“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)