Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984)

In the middle of the five year run of Urusei Yatsura (UY from now on), theatrical films were released to thrill Lum’s fans with some big screen adventures. Director Mamoru Oshii had worked on the series for quite a while, crafting some of the most popular episodes. He worked on the first film Only You in 1983, but felt a bit stifled creatively by the experience. When he was asked to work on the second feature Oshii insisted on more creative control. The result was a UY film no one saw coming.

It is the night before for the school festival at Tomobiki High. Everyone is busy creating their club presentations, working hard and having fun. Ataru (Toshio Furukawa) is doing his best to avoid Lum (Fumi Hirano) and hit on as many girls as possible. Mendou (Akira Kamiya) has managed to provide a full-fledged tank for Megane’s (Chiba Shigeru) bar.  Shinobu (Saeko Shimazu) is helping with the preparations, but only so she can be around Mendo. Onsen-Mark is running around attempting to maintain discipline. Before long Lum ends up electrocuting everyone and it’s time to head off to bed.

The next morning, it is the day before the school festival again. In fact for the last couple days, it has been the day before the school festival. No one seems to have a problem with this, except for Onsen-Mark (Michhiro Ikemizu). He goes to Sakura (Machiko Washio) to determine if he is losing his mind. She starts to investigate, and it becomes apparent that some supernatural force is playing with the students of Tomobiki High. Soon each one of them starts to notice some very strange things happening. Why is there a little girl in a white hat wandering around? Why does the town seem to be more and more empty each day? And where did that little piglet come from? Will this infinite day ever end? And if so, will any of our friends be willing to end it?

Good Points:
  • Some wonderful dreamlike visuals and editing
  • Manages to stay true to the characters while going in an unexpected direction
  • Nice balance of humor and surreal moments

Bad Points:
  • You need to know UY pretty well to enjoy this film
  • The English dub is really rough
  • Oshii’s slower pacing takes over during the surreal moments

On paper this movie shouldn’t work. Oshii’s surreal visions and measured pacing make an appearance here, but he also keeps the madcap antics of the characters. Surprisingly both parts mesh well and create a movie that is more than just a sequel to a sit-com. It is also a meditation on how we deal with our desires and how much we can delude ourselves if given the chance. Of course you can just ignore all that heady stuff and enjoy Lum floating around and zapping Ataru, because that happens too.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 4
Music: 3
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Another day ends with everyone electrocuted
by Lum. But didn't this just happen yesterday?
When it comes to fans of Urusei Yatsura, Beautiful Dreamer seems to be a polarizing film. Some find all the surreal images, and slower pacing to be too much of a change from the frantic insanity of the series. Others liked that the movie tried to do something a little different, while still keeping true to the characters (although you could argue that Onsen-Mark never got that philosophical about life).

What is agreed is that this is one of the more adventurous outings for UY, and stylistically, it may have some of the most vivid and beautiful imagery of the franchise. The animation itself seems a bit rough for a feature film, but at the same time the series always looked a bit rough. Sometimes the character animation isn’t consistent, and there is some use of still frames and panning over the frames.

Mendou was just climbing the stairs, but Lum is
flying up them... causing Mendou to fall up!
Other times the film goes out of its way to show off some great visuals. The scene where the characters race around the dream-warped high school is filled to bursting with camera motion, bizarre angles and tracking shots. There are some great moments where the camera follows the characters as they crisscross in front of and behind each other. Then gravity switches and characters go from running up stairs to falling down them. It’s a wonderful use of animation to allow literally anything to happen.

Oshii uses this to his full advantage, and it is something that he would indulge in with Ghost in the Shell and Innocence. But I love his dream imagery in Beautiful Dreamer. Some of it is subtle, like the night drive with Ataru and Mendou in the beginning of the film. Something feels off, as the town is unusually quiet and the buildings seem to be extra dark. It creates unease around the characters. And once they run into the strange little girl, it really seems like a dream.

