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.

Writing Inspirations: Netflix

As you might otherwise know, I have recently went through an episode of typing faster than any I’ve ever experienced: 100,000 words in less than two months, to finish the first draft of THE LAST DRAGON KING – the final volume of the Year of the Dragon saga.

I don’t like silence when writing, odd as it may seem, even more so when I have to write plenty and fast. A typing marathon like that requires more than just a random radio station (always BBC R4 or R4 extra 🙂 or TV switched on in the background – it requires something that stirs the muse – something that reminds me of what it’s like to do art. I already wrote about the kind of mangas I like to read – this time it’s about shows I watched and listened to.

Comedians and musicians are, to me, the ultimate artists: the contact with the audience, the instant feedback, the improvisation talent. This is as far from writing as it gets, and perhaps this is why I’m so drawn to stories about them lately.

Netflix’s HIBANA is another one of those quirky Japanese stories about the travails of being an artist – not unlike Bakuman, except about comedians rather than mangakas. It tells the story of a manzai duo – the kind of centuries-old Laurel&Hardy double-act that might seem a bit old-fashioned in the West, having died out with the likes of Morecambe & Wise. But the (semi-autobiographical) story of the main hero’s struggle is as contemporary as it gets – and one that I’ve heard told many times by artists of all walks of life. To go the commercial route, or the esoteric? To aim high or low? How long to wait for the break through – and how not to give up when it doesn’t come? All this told in the cool, brilliantly cinematic manner, with the back streets of Tokyo playing a role equal to the three main characters.

Note of caution: as Japanese stories tend to, it gets really weird at the very end. If you skip the final episode, you will still have a decent, contained story of the SPARKS duo. If you continue, you’ll be taken for the kind of ride that only Kamiya-sensei can take you.

The other Netflix series, the GET DOWN, is very much on the opposite side of the spectrum from Hibana: it’s loud, it’s brash, it’s a made-up, hyperbolic fantasy of a story with at least as many downs as it has ups. It wasn’t well received by the critics and the audience – but I enjoyed it for what it was, a musical fairy-tale about finding your inner artist and sticking to it no matter what. I’m not normally a fan of having to turn off your brain while watching something, but the Get Down had enough going for it otherwise for me to watch it all the way to the end, where all the disparate plot threads meet for an uplifting finale.

And of course, I binged Stranger Things, but then you’ve all seen it by now.

Next week in writing inspirations: Podcasts.