Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Urusei Yatsura and "1968"

A few days ago I visited an activist in Sapporo, a central member of a group - Hokke no kai - that had become famous in the late 80's for its protests against the Tomari Nuclear Power Plant. I was charmed by house – a huge grey structure made of concrete and filled on the inside with flags, old toys, instruments and other quite quotidian things that for some mysterious reason appeared like wonderful and beautiful decorations. In particular I remember an enormous palm tree whose green leaves together with the light from big windows and the sound of water from upstairs lent the room where we sat a sunken, submarine quality.

But what I want to write about today is neither the house nor anti-nuclear power activism. The members of his group, my host told me, often used to watch anime together, and today I want to write about the anime which we watched together in the evening – Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984, directed by Oshii Mamoru, below Beautiful Dreamer).

First a brief synopsis. It starts off with Ataru’s and Lum’s highschool, where everyone is busy preparing for the school festival. Everything quickly takes an uncanny turn. The overworked teacher Onsen-mark breaks down in a neurosis the day before the festival and deliriously laments to the school nurse (and miko) Sakura that people have always said "until tomorrow", as far back as he can remember. What if time is standing still? What if they are all damned to live like this forever, caught in a time trap, like Urashima Tarô? Soon other strange things start to happen. In the evening they are unable to leave school since all streets lead back to it. A taxi chauffeur suddenly starts to sound like a demon, talking about being a turtle taking his passenger (Sakura) to the Dragon Palace. A terrific scene is when Ataru and a few others are riding through what appears to be completely deserted streets late at night and suddenly hear the eerie sound of flutes and drums, and see some weird musicians parading through one of the streets. “E-he-he, seems the chindonya have started 24 hour service”, Ataru suggests nervously. In a desperate escape attempt involving a jet fighter, they discover that the entire neighborhood around the school is travelling through space on the back of a gigantic turtle, apparently torn away from the rest of the earth.

Life now changes: they relax, drive around in the empty town on a big truck, play and have fun all day. In the background we see that the school has fallen into ruins and sunk into a lake. New life starts in the ruins of the empty city. Time stands still. The convenience store alone is a cornucopia forever filled with new goods. Apart from Sakura, Mendô is the only one who continues to search for a way to get back to ordinary life. Lum feels sorry for him and, carrying a big melon, comes to invite him to play with the others. The only thing she cares for, she says, is to have fun with her friends every day for ever and ever. Finally, however, this world is revealed as a dream created by the comical Kansaiben-speaking demon Mujaki. When Sakura manages to capture him, the dream (after some breathtaking scenes) collapses back into reality, the normal everyday routine of the school.

Who, by the way, is the demon? He is hardly Satan, as Sakura insinuates. His name, Mujaki, is spelled with the signs for dream, evil and devil, but the word is homonymous with the word for innocent. To be sure, he admits that it was he who made Caesar’s and Hitler’s dreams come true, but how the dream develops depends on the human being he happens to possess. Tired of all megalomaniacs he’d encountered through history he actually wanted to retire, but then one day in an aquarium (another allusion to the Dragon’s Palace?) he finally met someone who was different and utterly innocent – Lum, who only dreamed of having fun together with Ataru and the other friends.

How should we interpret the film? We can recall that it was released in 1984. Miyadai Shinji famously claims that popular culture in the 80’s was characterized by two competing eschatologies or visions of the world’s final destiny. One was the “neverending everyday” (owari naki nichijô), which was suffused by the sentiment that “the future will not be different from the present”. Since the future will bring neither “brilliant progress” nor any “terrible collapse”, there is nothing left to do but to take it easy and play about endlessly, as in everyday life in a school or in a junior college. Apocalyptic visions are explicitly and mercilessly poked fun at in manga such as Takahashi Rumiko’s Urusei yatsura. A second eschatological vision was the “post-nuclear war community” (kakusensôgo no kyôdôtai). Its violent message of “redemption through Armageddon” was expressed in smash hits such as Ôtomo Katsuhiro’s Akira or Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaa (Miyadai 1995:86ff).

If we try to situate Beautiful Dreamer in relation to Miyadai’s two eschatologies, we find that neither fits very well. It is true that it no longer has much in common with the “neverending everyday” or the original light and innocent playfulness of the manga Urusei yatsura on which it was based. Takahashi Rumiko acknowledged as much when she unenthusiastically commented that the anime was Oshii’s work, not hers. To some extent, one could perhaps claim that Oshii – famous for anime hits like Ghost in the Shell that belong rather unambiguously in the second strand of eschatology – transformed the work into its opposite, into a “post-nuclear war” work.

