To Sleep So as to Dream (夢みるように眠りたい, Kaizo Hayashi, 1986)

“I feel so well, as though I am dreaming” a ghostly old woman exclaims, having dealt with her unfinished business or perhaps merely becoming one with the silver screen. Released in 1986 but set ostensibly sometime in the 1950s and recalling the golden age of the silent movie, Kaizo Hayashi’s postmodern odyssey To Sleep So as to Dream (夢みるように眠りたい, Yumemiru Yoni Nemuritai) sends a pair of detectives on the hunt for a missing reel, voyaging through an ethereal dreamscape of mysterious magicians, kidnap and conspiracy, in search of the solution to the “Eternal Mystery”. 

Opening in total darkness, Hayashi pans across to a gas lamp and then to the figure of a woman watching a silent film projected on a screen in her living room. We see only her gloved hands, one wearing an ostentatious ring, somewhere between Miss Havisham and Norma Desmond, while the movie seems to be part of an early serial revolving around the Black Mask ninja who is trying to rescue the kidnapped Bellflower (Moe Kamura) only the princess always seems to be in another castle, as detectives Uotsuka (Shiro Sano) and his sidekick Kobayashi (Koji Otake) will discover. In any case, the film bursts into flames and dissolves at the moment of climax just as Black Mask confronts the kidnappers and declares the mystery “solved”. The old lady, Madame Cherry-blossom (Fujiko Fukamizu), then telephones the Uotsuka Detective Agency and requests their help with a kidnapping, sending her manservant Matsunosuke (Yoshio Yoshida) to the office with a tape recording of the kidnappers’ message which includes the clues to a scavenger hunt the pair must solve if they are to arrive at the drop off point with the money in order to retrieve Bellflower. 

Filming in black and white and in academy ratio, Hayashi maintains a silent film aesthetic adding selected sound effects but rendering all dialogue other than recordings as intertitles. We hear the phone ring and the radio playing, but “live” human speech is presented only as text save for that of the Benshi who appears at the film’s conclusion though even he may also be “on tape”. Meanwhile, he adds in random gags at the guys’ expense such as the “hardboiled” detective’s obsession with hard boiled eggs, while his sidekick Kobayashi is forever riding a rocking horse in the corner of their office while wielding a lasso and wearing a cowboy hat. A live chicken completes the home on the range feel while a series of horse shoes decorate the wall. The two men feel as if they emerged from a 20s noir farce, their slapstick antics eventually leading to a confrontation in which Kobayashi proves himself an unexpectedly skilled martial artist.  

Their world is already absurd even as they head into the abstract in order to chase Bellflower while, just like Black Mask, the kidnappers leave them irritating messages at each checkpoint revealing another clue and that the ransom has now doubled. They are plagued by a series of magicians who turn up in different guises from a man performing a kamishibai version of the Black Mask story for children to some guys running a shell game and posing as a trio of “scientists” led by Prof. Jerowski “of the British Empire” showing off their new gyroscope technology. Yet it’s no coincidence that the kidnappers go by the name Pathé & co, having essentially trapped Bellflower inside the celluloid realm and refusing to set her free. 

While Uotsuka falls for the beautiful, elusive image of Bellflower who begs to be released from “this endless story”, fantasy and reality begin to merge as he finds himself cast in the role of Black Mask. The ironically named “Endless Mystery” is a film with no end, the apparently incomplete debut of a faded star not so much ready for her closeup but desperate for closure and the release of her younger self from 50 years of torment in the reassurance that Bellflower will certainly be rescued by Black Mask at the film’s conclusion which is, after all, how such serials are supposed to end. While others slip ghostlike into the darkness, Uotsuka is left behind another prisoner of cinema chasing the romance of the silver screen yet finally saving his princess by extracting her from it. Operating on several levels, Hayashi expertly recreates both the grainy serials of the early silent era and crafts an absurdist, postmodern homage to its more recognisable evolution as his detective becomes wilfully lost in the labyrinths of cinema. 


To Sleep So as to Dream streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Restoration trailer (no subtitles)

The Whispering Star (ひそひそ星, Sion Sono, 2015)

The Whispering StarSion Sono has been especially prolific of late, though much of his recent output has leant towards the populist rather than the art house. Having garnered a reputation for vulgar excess over the last twenty years or so, Sono returns to his Tarkovskian roots with The Whispering Star (ひそひそ星, Hiso Hiso Boshi) – a contemplative exercise in stillness which has more in common with The Room or Keiko Desu Kedo than the ironic outrageousness of Love & Peace. Yet, in an odd way love and peace are what it’s all about as a lonely android delivers long love letters from the distant past to a dying world in which humanity itself will soon be little more than a memory.

