Bradley Meek has more interests than he has time. He likes reading about science and politics, playing PC games and discovering new music, reading novels and comic books, playing complex board games and obsessively checking his Twitter feed. But what he always has more time for is his primary love, animation, and for the last three years he has been a staff reviewer on THEM Anime, and has also recently joined the staff of Anime 3000. Old or new, cute or manly, he has no fear and is willing to tackle any anime. Though, as he details below, this one was a “whoozy.”
There is one completely safe kind of anime: the movie adaptation of popular franchises. Part promotion, and part glorious fan service, these movies are made under a long list of restrictions to keep them from taking the steam out from long running series. The main characters can’t see any kind of development, none of the ongoing plot threads can be tied up, and every character who placed high in the new popularity poll has to show up. You’ve seen the kind before, usually coming from big Shounen Jump series like Bleach, InuYasha or Prince of Tennis. These movies are essentially glorified filler episodes, where nothing is at stake or feels like it really matters in the grand scheme of things. At best, these movies can only aspire to an entertaining time waster that can’t quite replicate why we love the properties they’re based on. Sadly, the norm is closer to the worst case scenario: a flashy waste of time and celluloid.
That was the kind of movie Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer was supposed to be. But Momaru Oshii thought otherwise.
To be fair, Urusei Yatsura was hardly your average popular franchise. In fact, the series is a landmark of anime that rivals even the biggest names. It was the first series to successfully make the jump from a “kid’s cartoon” to a favorite of old and young viewers alike. It made a superstar out of the manga-ka, Rumiko Takahasi, who wrote the comic the series was based on. The main character, the cute, ditzy alien Lum, became an animated idol, with an unprecedented glut of merchandising and toys that was revolutionary at the time. It was the training ground for many directors and animators, including Katsuhiko Nishijima (Project A-Ko franchise), Kazuo Yamazaki (Maison Ikkoku, A Wind Named Amnesia, and the underappreciated Yume Tsukai), Kazuhiro Furuhashi (Rurouni Kenshin), and Junji Nishimura (Ranma 1/2). And probably most importantly, it was pretty damn funny.
The series already had a lot to work with, putting colorful characters from Takahashi’s fertile imagination in increasingly strange situations. And once they ran out of manga to adapt, the series got even better- yes, Urusei Yatsura is the exception to the rule, where the filler was better than most of the canonical material. Under the guidance of Oshii, the series riffed on Japanese culture, politics, and social issues before truly going into the stratosphere, with some episodes that even shed their comedic shell for more experimental fare.
For the uninitiated, the story of Urusei Yatsura goes something like this: Ataru is the biggest high school lecher alive. He indiscriminately chases one skirt after another, much to the shame of his frazzled mother and spaced out father. And he isn’t suave or subtle about it; his pick up lines stop just short of “let’s do it on the street like animals.” And unfortunately, when aliens invade, the fate of the Earth rests on his shoulders.
Oni (a traditional Japanese monster similar to trolls) from space with vastly superior weapons and technology have landed in Tokyo, intent making this planet another addition to their long line of conquests. But these aliens have a strange tradition- before they can start burning national landmarks and enslaving the human race, they have to first play a game of tag against their would-be victims. The Earthlings pick one person to represent them, and that person has seven days to catch the oni‘s representative. If the Earthlings win, the oni go home and life continues as normal. If the oni win, the raping and pillaging will commence immediately. And because of a national lottery, Ataru is humanity’s only hope for salvation. Initially resistant, he comes around when he sees who is opponent is: the luscious oni princess Lum. And dude, for the chance to just touch a hot chick like that, what wouldn’t he do?
Through an ingenious last minute idea worthy of anime’s biggest perv, Ataru wins the game. But, of course, his troubles have only begun. When he let loose a howl to celebrate his victory, the princess Lum mistook that for a marriage proposal… which she happily accepted. And what do you know, at the age of sixteen Ataru suddenly has a wife who has moved in with him, a surrogate kid in the form of Lum’s little cousin, two frazzled parents, weird in-laws, and a whole lot of jealous classmates. But does that stop him from groping other women? In Ataru’s reasoning, “I don’t want just Lum. I want every woman in the world!”
