I watched Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer for the first time this year, more so for the Mamoru Oshii connection (whose other films I’ve so far loved) and less so for the Urusei Yatsura connection (which I was not familiar with outside of the basic “alien girl dates human lecher” premise). Given my impression of Oshii, it was difficult to imagine him at the helm of a romantic comedy, serving as chief director for the first 100 or so episodes of Urusei Yatsura‘s TV adaptation. But, then again, I had watched through Sailor Moon earlier in the year, and there Kunihiko Ikuhara’s voice had come through clearly on all of the episodes he had directed. Even if it was a children’s cartoon about the power of friendship. It wasn’t a matter of the material weighing Ikuhara down; Ikuhara supported the material with all his might and used his talent to turn it into something engaging and enjoyable. I have to imagine Oshii did the same for Urusei Yatsura.
Beautiful Dreamer, however, is a much different beast. The story goes, supposedly, that Oshii was dissatisfied with how the previous Urusei Yatsura film Only You turned out. He blamed executive meddling and audience pandering, so for Beautiful Dreamer he penned the script himself, using no input from manga author Rumiko Takahashi, and made the movie the way he wanted. Instead of supporting the original material, he used its component pieces to tell his own story, which resulted in a very weird, slightly melancholic, and, yes, even beautiful film.
But this isn’t gonna be a review of the film. It’s good. Watch it. These are simply some elements or moments that stood out to me.
Ten minutes into the film we already have a couple of Oshii signifiers. His penchant for military vehicles places a WWII German tank in the cold open, which also features a stark, seemingly post-apocalyptic landscape full of decayed buildings and a handless clock tower. It’s an ominous scene that wouldn’t have been out of place in Angel’s Egg, which would debut the following year. The tank later (or, rather, earlier) finds itself on the top floor of a school, where the students have decided to contribute to their cultural festival by running a good old-fashioned Nazi-themed coffee shop. The film doesn’t attempt to disguise the absurdity of this situation, but it also never explains how or why the panzer got up there. However, it makes sense given the context that almost everything that happens in the film is a dream, and it’s a great example of Oshii using the Urusei Yatsura‘s comedic nature to lead the audience astray.
Speaking of being led astray, the characters get their first definitive inkling that something isn’t right with the world when a bunch of them attempt to leave school. Going by train, by bus, by taxi, or by car, they soon find themselves inexplicably right back where they started. The film indulges in the inherent comedy of the situation, but Oshii also throws in allusions to the story of Taro visiting the Dragon Palace (Japan’s version of Rip Van Winkle) and lets the architect of the dream world ruminate on the nature of time while windshield wipers trace their arc back and forth like a metronome. It’s an eerie scene, and an obvious influence on last year’s Madoka Rebellion, where Homura and Kyoko attempt to leave the city by bus, only to find themselves similarly trapped in a labyrinth. Notice too the similar visual cues, seen above.
Also, look at the way Oshii films some simple back-and-forth dialogue across a table. Onsen-Mark, who leads the conversation, can be seen in each frame, but each time he’s framed differently, reflected in a pot, refracted by a glass of water, or distorted by a bell. There’s a deadpan element to the scene’s situation, as he, covered in mold and dust, calmly tells Sakura that he believes that they have been living the same day over and over again. The cinematography, though, goes a step further and adds another layer of unease. He appears even more warped and disjointed by the design of his surroundings, and the green lighting creates an otherworldly atmosphere. The scenes reaches a crescendo as the camera spins on its axis at the center of the table, accelerating and eventually stopping on Sakura, who’s afraid to admit that he might be right. It’s an important scene, exquisitely filmed.
The film utilizes illumination to great effect as well, building many scenes out of the stark boundary between light and shadow, particularly artificial light. This technique is first used when the students are trapped trying to find their way home in the citywide labyrinth. They’re lost and disoriented, and the film mimics this by only drawing the part of the scene lit up by the car’s headlights. Neither the characters nor the audience can tell they’re at a dead end until they’re close enough to illuminate it. This technique is used again when the students explore the school and find themselves armed only with their flashlights in an extradimensional Escher-like maze. It’s one of the film’s most memorable sequences, and the top right image above is probably my favorite shot in the whole film, a sublime melding of shadows and the surreal. The bottom right scene takes place much later in the school, and while it isn’t an example of clearly defined illumination, it continues the trend of Oshii using absolute darkness to frame an image. A quiet, foreboding atmosphere surrounds Sakura as she sits askew on the collapsing building’s bannister.
Taro crossed the sea on the back of a giant turtle to reach the Dragon Palace, but when he returned, 300 years had passed, lost to the ocean. Water, too, is important in Urusei Yatsura, albeit somewhat in the inverse. As its own turtle carries the town through space, its back begins filling up with water, ultimately creating a lake around the school. Characters are shown reflected in water as well, a sign that they are through the looking glass and in a dream world on the other side. To reinforce this point, Ataru slips through one of these puddles and winds up in the school’s pool (along with the tank, because if Oshii finds an opportunity to use it, he does). This kind of portal also reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew and The Wood Between The Worlds, where pools of water disguise the entrances to countless universes. Finally, Mujaki’s encounter with Lum, which sparks the events of the film, happens in an aquarium, where thick panes of glass separate the world of fish and turtles from our own.
Alternately playful and philosophical, Beautiful Dreamer could be interpreted as the turning point in Mamoru Oshii’s career, but I’m inclined to think Oshii always wanted to make an anime like this, and Beautiful Dreamer was simply the first time he had the opportunity to do so. Consider that, just a year later, he would turn in the uncompromisingly masterful and supremely audience-unfriendly art film Angel’s Egg. He had to have been bursting at the seams to realize this kind of vision, and Beautiful Dreamer to him was the first step in the right direction. That said, it’s admirable how much he seems to have made his story about Groundhog Day loops and mad dream gods fit into the Urusei Yatsura universe. Although I can’t really comment, having neither read the manga nor seen the TV series, I did think that the characters’ personalities were easy to pick up on and follow. The film is friendly to Urusei Yatsura beginners without providing a lot of unnecessary information, so if you’ve been thinking about checking it out, do so. It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Oshii’s best work.
I’ll leave you with the most important lesson I learned from Beautiful Dreamer, which is that modern anime could do with a lot more huge teeth.