I meant to write this two months ago, as a matter of fact. But, perhaps fittingly given the movie, time slips away.
Released on February 11th, 1984, Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer turned thirty years old in the dwindling hours before the most recent Valentine’s Day.
My own schedule hiccups aside, I struggled for a while on how I would even want to approach writing about this particular film. A longform review seems almost silly given the age of the material and the lack of a new physical version to talk about. Either a reader has already seen this movie at some point over the years and in a review would gain only cursory benefit, or they have not seen it and a review would end up competing with other folks critiques of productions hot off the presses and more common in everyday anime community parlance. A more dedicated academic analysis and a close reading of the material with citations and such would perhaps interest longtime fans familiar with the film. But again that does little for those who do not have that knowledge base.
I think it is a rather universal film for multiple demographics. I wanted to be able to write about it in a more universal fashion for various readers to enjoy as well.
For the twentieth anniversary release a decade ago, director Mamoru Oshii provided a very enlightening commentary track that functioned like a feature length interview on his feelings, processes, and reflections on the production. I realized, perhaps sheepishly and a little behind the curve much like our own lead characters, I could probably try to talk about Beautiful Dreamer in a personal manner with my own perspectives and some history mixed in. I am not an authoritative source on much, but I am if anything myself. Which, perhaps, is what one comes to a blog like this for.
I will actually be pulling choice lines out of that commentary track as headers for various sections to better break things up and organize my thoughts. As such, all quotes can be attributed to the director (even the harrier line in the title). Since Central Park Media is long since out of business, I feel no qualms about linking to a full transcript of that interview for your own reading pleasure.
As the film is thirty years old, there will be some minor spoilers mixed in with my thoughts. But nothing too outrageous, for those who may choose to watch it after reading this. And I hope you do.
“We were all exhausted, so the characters have that same tired look to them. We were probably at the peak of our exhaustion then, so instead of starting the film off with a typically crazy situation, I wanted to build our story in a scene where our characters boil water for tea in the wee hours of the morning.”
When one considers Mamoru Oshii as a filmmaker and director in 2014, there are a few franchises various mindsets would immediately recall him with.
The first and most famous for many would be his movie takes on Ghost in the Shell, with their philosophy infused cybernetics and the first one responsible for inspiring the likes of The Matrix and a number of other science fiction features. Another group would be more inclined to first consider his Mobile Police Patlabor forays, which merged the sense of a Japan conflicted in its place in a modern world with municipal bureaucracy, workplace humor, and giant robots. That would be the group I would lump myself into. A third line may snap their fingers and remark of his Kerberos Saga multimedia series of alternative post-World War II history explorations.
His renditions of Urusei Yatsura though, by and large, are often not the first thing one thinks of these days.
And yet they are in many ways essential, both to Oshii specifically and the anime industry as a whole. For the man in particular, it is where he was able to most extremely cut his teeth, as the chief director overseeing the operation that cranked out 106 episodes one after another and two films under their belt before his departure (which would still continue on for 89 more weekly installments and four additional movies, plus OVA’s). And not just any kind of series at that. But a largely romantic comedy science fiction gag franchise that was giving life to the animated Magical Girlfriend genre inspired by the likes of I Dream of Jeannie. Which is definitely not what one tends to think of when they try and recall Oshii today. Urusei Yatsura is line of stories that can even be read as a parody of the Harem anime genre despite coming out years prior to that concept being played straight as a series focus. Virtually any modern anime romantic comedy has a direct bloodline to this series, such was its sweeping and blockbuster success. While immense and top level credit goes to original manga creator Rumiko Takahashi, trying to adapt, tweak, cut, or expand such character material into animated form for television and films for increased popular exposure day in and day out is no easy production feat.
And as Oshii admits, it was exhausting.
I feel this is a good starting point for keeping in mind with Beautiful Dreamer today. The production team itself was largely in the same position as the characters who are preparing for their school festival. A grueling pace where they can barely tell what day of the week it is, but the work can and must be done. And yet they are surrounded by friends and comrades who have been able to pull each other through in various That May Actually Work hail mary passes before.
