Urusei Yatsura Anime Review
Those Obnoxious Aliens
US Release By
Everything-goes Girls From Space Comedy
196 25-minute episodes
1981-10-14 - 1986-03-19
What's In It
- A Little of Absolutely Everything
- Scantily-clad Girls From Space
- The Greatest Loser in the Galaxy
- Cute Kids
- Japanese Folklore
- Violence: 2 (moderate)
- Nudity: 2 (moderate)
- Sex: 2 (moderate)
- Language: 2 (moderate)
Ataru Moroboshi is a student at Tomobiki High with a talent for one thing, and one thing only: chasing girls. Despite his legendary lechery and lack of luck, he also has a girlfriend, the long-suffering Shinobu. Until, that is, a group of aliens, the Oni, decide to invade Earth. The Oni, however, give Earth a sporting chance: if a randomly selected earthling can defeat their champion in a game of tag, they'll call off the invasion. The randomly selected earthling is, of course, Ataru Moroboshi. His opponent: The beautiful princess Lum.
Fortunately, Ataru for once in his life manages to succeed at something, saving the Earth. Unfortunately, Lum misinterprets a comment of Ataru's to be a marriage proposal, and immediately moves in with him, to the frustration of Shinobu and Ataru's parents, and the joy of Ataru's male classmates. As for Ataru, he's not one for commitment, but Lum isn't about to let her "Darling" run off, and she's equipped with massive electric shocks to make sure he doesn't.
So begins the ongoing tale of a sleazy boy, a beautiful alien princess, legions of attractive aliens trying to steal Ataru from Lum or vice versa, and an endless string of weird creatures from every corner of Earth and space.
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Urusei Yatsura is THE wacky anime love comedy, the prototype to which almost every anime comedy, parody, and girls-from-space love story owes a debt, and even 20 years after it first aired, it's still one of the best. From the endlessly amusing string of strange characters to the endlessly catchy theme songs to the endless string of parodies, references, and in-jokes, it has everything you could ask for, and it does it all well. But perhaps most impressive is that despite having only one apparent joke to stretch over nearly 200 episodes, it continually reinvents itself, playing with every genre you can think of--from hard-boiled drama to utterly surreal. You never know quite what to expect, but one thing you won't get is just another silly comedy.
Deservedly popular, the series that put Rumiko Takahashi on the map and where Mamoru Oshii cut his teeth as an anime director is more than just a wacky comedy--it's a little of everything, all squashed into a bizarre anime framework with a set of characters that anime creators have been mimicking for two decades and counting.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Urusei Yatsura isn't just another wacky anime love comedy. It's not even a great wacky anime love comedy. Urusei Yatsura is THE wacky anime love comedy, the prototype to which almost every anime comedy, parody, and girls-from-space love story owes a debt. More impressive still, the work that put Rumiko Takahashi on the map doesn't just hold its own over 20 years after it first aired, it's still one of the best, if not the best. Wow.
Categorizing Urusei Yatsura is easy enough--it's the original more-the-merrier comedy (and harem show), featuring a variety of lively, attractive, and usually nutty girls (mostly from outer space) falling for one luckless guy. But that doesn't do this series justice, because Urusei Yatsura is so much more than its formula should allow. There's a little of everything: Wacky, wild, raunchy, cute, sweet, hilarious, surreal, bizarre, clever, scary, romantic, and even dramatic--if there is a theme, Urusei Yatsura has it in at least one episode.
The initial episodes establish the cast of characters, and feature a wide variety of attractive women from outer space congregating around Ataru and company. These follow a classic formula of piling trouble onto trouble until there's only one way to get things back to normal... and then having that way backfire severely as the coup de grace. Though it breaks up the continuity when the situation resets at the beginning of the next episode, it's funny. Then, just about when that starts to get repetitive, the show suddenly moves into a surrealist phase. And that's only the beginning of the perpetually-morphing nature of Urusei Yatsura.
