Beautiful Dreamers

We Couldn’t Become Adults, dir. Yoshihiro Mori, Netflix, 2021

“How many times have you seen ‘Beautiful Dreamer’?”

“Maybe twice.”

“That’s all? (…) I always played it while I was home.(…) Don’t you think the movie’s really nice? It’s always the day before the school festival. Could there be anything better?”

Urusei Yatsura 2: Beatiful Dreamer is probably my most watched anime of all times – alongside Takahata’s Omoide Poro Poro. One of Mamoru Oshii’s (he of Ghost in the Shell) earliest feature films, it takes the simple surrealist gag comedy setup of the original TV series and uses it to create a masterpiece of the genre, in the same way Groundhog Day took Bill Murray’s and Harold Ramis’s dead pan slapstick and transformed them into a buddhist essay on passing of time.

Much like in Groundhog Day, the characters of Beautiful Dreamer start off trapped in a single-day time loop within tight geographical confines of Shimo-Tomobiki. But unlike Groundhog Day, their situation is not altogether unpleasant, and once they realize their predicament, most of them accept that there’s little they can do but enjoy the eternity. Because the day they’re trapped in is the day before the school festival: arguably, the best day in the otherwise unenviable life of a Japanese student. Crucially, not the festival itself; the actual event, often little more than a wearisome chore for the organizers, can never match the anticipation, excitement, hard work and the sense of companionship of the days leading up to it. No wonder, then, that it’s this festival-eve that’s used to create what eventually turns out to be a beautiful dream, custom made for the beautiful dreamer, Lum.

But one cannot live in a dream forever. Not least because even the best dream eventually reveals its flaws. Characters that don’t fit the narrative are forcibly removed; the repeating drudgery threatens the very fabric of the oneiric reality; and eventually, those forced to relive the perfection day after day threaten a rebellion in the perpetual paradise. The beautiful dreamer must wake up – and grow up.

The few sentences in Yoshihiro Mori’s We Couldn’t Become Adults which open this post might seem just a throwaway scene, serving to show off the ‘quirkiness’ of the protagonist’s elusive love interest. But if you have seen Beatiful Dreamer as often as she – or I – have, you’ll know this scene encapsulates the entire movie, and through it, an experience of an entire lost generation. Mori’s protagonist, Sato, a 40-something late Gen-X ‘creative’, wasted his years in pursuit of something he was promised in his youth, but what could never be real. Stuck in the same repeating loop of anticipation as Lum’s classmates, never reaching a fulfilment, he withers away, as all around him the world moves on, for better or worse.

Foreshadowing the experience of Western Millennials, Japan’s late Gen-Xers grew up in the rubble of a better past and unfulfiled promises. There is a post-apocalyptic quality to the Lost Decade, something I find eerily familiar, having spent my childhood in similarly post-apocalyptic Eastern Europe of late 80s and early 90s. The promise made to Sato’s generation – and to so many after them, all over the world – was of finding something better, something more exciting than the salaryman-with-kids drudgery of their parents. A life that is ‘not ordinary’, to quote the movie’s often repeated line.

Unless you’re one of the very lucky very few who managed to build a succesful life out of their ‘not ordinariness’, the only other way out of this self-inflicted loop, like in the Beautiful Dreamer, is to wake up – and grow up. What counts as plot in Mori’s movie is book-ended by two realizations: the first – that even Sato’s oddball of an anime-watching girlfriend, Kaori, “dropped out” of the loop and moved on to have an ‘ordinary’ life. And the last – that this is fine. At the end, there is neither optimism or pessimism to be found in the movie’s ending – just an acceptance of reality as it is. A dream was only a dream. And, to break with another Gen X cliche, there is no Matrix to emerge into on the other side, just a little more of the same old.

It’s far from a perfect movie; if not for the mention of Beautiful Dreamer, I probably wouldn’t be moved to write about it to such an extent. But to me, it provided that rare moment in art, when two pieces compliment each other, each providing a commentary on another and helping to understand one another’s message, even if one of these is a movie I’ve seen literally countless times before.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 – (largely) spoiler-free review

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I don’t watch a lot of Western animation. Most of it does nothing for me, a lot of it irritates me. My general grumpiness and cynicism mean the strings of my heart remain firmly untuggable. I despise musical numbers in movies, I can’t abide by dancing mascots and animals must have a valid reason to talk. Even the first HTTYD movie had left me largely underwhelmed, even though it was, arguably, the first successful dragon-franchise since Dragonheart (let’s not mention Eragon), and even though it largely inspired the relationship between Bran and Emrys. In short, I am definitely not the right target for those sorts of movies.

