Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer (1984)
Directed by Mamoru Oshii
– Kris King, @KrisKingTornado
In terms of popularity in America, anime director Mamoru Oshii’s work has done a great deal to solidify the genre’s place in broader spectrum of film, a feat that’s only really been surpassed by Hayao Miyazaki (who has an Oscar, for crying out loud).
Oshii’s most successful films — the Ghost in the Shell series, a cyberpunk drama about mankind’s inevitable evolution from the flesh into cybernetic bodies — earned him a good deal of crossover success. The second Ghost in the Shell film, 2004’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, even competed for the Palme D’Or when it screened at Cannes, the first and only anime to ever be considered for the honor.
Oshii is an anime auteur whose work is slow, and often ponderous, but always exceptionally well animated, loaded with rich details, sexually charged images and wonderful use of light and shadow.
But before all of the accolades and success, Oshii began his career as a “chief director” (which I imagine is akin to being a show-runner on American television) for a popular 80’s teen comedy called Urusei Yatsura (which translates roughly to “Those Obnoxious Aliens”).
The series follows a lecherous boy named Ataru who saves the world from alien invasion by defeating Lum, a beautiful, green-haired alien princess, in some weird game of tag. Humanity is saved, but the trouble is just beginning for Ataru, because by defeating Lum, by alien custom, he now has to marry the girl, who has become more than a little smitten with him.
As a series, Urusei Yatsura doesn’t reflect Oshii’s sensibilities so as much as it does the manga’s original creator, Rumiko Takahashi, a wildly influential female artist who wrote Urusei Yatsura in her early twenties and later went on to create several internationally successful series; most notably, the gender-bender romantic comedy Ranma ½.
Oshii thrived adapting Takahashi’s work, to the point where he was chosen to direct the series’ first feature film titled Only You. Fans loved the movie, but Oshii was reportedly displeased with it. Like many feature films based around an on-going series, there were rather strict limitations put upon Oshii to maintain a sense of status-quo with the series’ characters and story, never really wanting to venture too far from what fans have come to expect.
All of this changed when Oshii took it upon himself to write and direct the next Urusei Yatsura film, 1984’s Beautiful Dreamer, without the input from Takahashi or anyone else involved with keeping the franchise alive.
Pushing aside much of the series’ trademark slapstick and ongoing lovers’ spats, Beautiful Dreamer introduces many of Oshii’s stylistic strong-points for the first time. It’s a rather slow film, but one loaded with spooky, dreamlike imagery which gives way to big ideas about consciousness, our expectations of one-another and a concentration on building a world utterly unlike our own.
The film opens with Ataru, Lum and their friends rushing to complete a school project* the night before their high school’s big festival. The halls are abuzz with kids in costume — Godzilla monsters, superheroes, historical figures; I’m pretty sure I even saw Darth Vader at one point. But as the kids hurry to finish decorations and outfits, their sense of time starts to slip away. Days continue to pass, but nothing seems to be getting done, and slowly they start to realize that this final rush towards the finish line has been going on for quite a long time.
As they realize that they’ve been reliving the same day over and over again, reality begins to crumble around them. The roads out of town all seem to meet dead ends, all of their peers disappear, and slowly, the entire town falls into a long-settled ruin. The group survives by holing up in Ataru’s house, whose home is the only place in town that still has electricity and water.
As the group wastes away their days going swimming and partying, a few of them begin to investigate just what the hell is going on, and not only do they come to realize that they’re stuck in one of their friends’ dreams, but that they’re also being held there by a mischievous demon.
What I like most about Beautiful Dreamer is the way that Oshii slowly allows reality to fade away into full-on dreamscapes over the course of the movie, eventually settling into something that borders on apocalyptic. The gang’s normal, Japanese town is in ruins by the film’s end, and every sense of hope and progress that the characters had for themselves starts to fade away the longer they’re stuck in this degrading, confusing world.
Visually, the movie has a heavy European sensibility, cribbing from Tarkovsky and Fellini quite a few times — the former in several driving sequences that use passing streams of streetlights in nearly exact same way that Tarkovsky does in Solaris, and the latter through a spooky late night parade being led through empty streets by a group of some kind of… faceless Japanese gypsies.
Though it’s easy to play this movie up as Oshii coming into his own as an artist, much of Takahashi’s humor is still present in Beautiful Dreamer. Characters chase each-other with swords, blow up and suffer from a few electrocutions. It’s quite silly really, and that’s mostly stemming from Takahashi’s lasting influence. Much of it is actually quite well timed, but more often than not, the slapstick feels out of place next to Oshii’s lyrical dream-imagery.
One problem that does exist with Beautiful Dreamer for those not familiar with the series is getting a sense of its characters without prior knowledge of who they are. Urusei Yatsura has quite a large cast, and Oshii doesn’t dwell on how they all relate to one-another in case anyone isn’t already familiar with the manga or television series. As a consequence, there are several strange characters floating about that don’t get much, if any, explanation — there’s a flying baby with green hair, for instance, I still have no clue what’s up with that.
When Beautiful Dreamer hit theaters in 1984, reception for it was chilly. Takahashi apparently came close to vetoing the script because it veered so far off track from her material, and her assumption that Oshii’s new pensive and existential take on the characters would leave fans cold turned out to be right, Beautiful Dreamer flopped, and it cost Oshii his job.
The movie lingered, though, and as it eventually made its way over to Western markets on home video, Beautiful Dreamer became quite a cult sensation. Today, not only is the film often referenced as the high-point for the series, but it’s frequently mentioned alongside major works like Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind as a breakthrough for anime as a legitimate form of artistic expression.
*At the start of the movie, Ataru and his friends are working on making their classroom into a themed tea parlor, and for some reason they choose the Third Reich as their theme. So for much of the first portion of the movie, characters are hard at work stapling swastikas to the ceiling or wearing gestapo outfits. A Leopard tank is heavily featured in the film. It’s really strange, and a bit off-putting, to be honest.
Nazi imagery comes up quite a lot in Japanese anime, and I’ve never really been sure as to why. Its use in Beautiful Dreamer mostly just window-dressing — there’s so much going on in the school with so many wild characters running around that seeing a Nazi goose-step by wouldn’t really seem out of place — for a background character. It’s just a really odd choice for the film’s main characters to getting stuck with the Nazi party theme. I don’t really think that this relatively playful use of Nazi imagery is used in a way that it scuttles the entire film, or suggests anything nasty on Oshii’s behalf, but it definitely deserves to be mentioned.