Mamoru Oshii’s Beautiful Dreamer
August 2, 2009
Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly, I awaked, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.
No doubt Mamoru Oshii is a great thinker, writer and director. Yet, he is also a beautiful dreamer. Inspired by Urashima Taro’s legend and Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream, Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer 2 is my favourite movie directed by Mamoru Oshii aside from Angel’s Egg for being, without any doubt, his most imaginative and enjoyable (yes, actually enjoyable) work to date.
In many ways, Beautiful Dreamer is unlike his other works in that there is no longer that air of pretentions, or the emotionally empty characters that we have difficulty connecting to. Instead of trying to seriously answer a very complex question through heavy dialogues and exhausting direction, Oshii has ran off wild with Zhuangzi’s puzzle and painted an incredibly fantastic dreamscape. Before Zhungzi could achieve any higher understanding of Daoist philosophy, he had to first dream of being a butterfly just as Einstein had to first imagine a thought experiment of the trains before the Theory of Relativity. Oshii has recreated that very dream itself, that sense of drifting in and out of reality and imagination, where you can flutter like a butterfly without being aware of the reality, if such a thing exists at all. The rest is for us to interprete, not to be directly told. And with the help of quirky characters of the classic Urusei Yatsura franchise, this is just about the most fun and imaginative anime you are likely to watch.
I also want to present two memorable animated sequence from the movie, which just perfectly capture that feeling of being uncertain about the nature of reality and dream. The first is when a reflection of Ataru and his gang is slowly, and seamlessly transfigured into what is not a reflection, as what we see as puddle becomes sky, and almost without us ever noticing it because the transition is so sublime. Indeed, can we really say that the reflection we see in the puddle is less or more real as fluttering like a butterfly, or simply dreaming of fluttering like a butterfly?
Another of my favourite is when they are trapped inside their own school building. One moment someone’s here, and then he’s there, and then what you see as the ceiling becomes the floor. Eventually few clueless morons try to escape the labyrinth by jumping out of the building, only to find themselves looking down at the sky, which is actually up (!), before the tragic realisation of their gravitational position registers through their poor brains. Their play of perspectives, camera angles and scales are so meticulous and the pacing is so well-controlled and rhythmic, you can’t help but be fully engaged to this long yet thrilling chaos of events.
I can think of few other dream/reality sequences in anime, that Ergo Proxy episode involving duplicate proxy of Re-aL for example. Other than that, I don’t think there are that much more, probably because it’s so hard to present such scenes without feeling like it’s manufactured.