We've been waiting to write this review for six years. And where better to start than at the beginning?
Moroboshi Ataru is the world's unluckiest boy. He's also the world's biggest lecher, and can't seem to get any girl to give him the time of day. One fine day, aliens come down to invade the Earth, but they give the hapless Earthlings a chance to save themselves by randomly choosing a hero to play a game of tag against their green-haired sexpot crown princess Lum. Unfortunately for Earth, their hero is Ataru. While everyone prepares for the world to end, Ataru does his best to capture the princess, who can fly and send electric shocks. At the last moment, Ataru's “lady love”, Shinobu, makes a deal with him – if he wins the game of tag, she will marry him. A motivated Ataru wins the match in the final minutes, and upon winning, yells out for all to hear, “Now I can marry her!”
Unfortunately, he doesn't specifically which “her” … and the crown princess Lum and the race of invading aliens accept his heartfelt marriage proposal.
Anime as we know it now would not be what it is if it weren't for Urusei Yatsura.
Prior to this show, most anime was still relegated to Saturday mornings and family fare. Even anime like Captain Harlock and Space Battleship Yamato were seen as shows for younger people, and while housewives had Sazae-san, anime was not seen as a legitimate form of entertainment for all ages. And while there were a few exceptions, anime was seen as very much “for kids”.
Enter Urusei Yatsura, which still resonates in Japanese culture to an extent rivaled only by Doraemon. But as Doraemon was a success among children, Urusei Yatsura was a show that truly crossed over for both young and old alike. And Lum is considered the first anime idol – no previous non-mascot anime character had ever sparked so much merchandising, records, posters, or simply become such a multimedia phenomenon. Lum was the first anime character that Japanese guys could idolize without being looked at funny – and she remains an icon not just in Japan, but worldwide.
To spark such a phenomenon, one would have to assume that the actual show is good, right? Well, it is.
Urusei Yatsura was truly revolutionary – no show had ever parodied the breadth and width of Japanese culture, past and present, so thoroughly as this one. With a huge cast of memorable, wonderful characters who are the seeds of today's anime archetypes (like anime's first true loser hero, Ataru, and first ditzy, petty magical girl-from-heaven, Lum), UY remains the mold that modern creators look to when creating their series. Most anime of the last twenty years can trace at least some influence to this show, and when anyone says, “It's been done before and better,” odds are that it was done by UY.
It may seem unfair or pretentious to compare all anime from 1981 onwards to Urusei Yatsura, until you realize that this show has everything ... AND the kitchen sink. While the characters are supposedly from a sci-fi show, they lampoon everything from mythology and folktales (the Oni, snow maidens, Momotaro) to modern Japanese society (Ataru's long-suffering parents, the put-upon teacher Onsen-Mark, the deranged and often irrelevant Buddhist monk Cherry) and different aspects of the then-current pop culture (disco music, romance dramas, biker gangs). Of course, UFOs and aliens were hip and cool in early 1980s Japan, which is why Urusei Yatsura is steeped in the sci-fi tradition, but it rarely takes itself seriously unless it wants to. But more often, Tomobiki High School is the backdrop for what can properly only be described as pure insanity.
Of course, no high school is complete without its zany cast of characters. Ataru is a completely irredeemable lout who really does bring on all the misery he gets in his life. And at the same time, you can't help but cheer for him and hope the poor loser catches a break someday. Then there's Lum, who floats around and wallows in the cutesy teenage slang of the time like an interstellar Valley Girl, while she chases Ataru around and zaps him for being unfaithful (since they're “married” and all). There's Ataru's handsome, filthy rich, and equally lecherous rival Mendou Shuutarou, who chases Lum around (because having an alien princess for a wife would be the ultimate status symbol). And there's Ataru's erstwhile fiancée, Shinobu, who can lift and throw large objects (like Mack trucks) in her fits of rage without even really thinking about it. And there's dozens and dozens more characters, who would take the next six years to adequately describe. (Like the goddess of luck, Benten, who is mysteriously now a biker chick. Or Lum's bratty little cousin, Ten, who breathes fire, flies around on a training potty, and torments Ataru any time he can.)
However, for readers of the manga, the anime seems to go along on completely different tangents from the original. Where the manga has plenty of SF hi-jinks with the cast described, the anime brings in a foursome who many fans lovingly refer to as “Lum's Storm Troopers” (Megane “Glasses”, Perm “Curly”, Chibi “Shorty”, and Kakugari “Buzz”) – more often than not instigators of nine-tenths of the craziness in the anime. Initially absent in the manga, these everyday teenage boys are the anchors of the show, everyday Joe Schmoes who idolize Lum but don't have a chance in heck with her – and chase her anyway. In a sense, the “Storm Troopers” epitomized the audience of Urusei Yatsura and are the unheralded secret of the success of the anime. Rarely the true center of the action, they are nonetheless its catalysts, sparking the madness and grounding it at the same time. Where the main cast in the manga often simply runs amok, the anime “Storm Troopers” serve as a foil to Ataru and Mendou, and slow down the action enough so that all the characters get personalities beyond the archetypes presented in the manga.
The animation, for its time, is fairly average. Unfortunately, this means that Urusei Yatsura has noticeably aged, but thankfully they don't try too many neat things with the television budget. It probably would look more dated if they tried to look state-of-the-art. The music is heavily calypso-influenced (as was popular in Japan during the time period), and there is a whole lot of disco dancing going on. But the songs are cute, funny, and enjoyable even now … even younger fans who are normally deathly allergic to disco have been caught grooving to “Lum's Love Song” and “Space is Super-Weird”.
Nothing quite sums up Urusei Yatsura as the word “weird”. UY epitomizes the very idea that the Japanese are completely frickin' insane … and quite proud of it, thank you very much. However, this show isn't just about being weird and funny.
If all UY had to offer was gag-a-minute visuals, then it wouldn't still be airing on reruns even today in Japan like an anime I Love Lucy – and Lum's image wouldn't be selling pasta on a poster in Rome, over twenty years after the show first hit the air. Urusei Yatsura is a timeless comedy that takes a deep, hard look at the Japanese psyche with a funhouse mirror. Younger fans may dismiss it now because they've seen all the jokes in newer anime like Ranma ½, Tenchi Muyo, and Sorcerer Hunters, but Urusei Yatsura is a landmark series that deserves to be remembered for what it is: one of the first megahits … and still one of the best.
An original and unapologetically Japanese classic that earns every star we can give. Newer fans, however, might drop a star or two due to dated animation and not having the fandom and/or cultural background to properly appreciate it. — Christi
Recommended Audience: Despite brief nudity (oh, gee, Lum's top comes off once or twice), innuendo, and slapstick violence, I'd have trouble barring anyone from watching this, because those factors are inconsequential compared to the humor and entertainment value of this show. Unless you're a stick-in-the-mud prude, I'd say three and up. Young ones would get a kick out of the physical humor, teens would enjoy the high school antics, and adults would be amused by the endless cultural references being skewered.
Version(s) Viewed: Broadcast airing, raw Japanese; VHS, raw Japanese with scripts; prerelease fansub; VHS, Japanese with subtitles
Review Status: Full (218/218)
Urusei Yatsura © 1981 Takahashi Rumiko / Shogakukan / Kitty / Fuji TV
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