Water spreads across Tomobiki High School.
You also get a lot of water imagery, as well as shots of faceless mannequins, something that would pop up in both Ghost in the Shell films. Oshii does some great things with water in this film, having it spread slowly throughout the film sinking the school at one point. It seems like a mirror, and is often used in that fashion with the characters looking into it, or through it. But not really seeing the reality they expect.

As you expect the scope of the film goes beyond the television series. While the series was content with blowing up Ataru’s home or maybe having a giant penquin trample the town, it never ended up completely removed from reality before. Beautiful Dreamer is much like Paprika in the way it takes the concept of dreams and really uses them to the full advantage. Mendou flies the group up into the sky in his Harrier jet (because of course Mendou would have one hidden away). As he pulls up higher and higher, we see the world below shrinking into an unexpected image of the town on the back of a space traveling turtle! No, not Gamera, but a figure from Japanese mythology.

Ataru has a nightmare about failing at the most
important game of tag in his life.
Later on the dreamworlds start to collapse and fold on one another, and this allows Oshii and his animators to kick the fun visual stunts into overdrive. It’s a whirlwind of comic moments and bizarre scenes that even includes Ataru revisiting his first encounter with Lum during their cosmic game of tag.

However Oshii does indulge a some of his unique directorial flourishes here. There are several scenes of characters sitting and talking about the philosophical meanings of dreams and how living in a dream could be better or worse than real life. Oshii slows the action down to long pans, or close ups on motionless figures. He has moments of stillness that allow the unease to build, but also seem at odds with the frantic humor that appears in the film (and can’t be avoided with these characters). While it is neat to see Oshii letting his directorial voice come through, the contrast in tone is a bit jarring at times. It keeps Beautiful Dreamer from really firing on all cylinders. Oshii was able to correct this issue when he adapted Ghost in the Shell and toned down the humor of the manga and made the film much more serious.

Sakura listens to Onsen-Mark's tale of repeating
the same day. Reflections are a major visual theme
in this film.
The sound work goes right back to the television show for the most part. Lum’s flying and electrocution sound effects are carried over. While the film takes place in a dream world for the bulk of it’s running time, most of the sound work is based on real world elements. But there are some clever uses of isolated sounds dominating certain scenes, such as when Shinobu becomes separated from the group and the sound of wind chimes overwhelms her. The music was performed by Katsu Hoshi, which does a fine job carrying over his work from the UY television series.

When it comes to the acting, I have to say that Beautiful Dreamer should be watched in the original Japanese dub. There is an English dub available, but it is very rough, and just plain bad in places. I’m not sure if the cast didn’t know much about the characters, or had trouble making heads or tails of the story, but as a whole it doesn’t do the film justice. At the same time, the Japanese dub can be a problem. In some scenes the jokes and dialogue can be flying by. This causes the subtitles to move very quickly and you may end up missing some of the thematic lines that were worked into the script. But the Japanese actors obviously had a great handle on the roles by this point. Tough call, but in the end, I recommend the Japanese dub if your subtitle reading skills are honed. Otherwise give the English dub a try for the first viewing and if it gets to be too much, switch to Japanese.

Ataru is replicated in a non-existant mirror. Infinite
Ataru's... now that is a nightmare!
As I hinted at Oshii really wanted and obtained creative control of the film. It is very evident in the visual style, but it is also in the script which Oshii penned himself. Now some UY fans really feel that Oshii went too far from the original concept of the series which focused on silly jokes and jabs at Japanese culture. But I think Oshii actually found a solid balance of his interests with Rumiko Takahashi’s world. Essentially, he stays true to the characters for the entire running time. A few moments of long talky scenes seem a bit out of charcter for someone like Onsen-Mark. But it works for scenes with Sakura (who acts as the Sherlock of the film with Mendou as her Watson).

Oshii also managed to use Rumiko Takahashi’s love of Japanese folklore to help his story. This includes the moment with the giant flying turtle. It also ties to the concept of the “dreamer” itself, something that comes from an old folkstory that is similar to “Rip Van Winkle”.