What I'm getting at, and perhaps the most impressive thing about Urusei Yatsura, is that despite its tremendous length, completely episodic construction, and apparent simplicity, it never lets itself get boring. Lum electrocuting Ataru after he chases a random girl is funny, but gets stale quickly, and with nearly 200 episodes, there's a lot of room for stale. But every time you think the series is getting into a rut of variations on the same plot device (an issue some of Takahashi's later series have fallen victim to), it veers off into something entirely different. Eventually, it gets to the point where you really don't know what to expect in the next episode. I'm serious when I say it covers so much ground it's almost scary--one minute it's a juvenile slapstick comedy, the next it's an art film.
If you stick with it long enough, you'll find everything from insane Technicolor nightmares based on classic Japanese tales to intrigue-fraught thrillers to a psychedelic Alice in Wonderland to a hot springs episode that, rather than the usual bevy of naked female fanservice, involves a downright creepy journey through a haunted village.
This isn't to imply that the series ever loses its comedic edge, but despite the seemingly irredeemable silliness of the opening episodes and the fact that there isn't a single ongoing plot line past the premise, it somehow manages to deliver episodes that not only aren't always all that funny, but border on straight-faced drama. I was surprised at how effectively serious or just downright strange the occasional episode managed to be--you just have to sit back and accept what it gives you after the opening credits roll. Whether you'll walk away scratching your head or gasping for breath is anybody's guess.
Let me step aside and make something clear here: When I say Urusei Yatsura gets weird, I mean really weird. Not random and funny weird, not just anime weird, but seriously, artistically, surrealistically, "What on earth was that episode even about?" weird. There will be episodes that leave you wondering what just happened, but don't expect to ever have it explained--the series just rolls on, never to look back.
I suspect some of these more cerebral episodes were experiments by then-rookie director Mamoru Oshii, now far better known for his introspective, brooding films like Ghost in the Shell and Jin Roh. Yes, as hard as it is to imagine that the man responsible for Jin Roh (and the art-house noir surrealism of Talking Head) could've directed the seminal wacky love comedy, that might give you an idea of just how out-there Urusei Yatsura can get.
Now that I've hammered the point of its variety home, I'll go back and say there is one thing that Urusei Yatsura is very consistent about: pop-culture references. Like the Japanese Simpsons of its era, it parodies, sends up, pays homage to, or otherwise references everything. Everything. Ok, being twenty-some years old there's only so much ground it could've covered without resorting to time travel (which wouldn't have been that surprising), but everything from Japanese legends both obscure and popular to Darth Vader makes an appearance here, and you could write a book about the then-current-events tie-ins and parodies both subtle and not.
In fact, AnimEigo essentially did--thanks to their obsessive liner notes every episode has an extensive list of what exactly is referenced, in particular the volumes of obscure anime and pop-culture nods that few but a native Japanese would ever have even heard of. Don't take that to mean that there's nothing to enjoy for the non-Japanophile; it's more than weird and wild enough on its own, and there's plenty of original and universally understandable (or baffling) hijinks for anyone to enjoy.
Yet another impressive (that's today's word, by the way) thing about Urusei Yatsura is its originality. Many of its plot devices (gender bending, multiple girls after the same worthless guy, weirdoes from outer space, recast versions of Rocky) have become anime staples, but you might remind yourself as you're watching that in many cases they're classic because of Urusei Yatsura. It's the originator of so many anime cliches that I have to wonder what anime today would've looked like without it for inspiration. That alone makes it a seminal work the likes of which few things outside of Tezuka's little robot can boast of.
More amazing still, even being the originator of as many beaten-to-death plot devices as it is, Urusei Yatsura somehow manages to make them all seem fresh and fun again. I guess there's just something about the original.
I suppose I'd be lax if I didn't spend a bit of time on the characters here. Ataru is the prototype lecherous loser, never letting his girl-radar slide for more than a second, and fleeing the one and only girl who actually has any interest in him. But he does have a hint of a soft side in there somewhere, making a few of the later episodes just a bit romantic.
Lum is the classic uber-babe with a massive crush on a totally worthless guy. What makes her interesting is that, like Takahashi's later heroines, she's not a ditz or an idiot--she's actually sharp and rather practical. She just really likes Ataru for some inexplicable reason, even though she's quite aware he's pathetic and worthless. You're willing to believe it because she seems to hold out hope that he'll come around someday, or that maybe she can electrocute him into shape.