That’s the gist of the first episode, but from there, anything goes. The series doesn’t have a plot so much as a giant canvas for far out comedy with little consequence from episode to episode. One day it can rain oil, then the next day sexy aliens fall from the sky. The town will be destroyed and magically rebuilt in time for the next episode several times over in the first season alone. Weathering the constant abuse is a core cast of rivals for Lum’s affection (though any chance that those relationships will ever go anywhere is all in Ataru’s mind) and several classmates who regularly get caught up in the wackiness. There’s Mendou, the heir to a conglomerate’s fortunes that was probably the origination of the “rich brat” stereotype we see in anime. There’s Lum’s Stormtroopers, a trio of “Lum otaku” who adore her who like a certain Police song. They don’t need Lum merchandise, because they create their own. Poor Shinobu is a girl who has been the object of Ataru’s affections since they were children, which helped her develop a lot of muscle to fight him or anyone else off. Ryuunosuke is a girl who has been forced by her crazy father to dress and act like a man for all her life, though she still dreams of wearing a sailor fuku to school. When these kids are in school, it’s up to poor Onsen-Mark to teach them, and he seems to age with every episode from the stress. Sakura is the school nurse who is also a talented priestess, and looks killer in her red-white miko habit. Her midget monk uncle Cherry, on the other hand, looks like a walking turd. The series ran for a 195 episodes, so this is hardly a complete list, but it should be enough to get you through the movie. But if you want a more detailed look, AnimEigo has posted their liner notes for the DVD release online.
Oshii directed the first half of the series, though you’d have to check the credits to figure that out. All the traits that made him one of animations biggest auteurs hadn’t shown up- no striking visuals, no hound dogs, no endlessly rambling characters talking well above their pay grade, and it’s not even very pretentious. It’s just pure, well executed fun. Oshii made a couple of major changes from the manga, though. Lum’s Stormtroopers were originally a throwaway gag, but presumably Oshii saw some potential in them that Takahashi didn’t, and made them regular members of the cast. Ataru’s best friend and partner in crime from the manga never shows up at all. Oshii also tweaked Lum’s character a bit to make her less bitchy, and more of an affectionate ditz. These are comparatively small changes, though; nothing compared to the liberties he would take when making the second movie.
Oshii wasn’t happy with the first Urusei Yatsura movie, which, while a great movie in its own way, was exactly the kind of safe, simple exercise in fanservice I described above. He wanted to do something different, something daring. Inspired by a chapter of the manga where a rogue god of dreams plays a prank on the characters, he wrote the script to what would become Beautiful Dreamer. Takahashi didn’t like it, and Oshii barely got the approval he needed to start the project. And when the movie came out it tanked hard. Fans were incensed- Oshii had essentially kidnapped their beloved characters for his own story, a story that didn’t represent Urusei Yatsura as they knew it at all. It looked like an exercise in egotism. Critics slammed it. The movie lost money, and Oshii lost his job.
It’s a lovely story: the tortured, visionary artist is exiled from the cold world of commerce where they don’t understand his great art. They don’t understand, man! Those ingrates, those ijits, those fools! They don’t understand art, man, they don’t understand his greatness! I like to imagine that Oshii left the building of Toei Studios with his fist in air, cursing the capitalist system and the greedy CEOs and whatever else came to his mind. They don’t understand!