See the turtle of enormous girth? It's not Gamera.
For me the big surprise of Beautiful Dreamer is how Oshii actually used Ataru, the teenage horndog and turned him into the lynchpin of the film. Yes, there is plenty of Lum action for all her fans. But in the final third of the film, it is actually Ataru who has to rise up and do something about the whole situation, and break the dream world cycle. But this doesn’t mean that Ataru has to do something completely out of character. In fact the whole thing is funny because Ataru is just being Ataru. In doing so, he realizes he has to break the cycle. It’s a clever twist that really works, and has you cheering on the stupid jerk as he does battle with the dream world.

As with all things Oshii invests himself in, there are themes at work in Beautiful Dreamer. Some of these are very similar to what we end up seeing in Ghost in the Shell, especially the question of “Why am I here? What is my purpose?” In this case, it has more to do with dreams and desires. “What do I want?” “What do I do when I get it?” “Can I live in a world where all my desires are provided all the time?” “How does this mesh with other peoples desires?” As the characters continue their journey in the dream world, it becomes apparent that only person is having the dream and the rest are all trapped inside it. Anyone who doesn’t fall in line with enjoying the dream is removed. So some of the characters are in danger of vanishing from this dream completely – and what would that mean for them? Is it death? Sakura begins to fear that since she is trying to determine what is happening that she may be the next to vanish. It is an interesting concept and one that Oshii delivers in both visuals and script.

Who is that strange little girl? And why is it summer time?
I first saw this movie before I'd seen any of the UY television series. The internet was still in its youth. So searching for UY didn’t give me much information other than Lum is a babe! and Lum is the hottest anime girl ever! type of websites on Geocities. I was able to follow the movie, but most of the humor went over my head, because so much of it was based on character interaction and knowing who all these people were. But I really appreciated the wonderful imagery and some of the set pieces. The chase through the darkened dream school is still an amazing visual tour-de-force.

Once the television series of UY was finally released in North America, I revisted this film and found it very entertaining. Beautiful Dreamer has a lot going for it, and while UY fans might not enjoy it too much (rumor is that even Rumiko Takahashi doesn’t care for it), I think fans of Oshii and anyone who enjoys seeing some classic animation in action will find something enjoy in the film. It is neat to see Oshii’s voice starting to emerge, and he would continue to explore his style and themes that he first introduced in this unique film.

Lum and her pals get a shocking view from the
Space Harrier!


  1. Audience expectations can kill a film. The 1999 Animal Farm remake comes to mind, which the trailers made look like that other pig movie "Babe." Early audiences discovered it was ... well ... Orwellian instead, and from then on theatergoers stayed away in droves. (It's not as good as the animated 1954 version, by the way, but isn't actually bad.) But there is something to be said for defying expectations too, and audiences sometimes belatedly appreciate it.

  2. I've never seen the 1999 version of "Animal Farm", but I did hear good things about it. I did see the animated version and that really left an impression on me. That and the animated version of "Watership Down" were really stuck in my mind long after I saw them.

    Yeah anime seems to run into the problem quite a bit when they go to the big screen after a successful manga or television series. They don't want to loose the established audience, but they want to increase the scope at the very least. You end up with some really hit and miss films because of that. Anime movies tend to work better when they are built based on material that doesn't have such an established origin. This movie is one of the exceptions to that rule.

  3. Wonderful review.

    In re-watching 'Beautiful Dreamer' recently, it is clearly a very influential film. Consider 'The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya'- that blockbuster was built on basically the same premise (a world built in the mind of a girl who did not appreciate her own world-building). The animators working today were all influenced by the anime they saw in the 80s, especially UY. Lum is the ur-moe character and the ur-tsundere as well. So much of what is popular today can be traced back to Takahashi and her characters.

    1. I agree, Takahashi's characters and worlds have a tremendous influence on anime and films. It is interesting that this particular film is considered such a deviation from the typical UY adventure, and yet Oshii managed to make it work so well. For many folks, this is the most memorable of the UY films because it is so different.

      But as much as I credit Oshii for that, it is Takahashi's characters that ground the whole thing and that are so appealing. I'm going to give my favorite "Ranma 1/2" a review or two this year.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!