Still, this diagnosis is insufficient. The Armageddon-like struggles of the “post-nuclear war” are usually characterized by a paranoiac feel that comes out very well in films like Matrix. In these films, it is taken for granted that the task of the main protagonist is to break out of the “fake” world of simulacra and return to “reality”. The “illusion” or “dream” must be denied. If we look at Beautiful Dreamer, we feel at once that “dream” or “illusion” plays an entirely different role. The Dragon Palace in the sea, which Urashima Tarô visited, wasn’t a prison. It was a place of lost happiness. That’s why time seemed to stand still there. Sure, there are some characters in the film – like Mendô or Sakura, or, finally, Ataru himself – who try to break out of the dream. But these attempts are portrayed as somewhat ridiculous. Especially Mendô, who likes to drive around with a tank, is portrayed as a self-important wanna-be hero and besserwisser who is very much a bother (mendô) to the others. Neither is the demon who created the dream really evil. I feel a lot of sympathy for his attempt to make Lum’s dream come true.

What characterizes the anime’s relation to dream or illusion is neither a whole-hearted affirmation of it, nor a desperate and paranoid attempt to combat it, but rather a form of love for a dream that is not only beautiful, but above all fragile, ephemeral and rare. Time stands still, yet at the same time one knows that the dream may soon be over. One lives in it with all one’s heart, because one knows that life is so rarely visited by moments like this.

Let me return to the film: to the scenes when the young friends drive around lazily in the empty town and the school lies in ruins in a lake. There is a strange bliss in these scenes. A new life starts among the ruins, where everything is for free. Time stands still. Parents and teachers and all authority are gone. There’s freedom in the air. To me this is a fine image of a town that has turned into a no-man’s-land, a commons. There was a memorable monologue here by Megane-san, which was too long for me to memorate, but as I recall it, it blended effortlessly into the lyrical descriptions of the liberated zones behinds the barricades in Paris in May 68.

Behind the demonstrations and riots, the clashes with the police, the wildcat strikes and factory occupations in May 1968, a new everyday unfolded behind the barricades, a life in which ”the uncommon became the everyday”, as Viénet writes (Viénet 1992:72). Participants write enthusiastically about how they experienced this everyday separated from the rest of society: time stopped, as did the metro, the trains, the cars and the workplaces. ”People strolled, dreamed, learned how to live. Desires began to become, little by little, reality.” (ibid 77). Cars were burned. People got used to the disappearance of money, instead they helped each other.
The hierarchical pyramid had melted like a lump of sugar in the May sun. People conversed and were understood in half a word. There were no more intellectuals or workers, but simply revolutionaries engaged in dialogue.... (Viénet 1992:76f)

No one worked. No planes, trains, mail. No gas. No trash collection. Neighbors, who had lived within ten feet of each other for twenty years, became acquainted, strolling and talking in the empty streets. So this is a revolution, they said – not bad. (Feenberg & Freedman 2001: 43)
Life in the occupied parts of town was more or less like a dream. Sadie Plant has described it as “surrealism on the streets” (Plant 1992:101). Lacking newspapers, people chatted with each other. Alain Jouffroy recalled “the great joy that we experienced for the first time in the streets of Paris during May 1968, that joy in the eyes and on the lips of all those who for the first time were talking to each other.” (cit. i Plant 1992:101).

As I have already mentioned (here), this is a state that can be described with Turner’s term "communitas". In contrast to the alienated being of everyday urban life stand the intoxicating moments when the atomized masses seem to melt together in an undifferentiated feeling of universal brother- or sisterhood, when borders dissolve and everything seems possible. The experience of alienation seems, if only temporarily, to be suspended and to revert itself into a feeling of spontaneous belonging together. ”Revolutionary moments are carnivals in which the individual life celebrates its unification with a regenerated society.” (Vaneigem 2001: 110).

Conversely, the waking up from the dream is the dismal return to order, the retour à la normale, the defeat of the revolutionary movement which the Situationists depicted as a herd of sheep heading back to the fold. As in Beautiful Dreamer, the students return to the school bench, the festival is over, the clocks start ticking again.

"What a master-piece!" (“Kessaku deshô!”), my host said when the film was over.


Feenberg, Andrew & Freedman, Jim (2001) When Poetry Ruled The Streets: The French May Events of 1968, Albany: State University of New York Press

Miyadai, Shinji (1995) Owarinaki nichijô o ikiro (Live the never-ending everyday), Tokyo: Chikuma shobô

Plant, Sadie (1992) The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, London and New York: Routledge

Vaneigem, Raoul (2001) The Revolution of Everyday Life, London: Rebel Press.

Viénet, René (1992) Enragés and Situationists in the Occupation Movement, France, May ’68, New York: Autonomedia, London: Rebel Press.

1 comment:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.