There is a thumb in forefinger granularity to that which shines through. It lends a sense of honesty to the increasingly surreal situational proceedings of the movie and the content it has.
“We got complaints about the schoolhouse because the building had a different amount of floors in a few scenes. Sometimes 2, 3, 4 stories. It’s probably because I couldn’t remember how many floors my school had, so it changed according to the mood.”
As the title would suggest, Beautiful Dreamer is a work dealing in desires, ideals, and wishes. Perhaps even a sense of hope or fondness. Likewise, while a fantasy of such caliber may be so soaring and passionate in intent, this does not mean it can not also be warped in its own ways. That it could in certain respects be too extreme of a pedestal. The question then becomes how problematic that would happen to be.
There is a conversation in The Matrix where one of the characters talks about eating a steak. And they know, deep down, that the meal is on one level impossible. That while the sensation feels real in their mind, it is not their physical reality. The steak is recognized by them to be nothing but data. But they do not care, and indeed prefer the fantasy, so powerful and all encompassing it happens to be.
The situation in Beautiful Dreamer is in some ways even a bit more sinister while also simultaneously being warmer and more personable. Creating a kind of universe ideal of few distractions from the friends one holds dearest. An eternal summer of wandering focus. And it is wonderful and delightful, the time of their lives. And yet there are aspects that are… off. Increasingly so, over the duration. It is everything many of them have ever wanted, but it is not quite right, on both macro and micro levels. Then we have certain aspects phased out, disappearing without a trace. Which on the one hand is a corrective measure for the true goal of the ideal, while also itself being destabilizing to the social structure in its own ways.
For all the idyllic qualities for certain swaths of the film, there is also a sort of simmering confusion and sense of loss. As the events unfold to cut, reform, edit and otherwise attempt to refine what the unseen but heartfelt goal is and bring it closer to fruition, the mechanisms of the situation are also wondering what “needs” to be right and ending up down further rabbit holes for every attempt. For our leads Lum and Ataru especially, the central will-they-won’t-they relationship nexus point of so many of the series otherworldly shenanigans, their differences and similarities in approaches and feelings allow the shifting flow of the film to embody their longstanding issues.
There is a synergy of characterization, pacing, narrative, and visuals in a way that mutually reinforces the overall messages and feelings the film contains almost in spite of individually rickety modules. Many of the members in our friendship gang, for the most part, are rather static for instance. While Urusei Yatsura has a massive cast by containing vast galaxies of characters, even slicing it down to mainly the high school students and associated relationships for this movie still allows for too many people for there to be sufficient time for enough arcs to go around. Is that a problem though? I would say no in this case. Again, these aspects come to form an interconnected web with the objective of the overall story narrative. Of a particular form of ideal. This in conjunction with a visual approach which swings from moments of alleyway repetition and mirrors to reflecting pools of water and aquariums.
And I think there is a rather appreciable notion there for nearly any age or time. Especially because so many other films fail in achieving the relationship questions and answers Beautiful Dreamer raises and concerns itself with. The movie can flat out forget how many floors are in a major building like the school because if anything it adds to the total effect of the piece. In even what are admitted to be complete errors, its flaws add a kind of interpretive charm of their own. Rather than grind proceedings to a halt, because of how the movie functions and was made they actually give further flavor instead. It is more like a person.
There is a kind of human element to the cohesive whole. For how green Lum’s hair may be, for how many horns she may have on her head and the levitation she can perform over the noggins of others, things are perfect and yet not in the situation of the film. Such production flaws if anything makes it all the more real. It is easy to accept a shortcoming because the message still holds up with it.
It is as if the movie was more like one of the friends it contains, that it wanted to bring us along too. And a lot of romantic comedy films so many decades later still lack that.
“I wonder if young Americans have the same desires found in this movie. I think they must.”
There are a lot of character wishes represented within the running time of Beautiful Dreamer in all manner of different ways.
