Buoyed by a joyful score and Mirai Mizue's intricate draftsmanship, Dreamland is a narrative film in abstract clothing, a memorable blurring of the boundaries between animated genres.
Festivals and film critics are prone to splitting films into binaries to make them easier to talk about. Films are fiction or non-fiction, comedy or drama, animated or live action. Within animation, films are 2D or 3D, CG or hand-drawn, narrative or non-narrative. As useful as those terms can be in quickly conveying something about a film, they all share the same issue: none of those pairs are as binary as we like to think. The best art thrives on ambiguity, pushing back against easy definition in ways that challenge our need to categorize everything.
Mirai Mizue's 2018 short Dreamland is a perfect example. The whole film is a rapidly-cut assemblage of rigid geometric shapes and patterns, with nothing resembling a representational drawing, let alone a character. If you were to judge it based on the looped GIFs that Mizue shares on his Twitter feed, it'd be hard to see it as anything but non-narrative. It epitomizes the "abstract shape" stream of animation that dates back to Oskar Fischinger's optical poems from the 1930s—a stream that has a "love it or hate it" reputation among even the most dedicated cinephiles.
Abstract as it is, though, Dreamland has a real emotional arc. Part of that comes from the (absolutely incredible) score by Scarlatti Goes Electro, which starts out joyful, turns ominous in the film's midsection, and ends up off-kilter but triumphant. Even without the score, though, there's a clear visual progression. About three minutes in, the film crashes, its tightly organized structures lying in static, colourless heaps, before colour and movement return. The structures in the films tail end are chaotic, though, the strict right angles of the beginning replaced by askew, overlapping arrangements. It may not exactly be a story, but it sure feels like one.
In fact, the quotes that bookend the film make the model of the story pretty explicit. The film opens and closes with multilingual title cards that call back to the utopian presentation of the NFB's mid-century shorts. The first is a slight twist on a quote from Walt Disney, swapping his Disneyland for Mizue's imagined world: "Dreamland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world." The second is unaltered, pulled from the Book of Genesis: "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth."
With those quotes as context, the story comes into focus as an abstracted depiction of the Tower of Babel. The first half is the human ambition to build something perfect, every element carefully considered and slotted perfectly into place. It's the Disneyland version of imagination—clean, sanitized, a creativity that lives within certain restrictions. That vision of perfection is struck down and scrambled, in the same way the Babel story shatters human understanding by splitting the world into a jumble of tribes with their own languages and cultures. Then it rebuilds, complex and chaotic, less regimented and more organic, always looking like it's on the verge of toppling.
Mizue blurs other boundaries in Dreamland, too. His perfect geometric structures are often mistaken for CG, for example, but every frame of animation was drawn by hand with pen and paper (and presumably a ruler). It's an impressive feat of draftsmanship, but it's the narrative arc in abstract clothing that makes Dreamland so memorable, even within Mizue's already impressive catalog.
dir: Mirai Mizue
syn: Simple rectilinear figures assemble into surprisingly complex “cities” that pulse along to Scarlatti Goes Electro’s hyperkinetic score. (Synopsis from Japan Cuts festival, via Letterboxd)