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Urusei Yatsura

Updated: Oct 3, 2022

A timely review for once? Soon to be back for a new generation and new royalties, Urusei Yatsura (meaning, Those Obnoxious Aliens) is the oldest long run, Rumiko Takahashi-based anime, and even by Rumic standards showcases strongly appealing, endearing, realistically complex characters. Rightly loved for decades, on watching now Urusei Yatsura is noticeably epochal, with plot elements often presented differently than they are today. For a comedy, it’s also capable of surprising gravity, even solemnity and spirituality, and those who’ve notched Inuyasha and Ramna 1/2 in their MAL belt might be impressed with how substantial Urusei Yatsura can be.

This is all the more astonishing given the hijinks-promising premise, from which one might expect an endearing but quite silly Close Encounters/Contact comedy of the DearS kind. Tomobiki High’s lecher supreme Ataru Moroboshi is spending another evening leering at pretty girls, when he’s informed he’s been randomly chosen to compete for Earth’s freedom against an extraterrestrial oni! Mr. Invader, a portly, kindly-mannered man with a Fred Flintstone sense of dress, sets up Ataru to face his daughter Lum, a green-haired beauty in a tiger-print (skin?) two-piece, in a game of tag: if he can grab her horns in ten days, they’ll leave Earth in peace. But Lum can fly! Just as the people of Earth had given up hope and lost all confidence in their champion, Ataru wins the game… with subterfuge worthy of a true sukebe. In the elation of victory, Ataru says something Lum misinterprets as a proposal to marry, and clarify as Ataru does, in her eyes he and her are already man and wife! She begins calling Ataru “Darling”, and after Darling accidentally incurs a stupendous debt only the oni princess can pay, she begins living with the Moroboshis, sharing Ataru’s room and sleeping in the closet, though she also sometimes stays in her UFO, regularly in low orbit over Tomobiki.

So much for the setup; as the clingy Lum becomes a fixture at home and school, enchanting all about her, the notoriety of the game of tag that made the Earth stand still quiets strangely fast, as Ataru reverts to one of da boiz in a perverted circle of friends, with Lum now the school’s most sought beauty. Enchanting to, and most sought by everyone but Ataru, that is! He’d been dating Shinobu Miyake, a longtime friend with a delicate heart and superhuman strength, at the time he met Lum, and very much wants to keep up a love affair the domineering, punitive proto-yandere Lum is determined to break off, making for a long-lasting love triangle that’ll remind many of Kimagure Orange Road, that 80’s romantic comedy where the male lead is also called Darling, but heavier on the supernatural, and less tear-jerking. But there is another reason Ataru rebuffs Lum, regularly refusing his wife’s requests for a date. As earnestly as Ataru cares for Shinobu, he has a grander vision than just her: he wants to build a harem! This was seemingly a more novel aspiration at the time: the fantasy harems that appear from time to time still have a Middle Eastern vibe, whereas now “harem” (or “harlem”) is as Japanese as “tycoon” is English.

There is something noble in Ataru‘s sensual aims that should not be missed. He is very much an emblem of male desirousness as it was embodied in the era of Playboy. Oft as he resembles a cartoon character frantically chasing after every woman he sees, such as might have appeared in that or another erotic magazine, he can assume a suave, charming bearing that visibly appeals to many of his marks. Seeing him make his moves, again and again until they land, can feel like watching an artist at work. Comforting a girl afraid of thunder:

Yet, Ataru is much more than a smooth sayer of one-liner. He’s persistent and undaunted by rejection, never letting up until he does find a girl who accepts a date, and has a systematic approach to the “girl hunt”, maintaining a notebook with contact info on every girl he can. While unscrupulous toward his fellow men, he treats women with consideration, and expends the greatest effort if he can make a troubled woman happy, even if he has no chance with her.