It’s the kind of story we tell ourselves to feed a misplaced sense of superiority- something to tell ourselves as artists or as an audience to a small art that we just get something the rest of the world doesn’t, or can’t. There is some truth to that- what a world it would be if visionaries like Oshii could take risks with a lot of money and not worry about the consequences. But there’s truth on the other side of the coin, too. Urusei Yatsura had a huge built in fan base, and these fans went into the movie expecting something very different. And when they didn’t get it- well, you know the feeling. And no matter how great your art is, it’s pointless without an audience. This is a movie that has benefited from growing old and moving out of the context it was released in; years later, we can fully appreciate watching Oshii’s budding growth as an artist onscreen. This was the movie where he seemed to fully realize what it was he wanted to do as a director.
I’ve only seen a small number of Oshii films, and to be honest, most of them were a turn off. Ghost in the Shell is simply overrated- the pretentious, stuffy dialogue and ponderous pace drags down the movie despite the incredible visuals and mind opening themes. Innocence was even worse- I tried to watch the movie twice, and fell asleep at both viewings, even when I thought I wasn’t tired. Dreamwork’s botched release certainly didn’t help things. I thought I was done with Oshii- until I fell in love with the Urusei Yatsura franchise and was surprised by Beautiful Dreamer. Here was an Oshii movie that engaged me- accessible yet profound, thoughtful but suspenseful, funny and awe inspiring, daring but not intimidating.
The school is preparing for the big spring festival, and the building is stuffed with students in costume who clog up the stairs, strange machines are being built outside, and there’s even a Nazi-themed tea room. The latter, of course, belongs to our heroes’ class. “Think we should have gone with Ataru’s suggestion of a naked ladies cafe?” asks one of the Lum Stormtroopers, now a Nazi-Lum-Stormtrooper hammering Nazi paraphernalia over the door. Perm, also a Nazi-Lum-Stormtrooper, is pretty sure that anything Ataru suggests is sure to end in disaster. So instead, let’s decorate a tea room celebrating those cool looking Nazis, and Mendou can even bring a WWII tank that he can put in our small classroom. It’ll be a hit!
Naturally, the day before the festival starts, the whole thing blows up in their faces, in a series of events that involve Ataru sleeping in places he shouldn’t be, groping women in his sleep he shouldn’t grope, and pissing off a certain alien you never want to piss off. The tank falls through the floor and several others below it. Over stressed teacher Onsen-Mark now has a disaster on his hands, and he really can’t do much about, since as his students constantly remind him- “the school festival is about student self governance!” The festival starts tomorrow. Maybe they can put it back together by then.
The next day, the tank is back in place, the Nazi paraphernalia is up, and the gang is almost ready for the festival. But Onsen-Mark has been sent home- the recent events have simply been too much for him. Realizing that she made a serious mix-up in the medication she gave him- a giant jar of laxatives instead of a giant jar of sedatives; really, it was a mistake anyone could have made- school nurse Sakura races to Onsen-Mark’s house. In the first of many surreal scenes that also serve as biting satire, she finds him in an apartments so covered in mold the floor is as slick as ice. The ceiling, the windows, the closet- everything is covered in a sick-green coating. Only the TV escaped untouched. Onsen-Mark is sitting in the filth, watching a soap opera with a glazed look in his eyes. The only way to save him, Sakura realizes, is to physically throw him out of the window and several streets down the block, mold and all.
When Sakura finally sits Onsen-Mark down to talk to him, it seems that the teacher’s mind has finally snapped. He starts rambling about reality and dreams and turtles and old Japanese legends and why are people always saying the festival will be the next day it will always be the next he can’t even remember what day it is. “I feel like I’ve been repeating the same events over and over again,” he says. An hour later, in a certain classroom, a tank has fallen through the flimsy wooden floor because a certain student was sleeping in places he shouldn’t be, groping women in his sleep he shouldn’t grope, and pissing off a certain alien you never want to piss off.
Shortly after his dazed discussion with Sakura, Onsen-Mark disappears.
