354. URUSEI YATSURA 2: BEAUTIFUL DREAMER (1984)

“It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down.”–J. R. Ross, “Constraints on Variables in Syntax”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Toshio Furukawa, Fumi Hirano, Machiko Washio, Akira Kamiya, Takuya Fujioka; Wayne Grayson (as Vinnie Penna), Roxanne Beck, Marnie Head, Draidyl Roberts (English dub)

PLOT: Students in the town of Tomobiki prepare for a fair the following day. One of the teachers, suffering from exhaustion, develops a strange feeling of déjà vu, finds his apartment covered in dust and mushrooms, and hypothesizes that the entire town is living the same day over and over. As the school nurse launches an investigation, people gradually begin disappearing from the town until only she and a small group of high schoolers are left.

Still from Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984)

BACKGROUND:

  • “Urusei Yatsura” began as a manga (by Rumiko Takahashi) in 1978 and was adapted as a long-running animated television show in Japan starting in 1981 and ending in 1986. It was also known as “Lum, the Invader Girl,”  titled after its main character, when it played on the BBC. The series incorporated a wide variety of influences and was especially known for mixing science fiction with Japanese folklore. It had an “anything can happen” quality to it; eating mysterious candy might make hearts appear over your head, or one of the characters might find a camera that sent those it photographed to alternate dimensions. Even so, Beautiful Dreamer was a radical departure from the series’ comic formula.
  • Mamoru Oshii worked on 106 episodes of the “Urusei Yatsura” television series and was credited as lead director on two. He is also the credited director on the first Urusei Yatsura movie, For You, but was only brought in after a previous director quit, and considered his work on that film a “rush job.”
  • This excursion departs from the series’ usual focus on Lum and aliens, but is partly inspired by a previous episode of the series, “Wake up to a Nightmare.”
  • Beautiful Dreamer contains many references to the Japanese folk tale Urashima Tarō, about a fisherman who marries a spirit princess and spends what seems like a few years in her kingdom, but returns to his village to find that centuries have passed. This is an old and recurring theme in folk tales, which Washington Irving took as the basis for America’s “Rip Van Winkle.” In Urashima Tarō’s story the fisherman is originally rewarded for rescuing a turtle, which is why there are so many references to turtles in the movie.
  • Beautiful Dreamer also references the baku, a mythological monster who eats dreams and nightmares. It has no Western equivalent.
  • Beautiful Dreamer was Eric Young‘s staff pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The main characters briefly escape Tomobiki on a Harrier jet, only to look back and see that their city rides on a turtle’s back, à la Hindu cosmology.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Nazi tea shop; copyrighted piglet; town on a turtle

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Beautiful Dreamer co-stars an amorous flying turquoise-haired alien in a tiger-striped bikini. Not only is that not the weirdest thing in the movie, it’s the touchstone of normality in a film that drops the romantic slapstick conventions of the TV series it was adapted from in favor of a mind-bending trip, bearing its characters into dreamlike worlds on the back of a cosmic turtle.


Original trailer for Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer

COMMENTS: What would happen if you took a beloved Japanese sitcom-style cartoon about a boy-crazy alien and turned it into a feature-length “Twilight Zone” episode? The answer is Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer. An American pop culture analogy might be if a young had directed a feature film version of “The Simpsons” as a serious psychological thriller, while staying true to the characters and sense of humor. Reviewers disagree on whether you benefit from having seen an episode or two of “Urusei Yatsura” beforehand. If you’re familiar with the series you’ll know the characters right off the bat, get some in-jokes, and have an appreciation for how different the often ominous tone and flirtation with philosophical ideas is from a typical 15-minute slapstick episode. But for those looking for weirdness, it may be even more enjoyable if you don’t know the characters beforehand. They are all simple caricatures, so their roles become apparent once you get past the initial personality dump. I say, jump right in with no preparation (beyond the minor spoilers in this review, naturally).