There are a huge variety of interesting characters (everything from moping dolphins to a hotheaded girl raised to be a man among men), but the two others who are most prominent are ultra-stud Mendou (heir to the richest family in Japan), and Mendou's sort-of-girlfriend Shinobu, ever beleaguered but with a will of steel. I absolutely love Mendou in particular, since he's annoyingly smooth and studly, but under his perfect facade he's almost as sleazy as Ataru, and has a number of very amusing character flaws. Seeing the cool guy repeatedly crack or show his humanity in the most embarrassing of ways is just too much fun.
After 30 or 40 episodes (I'm not kidding), we've gotten good and comfortable with the characters and their bizarre lives, so the stories begin to focus more on the two main couples--Lum and Ataru, and Shinobu and Mendou. This is where the series gets into its groove, taking on an everyday air that other anime rarely has the length and depth to make work as effectively. The small group of high school friends are involved in sufficiently wacky escapades, but they really do feel like a group of friends despite their bizarre backgrounds, and you've spent enough time with them that you can not only buy it, but it feels more like you're just part of the gang along for the ride.
Ok, that's enough of that (hey, it's long and varied, I'm entitled to go into some detail). Visually, Urusei Yatsura is definitely old, but also quite good. The colors are typically garish for a '70s-era TV show, but after the first few episodes the quality of the art and animation improves somewhat, and there is a variety of very nice character animation. The art is rather inconsistent (it's been said that extremist fans can differentiate between the different art directors' takes on Lum), but never enough to bother me.
Of particular visual note is the everydayness of Lum; although she can and almost always does fly or hover around, it's portrayed in a natural-seeming way that makes it feel sort of normal. Iconic tiger-print bikini aside, Lum also makes for a bit of an ongoing fashion show, with all manner of interesting outfits appropriate to the setting. When you put the two together, you pretty much get what makes the whole series so much fun: a green-haired girl with horns, dressed in hiking gear or a school uniform, hovering around her boyfriend... and it just seems entirely natural. I just love stuff like that.
The music is... you know what's coming... impressive. There are a whole bunch of end themes (they change about every dozen episodes or so), most of which are quite catchy, and each is accompanied by its own funky animated sequence. The peppy and insanely catchy opening themes change much less frequently, but the accompanying animation features some hilarious Saturday Night Fever-style dance moves and lots of funked-out visuals, and they're still just as much fun to try and sing along to a couple of decades later. Much of the background music is unimpressive sounding synthesizer work, but it's also lots of fun--many musical flourishes to go with the wacky visuals, and the occasional nice musical number.
The voice cast in Japanese is flat-out spectacular. Realistic, no. Fun, in spades. They're good enough that you basically couldn't imagine any other voices behind the characters, which may explain why AnimEigo's attempt to dub the series was an utter failure, resulting in only a handful of episodes ever being finished. Lum's voice is incredibly cute (with some amusing vocal tics), Ataru screams and sleazes like nobody else can, Mendou can go from smooth-as-glass to panicking crybaby in two seconds flat, and although Shinobu has the least comedic range of the lot, she's still quite distinctive. Plus, there's a huge variety of distinctive minor or one-shot characters. And the all-important comedic timing, in a credit to both the actors' and director's skill, is dead-on in every single episode.
There, now I've said just about everything I can think of about this series, and it's worthy of all that and more. It simply has everything and then some, and has been the watermark, in my opinion essentially unchallenged, of anime comedy for almost a quarter of a century and still counting. If you don't like wacky and weird, nothing will ever make you like this series. But if any of the anime comedy standbys ever tickle your fancy, or you want to give a unique and at times absolutely surreal series a try, get yourself some Urusei Yatsura. Just one thing to remember: If you ever think it's getting in a rut (and you will), just wait--it never gets stuck.
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There are countless harem-style series with versions of the same theme, with probably half being produced by Pioneer. Some notable ones (mostly with a less worthless male lead) include Love Hina (probably most similar in its weirdness), Tenchi Muyo (more space action, less schoolyard shenanigans), El Hazard (fantasy world take on the harem), and Oh My Goddess (more sweetness, less wacky). More similar are several other series by Rumiko Takashi, in particular Ranma 1/2. Series with a similar overall feel are the classic smooth-yet-silly City Hunter (with the lead voiced by the same fellow as Mendou), the wacky Haunted Junction, and perhaps the exceedingly ornery fantasy series Gokudo, for some of its truly random plot twists.