Sakura realizes that something is wrong, and tries to find her uncle Cherry, who should know what to do. But he’s gone as well, his hobo tent gone to waste, and his cooking pot broken and rusting from disuse. Sakura tries to send the students home. But whether they were going by bus or taxi or limo or train, they all find the city eerily empty, and none of them could find their homes. Well, except for one- everyone ends up crashing at Ataru’s place.
Later, over breakfast, Sakura tries to explain what is happening to the city. There is an old Japanese legend of a man named Urashima Taro who once helped a turtle god, and to thank Taro for his assistance, the turtle god carried Taro on his back to the pleasure palaces of the dragons. The pleasure palace was filled with everything a man could want, and Taro reveled in his reward. But when he returns home, he finds centuries have passed and his village is gone.
Now say a man has a dream about being a butterfly, then wakes up to go to work. Who’s to say it wasn’t the butterfly’s dream of a working man? And have you ever noticed how time flies by when you’re having fun, or slows to a crawl when you’re miserable? Keep following me here- what if, instead of one man, the entire city was riding on the back of the turtle god? What if the events of the last few days have been repeating over and over again, and we never noticed because we were too tired or too busy? What if all of our reality is simply someone’s dream? Are you following me, Ataru? Ataru? ATARU?!
Naturally, only the diligent Mendou understands what Sakura is saying. The rest are happily oblivious.
That’s only the first thirty minutes of the movie. There’s many more memorable scenes, including the founding of a great socialist utopia, roller skating in the strangest post-apocalypse you’ve possibly ever seen where the atom bomb was the steady march of time, and the gang exploring a schoolhouse haunted not by ghosts, but by weird twists in reality and perception.
Watching Beautiful Dreamer is like looking at a photo album of a good friend’s childhood. You recognize maybe their hair and eyes, and that rogue grin, but the album can only hint at the features of your friend’s adult life. The movie is prototypical Oshii; you can see him developing the themes and ideas that would later make him famous. The movie asks ponderous questions and is filled with striking visuals. It does strange things with our sense of time, space and reality. There is still no hound dog, though. But interestingly enough, what makes the movie successful may not be what we would recognize as an Oshii film today.
Oshii may have tried to make something deeper than the light comedy that made Urusei Yatsura and the movie Only You such hits, but in Beautiful Dreamer, comedy is one of its best assets. Oshii and his staff were dealing with characters they knew very well, and because of that, they had the comedic timing and reactions down to a “T.” It’s a perfect way to offset the gravity of the plot, and it makes the entire movie much more entertaining. Obviously, latter Oshii movies would be missing any kind of comedy entirely. The movie is also very sentimental, though how that comes about is something of a spoiler. That makes the movie more heartfelt and humane; contrast that with the cynical philosophical ramblings in Innocence. These traits might have simply been carry-overs from a clever low brow series, and they may take they movie “down” a notch from high art, but it makes the whole thing work very well. It may have seemed to fans that Oshii had taken characters they knew and loved and inserted them into a strange artsy film where they acted in strange ways, but without the traits of the original series, the movie would have been less successful as a memorable piece of art.
Before the glorious days of the Internet, before certain fans would selflessly sweat over a three thousand word synopsis of a sprawling franchise simply so that a near stranger can have content for his blog, some people would see Beautiful Dreamer cold. The Sci-Fi Channel ran the movie back in 1998, when only those who dared to endure small dark rooms with sweaty old men knew who any of these characters were. Many of them still fell in love with it, and claim that it’s the best introduction to the franchise. While I’m not so sure about that, the options as I see it are this: if you watch the movie without seeing the series, you will see one of the great works of anime, but miss out on all the subtleties that only a fan of the series will pick up on. But watching the series is a huge investment of time, and not all of us have that. So I suggest this: if you’ve never seen the movie or the series, pick up copies of Only You and Beautiful Dreamer. Only You is a good introduction to the series and the characters, and will make your viewing of the next movie all the more rewarding. Or don’t. Either way, in my mind, this is one of the canonical series and movies of anime, and any fan who hasn’t seen these are doing themselves a disservice.