Sunday, November 25, 2012

Urusei Yatsura: Dreaming Beautifully



This 1984 film, the second movie based on the popular URUSEI YATSURA TV series, in turn based on the popular manga series of the same name by Rumiko Takahashi, is probably the best reality-questioning feature film ever made starring wacky high school students and their jealous space alien girlfriends.  Directed by Mamoru (GHOST IN THE SHELL, PATLABOR THE MOVIE, AVALON) Oshii, BEAUTIFUL DREAMER is a brain-bending think piece far removed from typical Urusei Yatsura hijinks.

We all know about Tomobiki High School; full of colorful students and staff, home to weekly happenings of cosmic craziness.  Notorious lecher and bad-luck magnet Ataru Moroboshi is the 11th grade class-clown embarrassment, but his lowly status is overlooked by his girlfriend, the green-haired outer space princess known as Lum.  As our film opens, the student body is running itself ragged preparing for the school festival; an annual fete of crazy Toho monster-movie costumes, floats, parades, and assorted school spirit exercises.  Most students are half-dead from exhaustion and overwork and the seemingly endless preparation, and it seems if the work will never end. 

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But their teacher, the fiery Mr. Onsen-Mark, has another idea – that they actually ARE reliving the same days over and over. They’re stuck in an endless cycle of early mornings and late nights and colorful bunting and papier-mache.  Onsen’s contention is they’re trapped in the famous fairy tale of Urashima Taro, the Japanese Rip Van Winkle who rode a turtle down to the undersea kingdom, hung out for a little while, and found when he returned to the surface a hundred years had passed.    When the students make an effort to leave the school, they find that all the trains take them back to Tomobiki Station and all the cabs and buses do is drive in circles, and the morning reveals yet another deja-vu day of festival preparation.  It seems obnoxious rich kid Shutaro Mendo’s secret emergency Harrier VTOL Jet provides the only escape – and yet once in the air, the appalling secret of Tomobiki’s isolation becomes clear. 

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Cut off from the Earth, nourished by a mysteriously replenishing mini-mart, crowded into the family home of Ataru’s long-suffering parents; this potential LORD OF THE FLIES becomes an idyllic paradise of relaxation amidst the ruins of their former home town. But the true nature of their situation soon becomes clear.  Since this is a 18 year old dub of a twenty-eight year old film that is, after all, called BEAUTIFUL DREAMER, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing that yes, this is all a dream – the dream of someone for whom the busy, bustling days of the school carnival are the happiest of all.

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BEAUTIFUL DREAMER is a curiosity; its theme is one that will be revisited by Hollywood in films as disparate as GROUNDHOG DAY and THE MATRIX (not to mention DARK CITY).  Oshii was no stranger to URUSEI YATSURA; he directed scores of TV episodes and was called in to finish the first U.Y. film ONLY YOU; and he was familiar enough with the characters to use them as a vehicle to ask his own questions.  BEAUTIFUL DREAMER really captures a sense of disconnection where even something as commonplace as your own street can seem to be completely alien.  This is the point where this wacky high school SF comedy meets Philip K. Dick reaching for the light cord that isn’t there in his classic TIME OUT OF JOINT; the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and then you begin to question if ANYTHING is what it seems. 

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BEAUTIFUL DREAMER is atypical, even for an anything-can-happen series like URUSEI YATSURA. It’s an ambitious film that asks questions and goes places that UY doesn’t normally go, and while I’m all for stretching boundaries and pushing envelopes, at the end of the day this is an Lum movie without any musical segments, with precious little Ataru comedy moments, and where some of the funniest characters are relegated to the background while the majority of the exposition is left to the un-funny, responsible types like Sakura. U.Y. purists may be advised to stick with ONLY YOU.   