When Lum shows up, Ataru’s classmates, and foremost among them “Megane”, a four-eyes with a penchant for speaking in Marxist jargon who forms a group of “Stormtrooper” Lum super-fans, are aggrieved that she adores Ataru, the one boy who doesn’t fawn over her, but it’s abundantly clear they’re destined soulmates. No one else could present such a worthy challenge for the other. If Ataru longs more than anything to spread his love around, Lum is the epitome of jealousy. Should Ataru flirt in her presence she, generally a soft-spoken and friendly girl ending sentences with “-daccha” (“yes?”, though this is omitted from the available fansubs), uses her power and zaps him with an electric vengeance that would put Stanley Milgram to shame! But no less harmlessly: in this world her voltage is always enough to cause pain but not lasting harm. Despite the disincentive, the relationship is at its best when it’s clear Ataru, who at times will do anything to get Lum out of the way so he can girl hunt, is purposefully flirting in front of Lum to make her jealous and mad! Like the fabled lance that can pierce anything and impenetrable shield, they can’t forever coexist without one renouncing claims and coming to terms, their collision course something to watch with avid excitement.

Of course, this 195-episode journey is much more than a two or three character affair. In fact, for me the series best girl isn’t even the rightly beloved Lum, but her childhood frenemy Ran. Seemingly another oni without horns, but with a gorgeous set of fangs, Ran is one of a number of folks from Lum’s home world Oniboshi who shows up to say hi or, in this case, to settle an old score. As far as present-minded Lum’s concerned, she might as well not have a backstory, but Ran can never forget what others have already forgotten. Ran and Lum remind me strongly of Myrtle and Lisle in L. M. Montgomery’s short story “The Reconciliation” in The Blythes Are Quoted. Time after time when they were in kindergarten, seemingly living (not as princess and playmate but) a free-range childhood playing in the fields and woods about their spaceship-homesteads on a very Akira Toriyama world, Ran got injured or wrongly blamed after playing with Lum. But more importantly than coming out the worse in their games, as younger teens both were in love with Rei, an incredibly handsome oni, such a heartthrob that women instantly offer to leave their husbands to be with him, and Rei chose Lum over Ran. However, Rei often transforms into a “tiger-ox” creature and cares only for gorging himself on food, and with Lum now set on Darling she’s often grossed out by the glutton. Rei still cares for Lum, but dates Ran because she feeds him her cooking; Ran, however, can never forget having been jilted, and has it out for Lum. She often uses gadgets (such as wind-up dolls in her likeness that say she wasn’t offended by something, before self-destructing) or even black magic to make Rei really fall for her, and parks her UFO long-term in Tomobiki, in hopes of seducing Ataru just to get back at Lum. Ran can be a funny, if ugly sight to behold when bent out of shape by Lum.

Lots of the time, however, she’s an ethereal beauty, simply the image of innocent maidenhood. This sometimes seems a disguise for her scheming nature, but I wonder if it isn’t the real her, as that’s normally how she behaves while she’s alone, or while she’s having a picnic with her beloved Rei. She embodies both the pleasant and unbearable sides of womankind, and in her it’s easy to see how the one can arise from the other when a fragile being carries a wound inside, and to have compassion and love her all the same.

Truly, the art or the original Urusei Yatsura is otherworldly and stunning, and lends itself to exploring still deeper mysteries when events take a supernatural turn. As I said before, Lum and Ataru soon settle into unexpectedly ordinary high school life, with episodes often involving wacky hijinks as alien technology or unhinged fighting reduces classroom or school to rubble, only to start from an unaltered slate again next time. But noticing how bystanders become accustomed to, don’t even turn their heads at Lum flying around, clues me in that this is a world akin to a Miyazaki film where the supernatural is so all around us, it is part of the routine. The rom-com nature of the series also comes off it’s mooring when we realize that Lum, the most overpowered of oni, can travel through time, and even between dimensions—abilities other series are built around—but this makes little impact on the plot. Why? What is this saying? Lum does use lesser abilities or attempted hacks to win Ataru’s love, but explicitly rejects altering reality to make him hers. And, she certainly doesn’t need to be hanging around or attending school, unless she wants to. It all seems to suggest that while Lum could have her stated goals much more easily, she thinks “slice of life” is the best life, and embraces the ordinary of her own free will, because it is good.