So, after all that is said, it may seem a faint and indeed damning praise for me to say that HTTYD 2 (or “Draktranaren” as it’s called here in Sweden) is probably the best Hollywood animated movie I’ve seen in years, certainly since the best since Wall-E. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed myself so much watching anything produced by either Disney, Pixar or Dreamworks – and I’ll try to explain why in these three points:

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1) Valka

Much is always said every time Disney decides to create a heroine somewhat different to their usual Princess line, or put them in a situation or relationship other than Princess vs Prince, or man vs woman. But no Disney woman, not Merida, not Elsa, not even Mulan, have ever gotten close to the level of the epic bad-assery shown in the opening scenes with HTTYD2’s main female character, voiced by Cate Blanchett struggling with what, I think, is supposed to be a Slavic accent.

In fact, Valka is at the moment probably my favourite female character in all of recent Hollywood output (I haven’t seen Edge of Tomorrow yet), precisely because the movie makers manage to retain that crucial, and difficult balance between strong and weak (wrongly called “manly” and “womanly”) traits that make a character three-dimensional instead of paper, and that make Valka a  real, complex female instead of a man in drag; and also, because the script writers refrain from any moralizing in presenting her and her life: Valka is who she is, unashamedly and with only a (realistic) hint of self-doubt, and both the audience and other characters have no choice but to accept that.
True, it’s been argued that she suffers from Trinity Syndrome later in the movie, but I disagree with this assessment: HTTYD2 is not an ensemble cast movie, it’s a movie about Hiccup, his friends, and their adventures, so naturally everyone else must eventually be overshadowed by the protagonist and the plot; and the first hour of Valka’s presence more than makes up for the script’s later short-comings in my mind.

And that’s even without getting into Astrid, who, in a side-plot crucial to the main story, does her own thing, becoming at some point a much more capable and active protagonist than even Hiccup, and proving that, eventually, she’ll become much more than just a “chieftain’s wife”; and without mentioning Ruffnut, who, though largely a comic relief, does things in the movie that no Western animated female character has ever, to my memory, done before.

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2) Serious plot, serious threats

HTTYD2 is that rare, in the West, breed of an animated movie: neither a fairy-tale, nor a comedy – though there’s plenty of laughs thrown in; a true fantasy movie, though still aimed for a younger audience.

What we have established in the first movie, despite its much more childish outlook, was that the Vikings of Berk are real Vikings, not fairy-tale ones. They fight, they loot, they kill, they get hurt, and they die. This sequel, moving on five years, deals with young and old adults, instead of kids, and the situations they’re in, despite some comic relief, are serious and truly threatening.

And though Hiccup retains his resolve to change his people and his world, we are shown clearly how difficult it is, and how no amount of “power of love” or some other sentimental invention, can change everyone, everywhere – because Hiccup’s world, despite the presence of dragons and some clockwork-punk technology, is not a fairy-tale.

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3) Treating the audience as (young) adults

Tied to the above, HTTYD2 never stoops to patronize its audience. It’s lacking all the paraphernalia that render Western animation unwatchable for me – as mentioned above; the characters don’t burst randomly into song and dance (except one scene, which makes narrative sense, though it’s a bit too long for me, and a blatant shot at the Oscars nomination). No animals or inanimate objects speak, and not even the largest and smartest of dragons utter any discernible words.

Since the main characters are 20 years old already, this is not a “coming of age” or “character development” movie – another rare; Hiccup is an almost fully formed human being, Astrid even more so; all they need is just a confirmation of themselves and their life choices, rather than discovering them from scratch. This, too, is a rare thing.

But most important of all, the characters ACT like real, adult human beings. Not only is there plenty of proper violence (though wierdly bloodless – a compromise, I’m guessing, aimed at getting a PG rating, though what 10-year old can comprehend the movie’s plot and still be squeamish about blood, is beyond me) but there is more than a hint of s.e.x. and budding sexuality, both  male and female, even if played largely for laughs, is shown as a perfectly normal thing.

The relationships shown are so natural and realistic, it’s almost shocking. When a 3D-animated character appears on the screen, you’re expecting some level of cliches and simplifications; it’s part of the package. But the scenes between Astrid and Hiccup could not be more real if they were played by live actors – even despite the still glaring drawbacks of 3D animation and DreamWorks in-house character design style, which I’m not terribly fond of.

HTTYD2 is not a movie without its flaws, naturally. Most of them concerning the plot. It’s a bit too long – not in terms of time, but in terms of pacing – though that’s my complain about all recent movies; the plot is rather disjointed, especially near the end, and there’s quite a few “but what about…?” moments (though not as many as in, say, “X-Men: Days of Future Past”). But these are just nitpicks in a movie that’s so overwhelmingly superior in almost every other aspect compared to its immediate competition.