BY CHIZU OMORI
We’re in for an unusual treat on Jan. 19 & 20 at the Northwest Film Forum when Aono Jikken, Seattle’s music performance group, presents “To Sleep So As To Dream,” a 1986 Japanese black-and-white film written and directed by Kaizo Hayashi. Their specially-composed score will be played live accompanying this mystery story of a search for a kidnapped girl.
Aono Jikken’s work in providing live music for silent movies utilizing unconventional instruments such as found objects and specially-created sound devices has won local acclaim for innovation and artistry. Their unique performances display a wide range of influences from traditional Japanese to Eric Satie, jazz and gamelan sounds.
“We try to do something different for every project,” said the group’s leader, William Blauvelt, in an interview. What’s new in this presentation is the use of a “benshi,” a narrator who will be the storyteller.
“To Sleep” was shown at the Seattle International Film Festival in the ‘80s, and Blauvelt, who saw this mostly silent film, decided he wanted to bring it to Seattle audiences with the addition of incorporating a modern “benshi.” For this role, Naho Shioya, a trained actor and performance artist from Japan, was chosen and the narration, put together by Blauvelt and Shioya, will be in English. She will translate the Japanese inter-titles, do voice characterizations, sing and provide important scenario information.
A first-time effort by director Hayashi, “To Sleep” is set in post-war 1950s Tokyo. Detectives are hired by a mysterious older woman to find her daughter; a kidnap victim’s captors demand ransom. The old lady spends her time watching the same old silent film over and over in her mansion while the detectives prowl the city. With the “film within a film” device, “To Sleep” has rich layers and mixes of past, present, fantasy and reality, “… a visual feast … alternating between moments of surreal poetry and postmodern quirkiness,” stated The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film. It is considered an homage to Japanese film history, including “kami shibai” paper theatre, a form of children’s entertainment. Considered too offbeat and exotic for Western audiences, it has rarely been seen in the West outside of film festivals. After years of searching, Blauvelt managed to find it in Tokyo.
The “benshi” tradition arose in Japan when the silents were first produced in the 1920s. Unlike in the United States which mostly used pianos or organs, the “benshi” stood alongside the screen, narrating the film, adding his embellishments as he pleased. At the height of the silent film era, the most popular “benshi” were stars who could influence the making of movies to suit their particular talents.
So, what we will be seeing is not only a revival of an almost lost Japanese tradition (currently only one person continues to perform in Japan), but the English narrative will make this something rare and special. With a pre-show talk on early Japanese film history and a post-show discussion with the musicians and the “benshi” performer, this presentation of “To Sleep So As To Dream” promises to be a noteworthy and exciting event.
The Northwest Film Forum is at 1515 12th Ave., Seattle. .