While the main plot will be set in motion by a laxative emergency, and will anticipate elements of both Groundhog Day and Dark City, Beautiful Dreamer starts out in an extra-confusing manner, even for initiates. It opens on what looks like a beach fronting a ruined city; characters sunbathe on a Leopard tank, and one stands in the water, dazed, with his mouth agape as the gun barrel of the tank approaches, appearing to enter him orally. (This odd fellatio imagery recurs later, but it never really makes sense.) He is gazing at a burnt-out shell of a building with a destroyed clock tower as seagulls’ shadows pass in front of it (we’ll learn later what this abandoned structure is). After this prologue, the story starts from the beginning (as it were, in this time-scrambled tale) at a high school where the kids, dressed in costumes ranging from walking clams to Godzilla, make last-minute preparations for tomorrow’s festival. The scene looks like they are prepping for a military attack, with searching spotlights, alarms, and instructions issued by bullhorn. We focus on one group of kids who are preparing their contribution to the festivities: the “Third Reich Coffee Shop” (!), a Nazi-themed temporary bistro. (The leader of this enterprise objects to the notion that they should have gone with a “hot babes” theme instead, claiming he’d rather be shot then make his coffee shop “according to Ataru’s weird tastes”). One character stands on the tank glimpsed in the opening, screwing light bulbs into the ceiling in a swastika pattern. The afore-referenced Ataru is napping in the tank and begins embarrassing the others with pillow talk from his horny dreams. Through a crazy sequence of missteps one of their schoolteachers ends up hanging out the second floor window holding onto the tank barrel. Lum, a flying schoolgirl, lands on the tank barrel to ask about the location of her “darling” (the hormonal Ataru, it turns out). None of the characters find any of this exceptionally strange, and the longer you watch, the more it all starts to make sense (a weird kind of sense, naturally).

Although Mamoru Oshii would go on to be recognized as one of animes greatest visual stylists (check out the pagoda parade sequence in Ghost in the Shell 2 to see him at his delirious peak), Beautiful Dreamer‘s budget, six-month-turnaround, and fidelity to the simplistic designs of its TV show characters all hamper the film’s looks. Anime conventions, like characters whose eyes take up a quarter of their face and whose mouths open to swallow an entire hemisphere of their heads when they get angry (which they are capable of doing in the blink of one of their unnaturally round eyes) predominate. However, Oshii puts his rushed budget to good use, compensating for the crude animation by keeping the action busy: the throng of costumed cosplayers in the opening scenes, and a later spectacular inside the high school after hours when student doppelgangers start popping up everywhere and the interiors suddenly take on a hall of mirrors geometry. He shows imagination in his stagings, which, along with the ambitious plot, reveal a talent beyond his TV-series origins. As the characters discuss a hypothesis that the same day is repeating over and over, the camera fluidly pans 360 degrees to show the two participants in turn. A nighttime drive is illustrated in headlights surrounded by inky darkness to increase anxiety. A scene set in an aquarium is a nod to Lady from Shanghai, but shot from the other side of the tank, so that the partly translucent, impressionistic yellow and aquamarine tropical fish pass in front of the characters. And the final thirty minutes pile dreams on top of dreams, allowing Ohsii to indulge his style in multiple milieus, from a discotheque harem to a Frankenstein homage to an abstract world of coiling DNA strands.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Beautiful Dreamer takes place largely in a dream world—the title might even clue the careful reader into that fact. So it’s no surprise that the movie is thoroughly weird, even by the exaggerated standards of anime. The plot goes through three different phases, beginning with the “repeated day” mystery and turning into an almost post-apocalyptic teen wish-fulfillment fantasy before revealing the puppet master behind the entire curtain for the anything-goes finale. It’s not even clear who the protagonist and antagonist are until the third act of the complicated plot; and I haven’t even mentioned the little girl in the white sun dress and a wide-brimmed hat that hides her face like a turtle withdrawn into his shell who pops up from time to time (partly because I have only the vaguest theories about who she is or what role she serves in the story). “Urusei Yatsura”‘s TV theme promises to “put weird and weird together, and make it even weirder!” Beautiful Dreamer takes that pledge to heart—and takes it farther than its fan base would have imagined. Just one example: there’s a moment when Ataru simply sinks into a puddle while walking to school and disappears for a while. When he re-emerges, it’s in a swimming pool, with ‘s family tank inexplicably in it; rather than being stunned by the surrealism of the scene, aristocratic Mendou is angry and pulls out his samurai sword (!) and tries to kill Ataru. In other words, Beautiful Dreamer‘s characters do a lot of “just rolling with it.” You should, too.