Keep in mind also, while Lum is an alien, her heterogeneous people are also oni, so embracing the strangeness of the extraterrestrial and folkloric myth at the same time. Not only from outer space, but from the world all around us, strange beings continually make their way into the action. Spirits of all sorts are continually present, yet our friends hardly walk away spooked. They are often encountered through the nexis of a most interesting pair of characters: Sakura, a tall, gorgeous shrine maiden who becomes Tomobiki’s heartthrob school nurse, and her uncle Cherry (Sakuranbo), a diminuitive, ugly Buddhist monk constantly popping up out of nowhere to insert a comment, or gorge himself on tasty food. Sakura is often called on to exorcise or just help understand a spirit’s plight. Ataru and many others can’t stand Cherry, and for a while I hated whenever he appeared, distracting from the beauties on the screen. Yet, after a while I realized that Cherry is a reverend figure worthy of consideration and respect, very unlike Inuyasha’s womanizing, disingenuous Miroku, or Ranma 1/2’s physognomically similar martial arts teacher Happosai. From time to time, it becomes clear that the spirit of ahimsa is not a dead letter for Cherry, and his showily making a nuisance of himself seems like acting the holy fool. He has no permanent roof over his head, pitching a tent in a vacant lot near the Moroboshi house, or on a hilltop. He shares tea and light fare with whatever visitors stop by, the most frequent of them Kotatsu-neko, a giant cat spirit that was at first a nuisance himself, squatting under a kotatsu on the Moroboshi’s staircase, but who later turns itinerant. While most often seen with the ascetic Cherry, Kotatsu-neko also sojourns with another man of great equanimity, the Tomobiki principal, who often spends the most hectic days at the school savoring green tea. In short, this is a much more considerate treatment of Buddhism, Shinto, and religious devotion generally, than in the later Takahashi-inspired anime I was familiar with.

Urusei Yatsura runs, again, 195 episodes, originally aired 1981-1986, and at first with two plots an ep, then one longer story each. In addition to OVAs that differ little in tone and should be watched after the main series, there are SIX movies, some of which are fantastic. The best is Movie 2: Beautiful Dreamer, an imaginative and again spiritually thoughtful tale with work put in by the people who did Ghost in the Shell (which haven’t seen yet). It is an exploration of what the heart desires, and what the substance of those desires would be. There was a 2008 OVA that gives us a glimpse of what Urusei Yatsura would be like as a 00’s anime, plus a more recent special that gave Ataru an opportunity to hit on girl Ranma and Kagome Higurashi.

What will Urusei Yatsura be like as a Flaming 20’s anime? I hear it will adapt “favorite” parts of the original manga and anime. If so, nothing can be expected more than a return of an adorable fan favorite, the “pure-hearted fox”. This imperfectly shape-shifting kitsune becomes an unexpected love interest and mascot character when he falls for Shinobu, and journeys from the distant woods to be by her side. In the original, he returns several times, and one of his appearances was even ranked among the ten best episodes in a fan survey given in the penultimate episode, so I hopefully expect him to appear again soon.

Given that Inuyasha recently got a next-gen continuation in YashaHime: Princess Half Demon, I was a little miffed that those responsible opted for a remake of an already nearly perfect series, rather than a sequel. As one who always rooted for Ataru, I would’ve loved this spin: In an hour-long series opener, Ataru finally confesses his love, and formally marries Lum, albeit with some regretful glances back… until he is led to the marriage futon and (in the spirit of that convention where you drop something in a lake, and a spirit asks if you dropped the base, silver or gold object, then rewards you with the gold if you were honest) what does he find? The dreamed-of harem, with Lum first among wives! “I was just testing your love. You didn’t think I really wanted you to be unhappy-daccha?”

After (as I would have it be) one last bit of wackiness (as Ataru’s about to lie down with Lum and Ran, he recoils in shock, and marine green and magenta triangles briefly flash on the screen. “What color did you think they’d be, Darling?”), the newlyweds could then move to Oniboshi to begin their married life, and antics could now center around not Lum, but Ataru and other human guests being the “obnoxious aliens”, to turn the original premise around. One regret was that Lum almost never visited her homeworld with Ataru in the original, so I would love to see more of Oniboshi now.

Harem or not (probably not), it’ll be interesting to see how the ecchi bits, particularly the occasional nipple, get translated into the new series. Many worry they will be omitted, though I won’t be surprised if, like in other programs the broadcast version is filled with beams of obscuring light that are absent only in Blu-ray/DVD releases. Let’s hope the televised version is so police-lined off with glares that one glance at the uncensored Urusei Yatsura 2022 instantly merits high voltage shocks from Lum, who won’t forgive us anymore.

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