Yoko Suzuki (Megumi Kagurazaka), machine no. 772 , is an employee of Space Parcel Services, delivering packages the old-fashioned way from one human to another all across the universe. Following a series of natural disasters and other errors, humanity is no longer the dominant force amid the stars but makes up only 20% of the population. The other 80% belongs to humanity’s children – the androids or other AI based lifeforms who will soon eclipse their forebears given that humans do not generally live for more than 100 years whereas robots are forever “young”.

Yoko’s only companion aboard her homely spaceship is the dashboard computer, 6-7 M.I.M.E. who seems to have gone quite mad with boredom. Eventually Yoko realises that the problem is that M.I.M.E has descended into literal introspection – all its sensors are pointed inside not out and it’s hopelessly distracted by equally literal “bugs” trapped in the ceiling light. Living out her dull days, Yoko records her thoughts on a reel-to-reel tape hoping to entertain the next “Yoko” who rents this ship (or perhaps she is the next Yoko, listening and continuing the project) while travelling between planets delivering one of the remaining 82 parcels on her docket.

More human than human, Yoko is oddly fascinated by her human customers. An accidental anthropophile, Yoko states that she chose this ship because of its “convenient” features which include a kitchen and a host of other home comforts. Only they’re home comforts an android does not need. Dressing in elegant feminine fashions, Yoko’s other main hobby is housework – dusting the control deck, scrubbing the floors, putting up with the leaking tap, and the ship itself is more like a dainty flying cottage than your average utilitarian space vessel with a pretty porch and tiled roof.

Yoko’s “nostalgia” is for a world she never knew and believes she cannot understand. Space exploration has long since ended, and with it, she tells us, went humanity’s centuries old romance with the outer limits. Teleportation has been mainstream technology for quite some time so why do humans spend vast amounts of money on sending parcels to each other which may take years to arrive when they could just press a button for next second delivery? Yoko doesn’t know, she thinks it must be among the things an android cannot understand and that these things themselves must be the very thing which defines her creators.

Stopping off at various planets, Yoko begins to learn more about humans and the world that they destroyed or was destroyed for them. Shooting once again in the wasteland surrounding Fukushima, Sono explores the ruined landscape, eerily timeless with its broken signs and still stocked stores. Using displaced locals as his extras he has Yoko deliver packages to old ladies still manning tobacco stands on silent beaches, elderly store owners, fathers and sons, or even gum chewing little boys armed with real film cameras sitting on disused station platforms to receive something that was probably dispatched before they were even born. Yoko does not begin to look inside the packages for quite some time but observes that they each seem to provoke a profound emotional reaction in the recipients.

From her first encounter with an eccentric man who invites her out for a drink and tries to stop her space ship leaving by spray painting the window, urging her to come back soon because she may have forever but he will soon be gone, Yoko begins to understand the strange transience of human existence. The old man extols the virtues of bicycles and walks with a tin can stuck to the bottom of his shoe because he likes the sound it makes in this maddeningly silent world. Yoko stores her memories in a more absolute way but for humans the objects are the path to the past. The parcels she delivers have weight because the journey was so arduous. Teleportation may be efficient, but something that takes no time has no meaning.

Absurdly, Yoko’s days are divided by title cards bearing the names of the days of the week. Another human affectation or strange hangover from an obsolete world, this decidedly old-fashioned way of dividing time, something now rendered irrelevant to “immortal” machines who (supposedly) feel no boredom or melancholy, is one of many strange anachronisms from the AA batteries which are Yoko’s main source of power to the cheerful dashboard companion shaped liked a classic 1930s wireless and unused manual control wheel which might have been ripped from a small pirate ship. This timeless world is filled with longing for a forgotten, half made-up past inherited from another, unknowable age.

Yet Yoko does begin to learn what it is to be human, even if the knowledge may bring nothing but the additional burden of melancholy. Humanity destroys itself and leaves nothing to its children other than an inescapable sense of loss for a world they never knew. It sounds oddly familiar, like the echoes of an age-old tragedy but there is a kind of hopefulness in Sono’s black and white wasteland for the things which endure even when everything else has been washed away.


Original trailer (English subtitles)