Monday, August 30, 2021

Japan Cuts ’21: To Sleep So as to Dream

It  was a retro silent movie about silent movie stars. How did this not get a big re-release push after Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist won Best Picture (despite some subsequent blowback, it really is a great film)? Director-screenwriter Kaizo Hayashi’s vision is playfully twisty, in an almost Borgesian way. A crime has been committed that is surrounded in a greater mystery, but the Uotsuka Detective Agency is on the case in Hayashi’s To Sleep So as to Dream, which screens in its freshly restored glory as a classic selection of the 2021 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film, at the Japan Society.

Madame Cherryblossom, a Norma Desmond-like grand dame of Japanese silent cinema, hires Uotsuka and his apprentice Kobayashi to recover her kidnapped niece Bellfower. However, “M. Pathe and Co,” the criminal organization that abducted her is so cagey, they only leave a riddle as to where the ransom money should be delivered. Unfortunately, every time the Uotsuka Agency gets close to recovering Cherryblossom, the M. Pathe magicians snatch her away—and increase the ransom another one million yen.

TSSATD is not a true silent. There are plenty of foley effects and incidental music. We can also hear characters voices, when they have been pre-recorded, as with the kidnappers’ initial reel-to-reel ransom tape. However, when characters speak face-to-face, we must read it in the intertitles. This is a somewhat eccentric approach, but Hayashi makes it work.

His wonderfully nostalgic noir visual style is a major reason why. Aesthetically,
TSSATD is perfect for admirers of Guy Maddin, because it has the same darkly dreamy vibe. It is a world where gumshoes and stage magicians rub shoulders, while watching samurai in the hazy film-within-a-film. Cinematographer Yuichi Nagata makes all look suitably mysterious and nocturnal, while the mise en abyme movie shimmers with mystery.

Yet, despite all the postmodern gamesmanship, it is still easy to follow the storyline. The film is not just an exercise in film noir style. It really builds to something that should connect with a lot of viewers, especially cineastes. For a while, Shiro Sano comes across like a glorified straight-man playing Uotsuka, but his portrayal takes on gloriously tragic dimensions during the third act. Likewise, Yoshio Yoshida’s work as Cherryblossom’s loyal majordomo compares rather directly to Erich von Stroheim in
Sunset Boulevard.

The Artist
was a critical and box-office hit, but you can see how timid established filmmakers and studios are by the lack of contemporary silent films that followed in its wake. Only Blancanieves from Spain comes to mind. Hayashi’s film predates Hazanavicius’s Oscar winner by about twenty-five years, but it will be new to a great many viewers. Very highly recommended, To Sleep So as to Dream screens as an on-demand selection of this year’s Japan Cuts.