Anime of the Past: Urusei Yatsura

Wednesday, February 13th, 2019

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With VIZ Media reintroducing the Urusei Yatsura manga series into circulation this February, what better time than now to revisit the accompanying anime series? As one of Studio Pierott’s first endeavors, it would end up proving quite successful over in Japan. By the arrival of its finale, the series had been steered by 2 different directors, 3 different writers, and 2 different animation studios (Studio Deen took the reins for seasons 3 & 4). Originally airing in October of 1981 and running through March of 1986, Urusei Yatsura spanned 4 seasons, 194 episodes, and over 80 hours of content in total.  Numerous movies and OVAs were also released in tandem with the series. The last OVA actually appeared relatively recently back in 2010.

Urusei Yatsura | Season 4 Opener 1

I initially felt compelled to watch this series because of its first director, Mamoru Oshii. Oshii is known for his creation of the long-running Kerberos franchise, directing the Patlabor animated series, and (of course) directing my favorite film of all time- Ghost in the Shell. To me, Urusei Yatsura is really segmented into two parts. Seasons 1 and 2 were animated by Studio Pierott and a number of the episodes exhibit that overly-philosophical vibe that Oshii is known for. Seasons 3 and 4 saw a bit of a shift as Studio Deen took over the animation role. These were directed by Kazuo Yamazaki, whose style I actually ended up appreciating more than Oshii’s by the end. That’s no surprise though, as Yamazaki also directed Maison Ikkoku, which is another series that I hold in deep regard.

The story of Urusei Yatsura is very loose and centers around the misfortunes of one high-school student- Ataru Moroboshi. Ataru is a self-described playboy and one of the most one-dimensional characters that you will ever encounter. Because of his incessant lust for women and inability to take no for an answer, he spends the majority of his time hitting on, creeping on, or being a bit too touchy-feely with every woman that he encounters. In the pilot episode, his life is changed forever when an invading alien race decides to pay a visit to his home. The Oni people (lead by Mr. Invader) have decided to invade Earth, but they are giving its people a fair chance. Out of over 7 billion potential Earthlings, their supercomputer has randomly selected Ataru to play a game of tag with someone from their own race. His opponent is Lum Invader- a bikini-clad Oni princess and the daughter of Mr. Invader. Needless to say, Ataru is immediately on board with the prospect of chasing after her. He eventually succeeds in grabbing her horns and saving the Earth, but now faces a bigger problem. During the commotion that follows his victory, there’s been a slight misunderstanding. Against Ataru’s wishes, he’s now inexplicably married to Lum and will spend the remainder of the series dealing with her jealousy towards other women.

Urusei Yatsura | Episode 193

Rest assured that the entirely of that last paragraph only contains story content from the first episode. The remaining 193 episodes don’t really offer much in the way of a central narrative. What they do offer is the pure insanity that surrounds Ataru as he repeatedly encounters misfortune, suffers for his infidelities, and emerges each week having learned no valuable lessons. As I mentioned before though, Ataru is a pretty unsavory human being. The fact that he has little to no redeeming qualities, never learns his lesson, and is completely impervious to discouragement makes watching his antics incredibly enjoyable. There’s also the overwhelming irony of his relationship with Lum. Despite being obsessed with women and spending each episode trying to hook up with them, he’s already engaged to a woman who cares about him and who’s envied by every other male at his school. This envy ends up causing Ataru even more issues as Lum’s unofficial group of admirers (calling themselves “Lum’s Stormtroopers”) repeatedly take their anger out on Ataru because of the way that he treats her.

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Before you decide to go head-first into the series, there are a few things to be aware of. One: there are no rules. Anything that can happen, will happen. Since Lum is an alien, she’s brought with her a number of alien devices and objects that can do things seemingly impossible to us on Earth. For example, in one episode she uses a miniature time machine to transport herself (and eventually Ataru) back into the past. This device allows her to shrink down to a near atomic level and use a cup of tea as a portal to the past. Another episode has her baby cousin, Ten, using a fertilizer from his planet to grow a plant that gains sentience. Other instances come off as less alien and more supernatural. In one of the earlier episodes, Ataru’s rival Mendou takes a picture of him using a cursed camera. This transports him into another dimension that can only be accessed from a random window within his classroom. Really, it’s best to throw out all ideas of reality and go in expecting anything.

Second- there are zero consequences. Any unfortunate or horrific occurrence in the series is completely forgotten about in the proceeding episodes (with some minor exceptions). To give you an example, in one episode Ataru’s psyche is changed into that of a woman’s. In another he actually becomes a woman. In yet another he transforms into a giant bear. There are also a multitude of episodes in which his house is completely destroyed beyond repair. None of these events ever have lasting effects and simply exist in the moment for the sake of a quick gag. With no rules and no consequences, I think that one of the liner notes from the original AnimEigo releases translated the series title perfectly: It’s Japanese for “Totally Insane”.

Urusei Yatsura | Episode 41

Ataru’s dad is the only real victim in this series.

The art style of the series evolved gradually across all 4 seasons and this is evident if you watch them all in order. Season one was initially aired in short, 11 minute segments between other shows. In fact, the first 20 or so “episodes” are actually each comprised of two smaller ones. Likely as a result of this and the fact that Studio Pierott was still pretty green at the time, the quality of season one’s artwork and animations is a bit lacking and shows a number of noticeable flaws and shortcuts. Mind you, there are definitely some more detailed shots, but things really start to improve in the later seasons. By the end of the last season, putting a picture of Lum from first and fourth seasons side-by-side shows a night-and-day difference. In my mind, this kind of adds to the show’s charm and allows you to watch the series grow and mature over time.

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When I say that the series matures, I mean it. While I love Oshii’s style and appreciate his direction in the first two seasons (and second movie), I must admit that I found seasons 3 and 4 to be far superior. Season 4 was actually my favorite, but both of these later seasons really ramped things up. For one, the character development (for everyone but Ataru) is noticeably better. Characters like Shinobu, Mendou, Ryunosuke, and even Megane are a lot more fleshed out than before. Shinobu in particular receives her own little story arc involving a fox, which is a nice change of pace since the focus is mainly on Ataru and Lum. I would also argue that the various scenarios laid out in each episode tend to be more interesting in these seasons. If anything, I’d say the fact that the series continues to improve with each subsequent season is reason enough to keep watching.

Rumiko Takahashi is arguably best known for creating Inuyasha and Ranma 1/2, but her first venture into creating manga continues to stand on its own two feet today. Urusei Yatsura remains just as enjoyable now as it was 37+ years ago. As one of the earliest examples of a magical-girlfriend anime, it tries to be so many different things at once and does a fantastic job with all of them. There are a plethora of comedic moments, a generous sprinkle of romantic ones, and a perfect dash of serious ones that help each episode stand on its own. Because of this, the viewing order really doesn’t matter after season 1 since all the major characters have been introduced by then. If you’ve never seen the anime or read the manga, I’d highly suggest doing one or both. Unfortunately, there are currently no paid streaming services that allow you to watch the anime. Having said that, with VIZ releasing new deluxe editions of the manga this year, perhaps we may see the anime get re-licensed and made available for streaming as well.

Urusei Yatsura | Episode 194 End

About Nick Benefield

A mainframe software developer from the Midwest, Nick found oprainfall while searching for information about Xenoblade Chronicles. Nick collects games across a myriad of different platforms (old and new). He's also passionate about old-school anime spanning from the early 80s through the late 90s.