 Naturally, Beautiful Dreamer divided fans on its release. Series creator Rumiko Takahashi was reportedly unhappy with the unexpectedly dark and mystical direction the director took her modest teen-oriented comedy (Oshii says that they stopped speaking to each other). Beautiful Dreamer has since been recognized as the series’ masterpiece, a standalone piece with breakthrough appeal. At the time, few would have foreseen that Oshii, a hired hand who worked his way up from the storyboard department to helm “Urusei Yatsura”‘s first two feature film adaptations, would go on to become one of Japan’s most renowned animators with the philosophical hit Ghost in the Shell and other works aimed at more sophisticated audiences. In his commentary track, Oshii says “When it opened in theaters, there was no movie I was more worried about than [Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer]. But it did well, which wasn’t so good either… I got cocky, I thought that I could do whatever and write whatever I wanted, no matter how weird. And it just went to my head. I was so amused that after this I made another movie that was a little out there, and it was easily rejected, and I lost a job.” That second movie he is referring to is obviously the surreal Christian parable Angel’s Egg, a work that was so “out there” that it did nearly end his career, and which has yet to be properly re-issued despite its devoted cult following. Beautiful Dreamer, in the meantime, has continued to draw audiences, both fans of the series wanting to see what the fuss is about in this odd digression from an already wide-open premise, and from curiosity seekers uninterested in the wider franchise. With Beautiful Dreamer, Oshii hit a sweet spot between the popular and the esoteric, balancing flippant romantic comedy with a degree of darkness that sometimes threatens to take the film into the dark thickets of fairy tales. But no matter how far the turtle of a plot carries the dreamers, they will return from the Dragon Palace back to where they started. As much as they try to return to normal, they will find everything about the series inevitably changed. As did Oshii, who was just getting started on his personal wild trip.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s all silly and slapstick comedy with absurdities involving a cheery flying alien her human boyfriend and their group of eccentric friends who get worked up over a crazy school festival, until things start getting weird.”–Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre

“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.”–Roman J. Martel, Roman’s Reviews

“It’s the day before the School Festival, and things around Tomobiki High are weirder than usual. Much, much weirder…  Beautiful Dreamer isn’t a formulaic madcap comedy … but rather, a skilled surrealist Oshii Mamoru piece with lots of mystery and just enough Urusei Yatsura wackiness to remain familiar.”–Carlos Ross, T.H.E.M. Anime Reviews (VHS)

IMDB LINK: Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer Liner Notes – Some explanatory notes on the film from a “Urusei Yatsura” fansite, which also hosts an extremely detailed synopsis

Urusei Yatsura – A good primer on the original series from Daryl Surat of Otaku Magazine

Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer Part 1: The Characters – A rundown of the many characters who appear in the film

HOME VIDEO INFO: The enduring popularity of the “Urusei Yatsura” franchise in general, and the excellence of this installment in particular, has kept Beautiful Dreamer in print both in Japan and overseas. In 2018 it received a “collector’s edition” DVD and Blu-ray release from Diskotek Media (buy). I’m skeptical about the added value of putting an unrestored 1984 movie out in hi-def (DVD should do just fine), but those who insist on the format should be pleased that they no longer have to turn to Japanese sources. Viewers have the option to watch in the original Japanese or in the vintage English language dub, which goes back to the days of VHS. Unfortunately the voice acting often leaves something to be desired: Nurse Sakura’s line readings are particularly uninspired, which is a shame since she is the voice of reason and the authority explaining what’s actually going on. A great commentary by director Oshii headlines the extras (tip: listen to the English dub while reading the commentary in subtitles). Other features include both the original Japanese and English language VHS trailers and a selection of digital “liner notes” (a tradition for the “Urusei Yatsura” releases) explaining the history of the release and pointing out Japanese cultural references (like the legend of Urashima Tarō) that would otherwise go over most Westerners heads. There’s even the original English dub credits, for obsessive completists.

Beautiful Dreamer is also available on-demand (free for Amazon Prime subscribers). At the time of this writing the dubbed version was also available to watch for free (with commercials) on Crackle. There’s no guarantee that will still be true by the time you read this, of course.

(This movie was nominated for review by fori. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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