Notes and Trivia
Based on tremendously popular manga artist Rumiko Takahashi's second comic series, the anime version follows the manga quite closely for the most part. The original comic ran in Shounen Sunday from 1978 through 1987 (ending just before Ranma 1/2 began), totaled 34 volumes, and was the first of her constant string of long-running and highly successful series. She is noted as one of the first female manga creators to break through into boys' comics, and her golden touch has also given birth to Inu-Yasha, Ranma 1/2, and Maison Ikkoku.
AnimEigo has annotated Urusei Yatsura to death, and their complete liner notes are available online, but here are a couple of tidbits:
First, about the voice cast: Although most of the voice cast reads as a who's who of anime actors since the late '70s, Fumi Hirano, the unmistakable voice that makes Lum who she is, has only been in a handful of other anime--voicing the relatively similar Princess Kahm in Outlanders and a few other small roles. She is, however, still doing voice work, just not in anime--currently, she does chipper voiceovers for daytime edutainment shows.
The title, Urusei Yatsura, literally means "noisy guys" (in a rather rough tone), but the word "urusei," a crude form of "noisy," is instead written to include the character for "star," implying that the "guys" are from space. Hence AnimEigo's decision to translate it as "Those Obnoxious Aliens."
One other thing worth noting is that when I said above that Urusei Yatsura is like the Simpsons of Japan, that analogy holds true in more ways than one--the series is so popular in Japan that it has become a standard part of pop culture.
US DVD Review
AnimEigo's DVDs are simple, but done right. On the simple side, they include indexed and properly chapter-stopped episodes with monaural Japanese audio, a characteristically meticulously translated soft subtitle track (including notes on a few hard to translate jokes and concepts), and really nothing else--the closest thing to a special feature on the first discs is a subtitle track entirely in morse code (yes, seriously--every word). On the done right side, every single bit of storage on the DVDs that didn't go into an extra feature was used to make the video look as good as possible for a series this old. Considering that no fancy restoration work was done, the video transfer is also quite good for a series this old, though the first few episodes weren't preserved as well and so look rougher than the rest. The audio, despite being single-channel, also sounds quite good, particularly considering the age of the series.
The later discs don't include much more, but feel a bit more polished--the menus add a complete cast list for the episodes on that disc, the original airdates of the episodes, as well as a second subtitle track with translations of onscreen text but not the dialogue.
Of course, where the discs really stand out is in AnimEigo's trademark liner notes, which in the case of Urusei Yatsura are both voluminous and required reading to really get a lot of the jokes.
Note that the audio track for the episodes that were dubbed aren't included, apparently to save the extra bits for better video. This is also the reason AnimEigo gave for limiting the discs to four episodes each. (Incidentally, in response to complaints that the low episode count meant too much shelf space, AnimEigo made every other case in the first sets that were produced a double-disc one, so they could be combined to save space, but they apparently gave up after a while.)
Though there is a lot of innuendo and skirt chasing, it's never particularly dirty, so fits somewhere in the 10-up or 13-up age range, depending on the episode.
Violence: 2 - There's a whole lot of electrocuting and other mayhem, but it's almost all very silly.
Nudity: 2 - A whole lot of bikinis and revealing outfits, but there is only actual nudity in a very few episodes (including the first).
Sex/Mature Themes: 2 - A lot of mildly crude jokes, but little more.
Language: 2 - Mostly pretty clean, but Ataru can get coarse at times.
In the US it's available from AnimEigo on subtitled DVD in sets of five discs, with each disc containing 4 episodes; there are a total of 50 discs in 10 sets. The box sets were first available for pre-order directly from AnimEigo, with individual disc and box set releases following a few months later. Most of the series was also available on subtitled VHS and through episode 80 on a limited-edition 10-disc LaserDisc set, though both are long out of print. There was a dubbed VHS version of the first two episodes, also now out of print.