Working towards the class booth for the upcoming school festival with friends. Getting to put a military tank in said classroom. Having sleepovers and waking up for breakfast with all of ones closest buddies. Watching fireworks and eating watermelon on a rooftop. Wanting to be with someone you particularly fancy. Viewing monster movies in a big outdoor screen. And many others both far more outlandish and heartwarmingly small.
The text of the header quote I used is focused on a particular geographic region, the commentary track being one performed for a United States based release. However, the crux of the sentiment both by Oshii there and in the film itself is really one towards a universality of youth. The fun, the dumb, and the homespun.
Our characters are largely made up of high school students. And as someone who was once one an ever increasing number of years ago: there are a lot of pressures, both overt and subtle, to make the absolute most of that time period. That notion of it perhaps being the best years of ones life. The potential fear that once it ends, the entire way one processed and experienced the world for so long will come to a screeching halt in favor of whatever comes next. An uncertain future. Even if one does not believe in the pep rally propaganda, the sentiment still runs deep through the structure. It surrounds and leeches itself into small everyday things in incalculable ways that may not even be noticed in the moment. Perhaps not for years. Maybe not ever.
As someone who is pouring thousands of words into foreign animation commentary every week while well enough into their twenties to have been some time removed from graduate school, I do look back on that someone who used to be a high school student. And I try to think of the dreams they had at the time or the fantastically impossible goals wished for. Certainly, in any number of ways, my hopes were my own. That I had thought of or dreamed up many wonderful things of somesuch varieties. And yet, when I get to reviewing it in my head, it is both surprising and interesting how many wishes do involve other people. To want to do a particular activity with a group (regardless of whether or not we were actually friends), or perhaps that a certain person would notice me a certain way (regardless of if they knew I existed). What one has there then are a pile of dreams that wish to become a more communal one of various scales.
A hope for a shared ideal or fantasy.
While true for most interactions, anyone who has ever been in a romantic relationship in particular will tell you a large part of it does involve compromise and the successes and failures therein. A significant component involves each side taking certain sacrifices while also opening themselves up for the objective of the shared dream. The desire of being together.
What comes to fascinate me so much with Beautiful Dreamer is how so many different vectors of youthful hopes are firing all at once and in equal amount. On the surface, it is a wonderful series of images, full of joy and contentment. And yet, the mechanism guiding the situation of the film is rather shockingly authoritarian in its goals and methods in attempting the corrections and editing I mentioned earlier. By having so many desires at once seemingly coming to pass, it is hard for it to quite resolve why something seems amiss. Everything should be as it should. For all the overt freedoms and ability for the characters to do so much together, they are also highly restricted. An idyllic glass menagerie shimmers in the spotlight, but is unbendable. The chance to truly share in their dreams together may actually be all but impossible in the circumstances they are under.
What grants the film its most poignant international connection with youth is this intimate knowledge of how powerful and well meaning the voracious desires of that age are.
How a fantasy can mean multiple things with different pie in the sky objectives. That none of them, on their surface, would seem to do outward harm to that which we yearn so much for. The movie recognizes that the desires and fears of young friendships and loves are not themselves bad things. But the control measures we use for those notions and towards others can be. And that resonates across generations. It holds weight regardless of the present decade. Because so many of us go through similar processes ourselves in how we handle our desires.
“If you ask me what goes into creating movies, I’ll tell you it’s giving shape to your desires. Animation is a medium that communicates that clearly and honestly.”
I think there becomes a risk of muddling historical importance with later day relevancy that is almost inherent in writing a post like this one. It is easy to want to just point out and pile on hard data like dates and influences. That Beautiful Dreamer was the first film where Oshii as a director was able to test many visual presentation concepts that would become his hallmarks and calling cards. The idea where by approaching the material in such a way, one can say they were able to distill an objective truth and put a period on it.
Certainly, that is impact. And the movie does have that. But I hesitated and felt conflicted when planning this piece out because of that. I did not feel that was the exclusive route I wanted to go here and now with this production.
In considering what the film looks like on the visual front alone, it does wobble around a bit. The spikes and valleys between movie grade animation and something closer to television are there if one wants to point them out and shoot them down. It is kind of messy at niggling points, sort of like some of the other elements of the production like the changing school building floor numbers. But what is most important to keep in mind even then, as harped on before, are those notions of youth and dreams.
