Reviews of Urusei Yatsura (1981) and related work

Urusei Yatsura (1981Moving picture, 75 hours)

Oshii Mamoru (director), Yamazaki Kazuo (director).

As a rule of thumb, all mythic entities are real space aliens. Lum, for instance, is the flying daughter of demonic ogres (oni) from Japanese legends. Her father—Invader—conquers Earth with flying saucers. His fleet is then recalled because a randomly selected Earthling—Ataru—wins an official planet-saving game of tag (onigokko) by catching Lum. As it happens, he catches her by the horns. Ignorance of ogre customs is no defence: Lum considers herself happily married to the victorious Earthling and moves into his closet by force.

Ataru’s luck is terrible, except that beautiful girls—and there is hardly any other kind—cross his path on a regular basis. The vast majority of these girls see right through his act, to the horrid, self-serving lecher inside. Lum doesn’t put up with it. Usually dressed in a tiger-striped bikini and go-go boots, she gives Ataru electric shocks until he’s momentarily pacified. In fact, she likes him better than almost anyone, despite his crippling flaws, and spends the series getting him to like her back, while he seeks an interstellar harem and they both go to high school.

To give you an idea of how this plot moves, in episode 89, Ataru finally realizes that sleeping with Lum on a night when his parents are away will make no difference as to whether or not she will electrocute him for hitting on other girls, but he has to wear a thick metal suit in bed to avoid unintentional shocks from her as she peacefully sleeps beside him. Serious romantic character development between the leads after that is delayed until episode 161, in which a giant boar-like entity symbolizes Ataru’s fear of separation, a fear first shown in episode 44, rerun as episode 194 by popular demand.

An SF sitcom for the whole family, based on one of Takahashi Rumiko’s many long-running hit manga. Incidentally, the original was intended to be episodic, featuring Lum only in the opening chapter, but Takahashi brought her back by popular demand. The animated adaptation also stumbled out of the gate: Most of the first 21 episodes are pairs of 11-minute stories, but from episode 22 onwards there is only one story arc per week. The freedom of animation pushes the show slightly beyond mundane sitcoms, but catchphrases and the constraints of a still-episodic plot running to 195 episodes push back.

Much of it is Takahashi’s regular bullshit. Wildly atypical gender roles don’t do a lot of good when almost everyone is exaggeratedly emotive and never learns. Several episodes are devoted to characters with some unshakeable conviction which is clearly foolish and generally quite harmful. Episode 172 is one example of this joke, if it can be called such. It’s a comic fantasy evolved for the strong social pressures of Japan.

Specifically Japanese mythologies and everyday stuff serve as anchors throughout. The series’ take on oni matches a mischievous demon in Saiyūki (1960) who wears a tiger-striped bikini bottom and uses modern technology in an otherwise medieval setting. Hardly a page of Gilles Poitras’s Anime Companion books go by without an example from this franchise. Its most frequent object of parody is the idolization of youth (“I have no regrets!”).

Oshii Mamoru cut his teeth on this series, staying on until 1984. As a unrepresentative example of an Urusei Yatsura plot, unmistakably tinted by Oshii, this is episode 78, the closest thing there was to a season opening: Ataru’s mother, an unnamed minor character who spends the early episodes lamenting that she ever bore her son, describes her everyday life as a housewife, and her aspirations, in monologue. She then finds herself waking up from one dream in yet another. She imagines that she has gotten old, meets her child self and dismisses a psychoanalyst’s interpretation of her eerily nostalgic visions, while adopting a radical phenomenological paradigm to account for her fluid reality. No other established characters are significant in the episode, and eventually, the mother finds herself fighting with a hard-pressed militia in a version of The War of the Worlds (1897). Episode 104 reprises the bizarre battle that follows. This terminates in the standby of a seemingly nuclear explosion followed by a mysterious nursery rhyme in the blasted ruins of the city, as a giant cruise ship coasts in overhead. The entire episode is noticeably slow and almost humourless.

A spotty quality of sorts eventually takes hold, due in large part to the crew’s willingness to run such wild experiments, often with the character of Megane functioning as an avatar for the creators and the fans. I love the little guy: a fanatic Marxist and total geek trying to play it cool and sometimes succeeding. He’s played by Chiba Shigeru, an Oshii regular and master of the rant. Episode 99 is an early take on the subject of stand-and-eat noodle masters, the subject of Oshii’s crowning achievement, according to himself: Tachigui (2006).

Quality declines when Oshii departs. This leaves some examples of the sort of crude tricks (like suddenly gigantic heads, and mallets from nowhere) that were claimed by fandom gatekeepers to mark “true anime” in the early stages of the Western subcultural explosion. An incidental sight-gag character (Kotatsu-neko) is unwisely institutionalized as a fairly major figure, and eventually starts talking (episode 156).

