Dream, in a separate feature. Both of these are incredibly thoughtful additions.
Closing the disc off is a short 4-minute feature around the film’s restoration, which features Hayashi touring through each step of the process, followed by the original trailer, English-language re-release trailer, and a small gallery presenting production photos, a poster, a press book, and a fake pamphlet for The Eternal Mystery. There’s also over 2-minutes’ worth of excerpts from two silent jidai-geki films, the genre represented in the main feature. The footage comes from the 1925 film Nakayama Yasubei and 1930’s Travel Stories in a Joshu Accent. First printings then feature a 27-page booklet containing a short statement about the film by the director, followed by an essay by Aaron Gerow.
It may not look like a lot, but Arrow has put a lot of thought into this release, using the film’s subject matter as an excuse to modestly explore Japan’s silent film era.
An impressively put together package featuring a sharp presentation for the main feature and some engaging supplements that take the opportunity to delve into Japan’s silent film era.