There is a scene about two thirds of the way into the film. A time where Ataru’s school crew, from Shuutarou and Shinobu to the Stormtroopers and Lum herself, are all at the Moroboshi house eating breakfast. The camera is unmoving and backed up to the wall, as we just sort of drink in the picture. The individual image fidelity of the characters is nowhere near as prominent as, say, the next scene where they are walking to school and their profiles are immaculately reflected in the puddles of water in the road. But it is a scene of constant movement from everyone at the table. Where everyone is so keenly enjoying themselves with a good natured energy as they scarf down the ludicrous amount of food prepared by Ataru’s mother. Nearly a dozen bodies of heads turning, bodies reaching, faces deforming, food vessels in motion, chopsticks stealing and conversational smart remarks bouncing.
In a lot of ways, that is among the most highly desired of breakfasts. To desire and want to be at a table like that with friends of our own. The small exaggerated ways in which we may later look back on them in our memories years down the road. A meal where it is difficult to observe everything that is happening and thriving all at once.
The scene, simple as it may sound on paper, just would not work in quite the same way in most traditional live action movies. It would face extreme difficulty aiming to capture those warping expressions as gracefully and without disruption. The breakfast with friends, itself a small part of the movie and just under a minute in duration, maintains a connective quality to our own dreams. This is because it is the kind of reality with a streak of whimsical experience many have wished for in their own lives even today. Even if one shoves the overall narrative, the importance of the film, and all the rest away. The images alone retain a resonant quality regardless of its release date. One could play Beautiful Dreamer on mute, and it still is awash in visual elements that a new viewer today could feel a link with. That they would see themselves in. Be it either wanting to experience similar moments with friends and loved ones or considering those times in their past when they were perhaps closest to parts of this movie.
That is important. That is vital.
It renders things so that regardless of the year one consumes the movie, there are traits there for so many kinds of potential viewers. That despite all manner of shifts in film techniques over the years or animation technology, it reaches core fascinations. The production crew, due to various external factors at work, were able to tap into various youthful senses of honest expression, idealism, and escapism. And the film can do that for some via animating a big warm breakfast with friends. And it can show that to others by putting a military tank in a classroom. And for yet another group they can feel that by seeing ethereal and bright neon fish swimming by in an starkly stylized aquarium.
Someone out there will have cooked up a personal fantasy of at least one of these things, or so many of the countless others presented in the film. And it realizes so many of them by making those potential impossibilities a kind of reality in one’s own life, if even just for a moment by seeing them here. Again, one could wipe out the storyline completely, and Beautiful Dreamer would remain a vibrant work of seeing a wide selection of both character and audience desires, from the seemingly impossible to the quaint, come to be a part of our world.
Everyone gets fed, one could say.
“You can interpret that in a number of ways.”
I have avoided including the sentence directly prior to the above quoted one on the commentary track, as it concerns a large plot element. However, which exact scene in particular such a statement can be applied to in the movie would provide many possibilities and potential candidates. As I by and large spoke separately of the narrative and visual interests in representing the desires and dreams of youth, here with this kind of sentiment is perhaps the most appropriate time to consider them operating as one.
An initial scene once the film is underway revolves around the school festival classroom makeover. Part of which involves Shuutarou having brought in a Leopard tank as a decoration. Now, how the tank manages to make it into the building and squeeze into an upper floor room is itself anyone’s guess. They may chalk it up to the financial power he has, and thus perhaps brought it in via air transport and removed a wall only to have it replaced just as it was before. Said tank also ends up in the school pool later on though. While the characters question how it got there, the film itself never explains the circumstances. Given the mechanics underway in the universe by that point however, there are multiple potential justifications. Was the vehicle moved into the swimming pool because it would be thought as funny and amusing? Did it end up there because it was providing too easy of a place for Ataru to slack off and nap inside, away from Lum and the others?