There are a couple of sweet Miyazaki allusions, like Cagliostro’s robot ninja in episode 160 and Lum as Nausicaä in episode 162 (though the true Messiah of Tomobiki High turns out to be Megane). There’s also what appears to be a simultaneous homage to Blade Runner (1982) and Star Wars (1977) (see episode 89) in episode 178, and so on. The ending is remarkably satisfying, although it follows so much inconsistency, and resolves nothing: the gods arrive to pull their shtick, as in Saiyūki.

References here: No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), “On Animation and Cartoon Movies” (1982), Lensman (1984), Maison Ikkoku (1986), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), “The Icarus Factor” (1989), Gosenzosama Banbanzai! (1989), Mobile Police Patlabor: The New Files (1990), Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (2001/2005), Re: Cutie Honey (2004), Your Name (2016).

moving picture animation Japanese production fiction series

Urusei Yatsura: Only You (1983Moving picture, 101 minutes)

Oshii Mamoru (director).

Interstellar mail is delivered to Ataru’s acquaintances, suddenly announcing his upcoming wedding, but the woman he will supposedly marry is not Lum.

The first movie. As the series. Premiered after episode 58. Directed and adapted by Oshii. Not really any more serious in tone. Nice allusion to The Graduate (1967), and a lecturable juxtaposition of cherry blossom petals and military motifs.

moving picture spin-off animation Japanese production fiction

Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984Moving picture, 90 minutes)

Oshii Mamoru (writer-director).

The film opens on a desolate, ruined Tomobiki High, where a handful of the main characters are spending a sunny day at the edge of a watery crater, as if they were the last people on Earth. Some of them laugh and play, but others appear completely exhausted, like tortured zombies among the debris of a fallen consumer culture. On the cracked face of the school’s clock tower, there are no hands.

A significant departure in style. Directed and written by Oshii. Very funny, yet also providing the same feeling of vertiginous narcissism found in some of the world’s best horror, without the horror. That’s pretty rare! Nazi iconography shows up in episode 162 of the series as well.

References here: Urusei Yatsura 4: Lum the Forever (1986), Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (2001/2005).

moving picture spin-off animation Japanese production fiction

Urusei Yatsura 3: Remember My Love (1985Moving picture, 93 minutes)

Due to a misunderstanding in 1967, followed by a future error, a curse descends on Lum and Ataru in the present.

As the series again. From this one on, Oshii was not involved. There’s a good sequence where life becomes much more realistic following Lum’s disappearance.

moving picture spin-off animation Japanese production fiction

Urusei Yatsura 4: Lum the Forever (1986Moving picture, 95 minutes)

As part of a McGuffin-laden film Megane is directing, based on a legend passed down within the Mendou family, Ataru puts an axe to the three-hundred-year-old Tarouzakura, a giant cherry tree towering over Tomobiki. The tree is known to be rotting from the inside, but it is still impossible to explain its reaction to Ataru’s axe, which seems to echo the legend: The tree falls and melts away, leaving weirdly skeletal remains as Lum’s powers fade and she herself disappears from the photos of an old school trip. Dreams engulf the city, and war follows after.

The style is closer to Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984) than to earlier franchise films, but the attempt to continue in the vein Oshii opened is not entirely successful. In any event, the film premiered after episode 191 of the TV series.

The threat of realism (loss of superhuman power = loss of exciting memories etc.) is repeated from the previous film, and the image of Tomobiki floating in space returns from Beautiful Dreamer, though only in metaphor. Minor appearances by homeless people.

moving picture spin-off animation Japanese production fiction

Urusei Yatsura 5: The Final Chapter (1988Moving picture, 85 minutes)

Lum’s great-grandfather promised the hand of his daughter in marriage for an antidote to a man from the “World of Darkness”, at a time when he had no daughter. Lum is pegged to fulfill this old demand, resulting in yet another rival for Ataru, while mushroom spores accidentally contaminate the Earth and begin to shroud it too in darkness.

An unsuccessful attempt to inject some dramatic seriousness, alongside ecological apocalypticism, into the TV formula. Based on the final chapters of the comic, its treatment of the extended (Oshii) cast is marginal treatment, and the dramatic resolution is weak.

moving picture spin-off animation Japanese production fiction

Urusei Yatsura 6: Always My Darling (1991Moving picture, 77 minutes)

Another alien princess, with another problematic love, and a stereotypical love potion.

Tenth anniversary production, disliked by Takahashi. Without merit.

moving picture spin-off animation Japanese production fiction