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On the other hand, it’s easy to see where Oshii and his staff would be hungry to work on a different kind of URUSEI YATSURA story.  After more than a hundred TV episodes and a feature film that to Oshii felt like an extended version of same, the urge to stretch creative muscles must have been overwhelming.  Ultimately I think this kind of reality-bending storyline is held back by the URUSEI YATSURA framework; U.Y. is a show where anything and everything can happen and usually does, and when we’re confronted on a regular basis with aliens, storybook characters come to life, robots, military hardware, mythological deities and ghosts, we can hardly be expected to give BEAUTIFUL DREAMER the awe-struck reception such a storyline asks for.  It’s a gutsy move, using an established franchise like this; the deconstructive, “what does it all mean” plot device wasn’t the cliché in 1984 that it would be twenty years later. 

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Not as stylish or as deliberative as Oshii’s later works, BEAUTIFUL DREAMER clocks in at a lean 100 minutes.  Remarkably, for a film where really not that much happens, it doesn’t seem to drag.  The animation is up to Kitty Films/Studio Pierrot’s high standards, and there are several scenes where things really sparkle.  You can particularly see that Oshii’s crew really enjoyed the Harrier scenes.   Mamoru Oshii’s love of Nazi memorabilia is a curious design choice; in America swastikas are limited to the covers of 1950s mens adventure magazines and paperback thrillers about former SS officers plotting to conquer Argentina, but Oshii sees nothing strange in the students of Tomobiki High School choosing Nazi Germany as a theme for their entry in the school festival. This kind of creative thinking is why Oshii is a top film director.  Or maybe Oshii is a top film director IN SPITE OF this kind of thinking. It’s hard to tell.   The crew was clearly at home in Tomobiki High; you don’t have to be a subtextural genius to figure out that the endless sweatshop environment of the school carnival was a reflection of endless days and nights working on URUSEI YATSURA itself.

The DVD’s commentary track features an absolutely revelatory Oshii detailing the influence of real-life events upon the script for BEAUTIFUL DREAMER, his experiences on the TV animation treadmill, and his feelings towards ONLY YOU.  The commentary track – Japanese audio with English subtitles - isn’t necessary to enjoy the film, but it certainly adds another dimension to the movie.

The dubbed version of this film was produced in 1996, and sounds like it.  While most of the casting is professional and talented, none of the English talent comes close to matching the spirit or the tone of the original.  T. Roy Barnes is a good actor and has a great voice for cartoon work; unfortunately he just doesn’t sound like Onsen-Mark.  The school nurse Sakura gets the lion’s share of the dialog in the film, and Melanie Head’s line readings are stiff and repetitive, flattening lines that should be bringing the more fantastic elements to life.  Overall the dub is representative of most dubs of the 90s – competent but flat, with little of the thought and professionalism of today’s dubs or the shameless rewriting and overacting of the 60s and 70s. Nitpicks: Mendo is referred to throughout as “Shootaroo Mendow”, and while Lum’s brother Ten is admittedly at the age where gender doesn’t matter so much, it’s still glaring to see him referred to as a “her”.  The original Japanese voices are some of the best ever assembled; I’d stick with them.

Central Park’s DVD release is a good package, however; we get the original Japanese trailer and trailers for the AnimEigo release of URUSEI YATSURA  ONLY YOU as well as BEAUTIFUL DREAMER.  There’s also an art gallery of film stills and the fascinating Oshii commentary, moderated in part by Mr. CPM himself John O’Donnell.  Not to mention the fine transfer of the original film, itself a masterful example of the high point of the hand-drawn age of Japanese animation.

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A departure from the URUSEI YATSURA formula, BEAUTIFUL DREAMER is both beautiful and dreamlike.  It marks the boundary between straightforward, un-ironic storytelling and the more introspective, self-referential series that would follow. As an URUSEI YATSURA film it may not follow the rules, but then again, this is UY, what rules? If you miss your old-fashioned wacky URUSEI YATSURA there’s always ONLY YOU or the TV show, produced in a world where Oshii and his staff work long days and endless nights, wondering if somehow they hadn’t done all this somewhere before.

A previous version of this review was originally published at Anime Jump.