Do not misunderstand my intention here. Just because a film has multiple takeaways or interpretive elements does not itself make the film relevant to a younger audience today. There is a vast collection of old Hollywood movies that try arguably far smarter cinematic approaches, of course. But depending on the selection, in trying to introduce certain films to others decades later, they may be found to be an absolute brick wall unless the viewer is a committed movie aficionado.
The bow which ties so much of Beautiful Dreamer together is the ease it has regarding its own intelligence.
As if to prove my point, Mamoru Oshii’s very next film would be Angel’s Egg. And I adore that film and everything it contains, down to it being almost entirely devoid of dialogue. Each frame is a delightfully intellectual multi-layered journey to a surreal world full of vast oceans of meditative qualities. I would consider it an iconic piece of 1980’s animation work. But Angel’s Egg is almost the definition of a hard sell to a modern audience. Heck, it was a hard sell to the audience of its own time, and almost cost Oshii his career. While it is an enriching experience to me, it is not necessarily a fun movie to sit through for most folks. Many would even call it boring. I would show that movie to friends of mine who deeply enjoy cinema, or to those who want to see a particular kind of animation.
Beautiful Dreamer is slick enough to know it is smart but youthfully energetic enough to not let that impede an audience’s good time. It is a movie I can share with more people, because it can touch on and tickle their curiosity interests while also seeking to make itself endearing to them. That we want to chase it or have it grab us by the hand and run with them. Together. Again, the experience of the work is much like it wanting to be the viewers friend and suck us into what is going on. And there are good plot reasons for that to boot.
To bring up but one more element here, there is a character who I will for our purposes only refer to as The Little Girl In The White Dress. She shows up at a few points in the film, and only has dialogue in a single scene. The nature of who and what she is or represents has more than a few potential explanations and lines of reasoning, especially given the apparent location the one time she speaks.
The movie never slows down to force the viewer to ponder her though. It never is layering on a gooey and suffocating Think About What She Could Mean agenda. She comes and goes in a very breezy manner throughout. The conclusion of her role in the film giving enough of a direct payout that almost any audience will avoid feeling that the movie was trying to wave her around in a significant manner without actually giving her meaning. They will not feel swindled, cheated, or as if the movie attempted to pull a fast one on them. And yet her presence, what she does and where she shows up and the desires and dreams she may be an ambassador or symbolism of, does not feel damaged for it. For those willing to tear the film apart more deeply and academically, those avenues are clear. She has as many facets as the viewer may be willing to consider of her, while also not being enough of a narrative enigma to impede those wishing to just enjoy the movie.
It is moves like this which allow the production to maintain a candybar crunchiness in its consumption. One could savor individual flavor notes and particular textures, or they can wolf it down and enjoy their treat. And there are folks who like to switch between the two even in the same sitting. This is crucial for making the film just as enjoyable and meaningful to a new audience today as it would have been decades ago. That while this one work is inside of a truly massive franchise, it can still be engaged with on multiple levels. The relevant parts one wishes to hold on to the very most come to define the experience and what they take away from it.
That is youth. That is what it means to dream.
And one can certainly take more than one interpretation out of that.
“I think this was the time I had the most fun with anime movies.”
Mamoru Oshii has directed a wide variety of work over the decades in multiple formats, both animation and live action. He has been nominated for some of the most prestigious film awards in the entire world, including the Palme d’Or and the Golden Lion, and won many others. He is also an infamously laid back dresser who really likes basset hounds.
And it is Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer that makes him recall perhaps the greatest kinds of personal career enjoyments. That it was the most fun to work on. The movie of so many cascading desires of youth, and a delirious schedule that allowed them the lesser executive meddling to include so much of what they always wished to see themselves. And they would put it on the screen in an animated form that is so honest and earnest by knowing its cels are made of paints and inks given movement and life.
Perhaps this, more than anything else, is what makes the film continue to be relevant for an audience today. That the sneaky head giggle one may make when they know they are getting away with something oozes through. An emotional head space that so many can connect to. A universal feeling, crystallized into a movie. A kind of timeless sensation distilled into a finished commercial product. That through its creation, one could call that time they had together eternal.
They really did get to finally land a Harrier jet on the lawn.