Urusei Yatsura transformed the anime industry. It shattered any perception of anime being just for children, which had somehow managed to survive even the existence of shows like Captain Harlock or Space Battleship Yamato. It became a new kind of multimedia phenomenon as it mercilessly parodied absolutely everything. Folk tales, puns, entire genres... you name it, they skewered it. In Urusei Yatsura, anything can happen. You'll hear that said of many shows, but never will it be more true than it is here, Tomobiki-cho being a town in which reality is whatever the animators have chosen this week. No, make that "these five minutes". Our heroes might go looking for a parasol because it's the magical treasure of a fairy trapped in the hidden dimensions of a puddle in the street. Darth Vader could be getting drunk with Santa Claus and it'll be just a throwaway. It's almost like Alice through the Looking-Glass, in that they'll take their story to impossible places for the sheer hell of it and then turn everything upside-down for laughs. Some episodes throw out more ideas in 25 minutes than most other shows manage in their entire runs.
This is a challenging show. The R1 AnimeEigo DVDs come with liner notes just to explain half of the jokes to Westerners. The parodies and cultural references are so wide-ranging that the whole show's like a college course in Japanese culture and myth. In comparison, for example Ranma 1/2 is simple. I was able to watch that show raw four years ago and hardly miss anything. Urusei Yatsura? Not a hope.
This is the only mega-length anime I know that never resorted to filler. It couldn't. There's no formula. One gets the sense that even the show's producers barely understood it, but were merely riding the wave of their own insanity. The show evolved over time, with major cast members growing new personalities or even superpowers. Unsurprisingly by the end it had come a long way away from Rumiko Takahashi's original manga. Ranma is the obvious point of comparison, being Takahashi's other wacky comedy blockbuster, but with that show it's fairly obvious how you'd go about creating new episodes. Put the characters in a story. Simple. In contrast, the idea of picking up the Urusei Yatsura baton would be intimidating.
All that said, the show has problems.
It's a more cynical show than Ranma, deriving its comedy from stupidity, lust, childishness, greed and malice. Our anti-hero, Ataru, chases girls like a rabid dog and has almost no redeeming features. Very occasionally he proves to have finer feelings, but he finds them an embarrassment and tries to keep them hidden. There's very little he wouldn't do to his fellow human beings, including in one episode attempted murder. His opposite number is Lum, a ditzy alien invader who can fly, shoot lightning bolts and produce magical technology from her UFO, up to and including dimensional portals and time travel. She thinks she's his wife and really loves him, which unsurprisingly makes for an explosive combination.
That might sound promising, but a little of these two can go a long way. Both are hilarious when used correctly, but I simply don't enjoy Ataru's never-ending girl hunts. It's generally agreed that Urusei Yatsura's opening run is comparatively weak, but I'd extend that a bit beyond the usually cited twenty-week run in which each episode was split into two mini-stories. I reckon it took about sixty episodes for the show to work out what it was doing and build up enough of a supporting cast to be consistently funny.
However that said, Urusei Yatsura at its best is like nothing else on Earth. It probably has one of the wackiest supporting casts in, um, fiction. My favourite is Asuka the Armoured Girl (debut: episode 132), who has super-strength on a par with the Sensational She-Hulk or the Thing and yet is terrified of everything that moves. She thinks all men are savage beasts except for the angelic creatures known as big brothers, who are to be worshipped, cherished and cuddled when naked. Incest gags, you gotta love 'em. This is a major problem for her brother, if only since Asuka might break every bone in his back just by hugging him too enthusiastically. Even if you watch nothing else, watch all of her episodes.
Ryuunosuke (debut: episode 63) is pretty much the entirety of Ranma 1/2 in one supporting character. She's a girl, raised as a boy by her pathological liar and lunatic of a father. Ryuunosuke thus yearns for nothing more than flowers, pretty dresses and girliness, yet is also a violent lout who talks like a thug and is always having fist fights with her dad. Then there's the fox. He's lovely. He adores Shinobu, of whom more later. What makes him special is that foxes in Japanese folklore are magical shapeshifters, so the poor lamb will disguise himself as other people without realising that he's still only one foot tall with a visible tail.
I could go on like this for ever. It's particularly interesting to watch the characters evolve. Mendou starts out as a hypocritical rich kid, basically a more handsome and plausible version of Ataru. However over time he grows phobias and psychological disorders, until by the end he seems to think he's a reincarnated samurai or something. Oh, and when I say "rich kid", I mean "has more money than God and basically runs his own private country, complete with armed forces". Then there's Shinobu. In the first episode, she's merely Ataru's long-suffering first girlfriend. She's a normal girl. Unsurprisingly as "the normal one" in Urusei Yatsura, she's regularly driven beyond all human endurance and becomes capable of picking up passing cars and trucks like the Incredible Hulk in a schoolgirl uniform. What's amazing about this development is that it's invisible. It just gradually happens, as if the show drifted into it without realising. There's no single episode you can point to in which Shinobu suddenly becomes Superman.
If there's a theme to all this, it's to do with the gap between people's true selves and the more respectable face they present to the world. This particularly applies to femininity. Thus you'll have culturally specific characters like Ran, the appallingly cutesy-wutesy bimbo who talks in a voice that makes you want to strangle her just to make her shut up. Japan is full of girls like that. You have no idea. The difference with Ran is that underneath the pink fluffiness she's a raging psycho who'll repeatedly try to murder the other characters.
Some of its funniest episodes come when people try to do something normal and simple, but are defeated by being trapped in Urusei Yatsura. I think the show hooked me around episode 65, around which point the odd episode would start exploding out of nowhere and blowing my mind. Ataru and Lum were starting to resemble a married couple in little telling ways, but more importantly the show was becoming more of an ensemble piece. The supporting cast developed. Shinobu gave up on Ataru and became interested in Mendou. I also started noticing just how many horror parodies the show was doing, with comedy versions of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Ten Little Indians, Friday the 13th and more. Episode 139 and the disturbing tomato lovers is a better horror film than many real horror films, despite the comedy music during the chainsaw chase.
This show's extremes are almost out of control. Their baseball pisstake (episode 70) raises sleaze to an art form, but then episode 78 is like the Twilight Zone with an ending that's almost disturbing. The first of the show's two directors was Mamoru "Ghost in the Shell" Oshii, by the way, who would turn the show into arthouse freakiness with the second movie, Beautiful Dreamer. Some of the insanity on display here can be best described as inspired. There's eye-popping childishness. There's furious invention spiced with hypocrisy, stupidity and lechery, at the end of which they don't always even bother with a reset button. Instead they'll merrily go berserk with madness upon madness until the credits roll. Oddly enough, this works. We see Lum as a toddler, with access to alien technology and prone to such endearing habits as firing anti-tank missiles at their robotic teacher and stranding him on a deserted planet. We have magic mushrooms. Yes, it's what it sounds like. We have Tom and Jerry laws of physics as Ataru goes around hitting a fire-breathing baby (Ten-chan) with a frying pan at every opportunity. We have... you know, if I don't stop, I'll be here all night.
The animation in the early episodes is cheap, but it improves later. Eventually the show's doing all-out battle scenes and insane chases that would be the envy of a conventional action anime, but then every so often they'll pull it all back and do a moving love story. Over time they also build up a little library of incidental music that never fails to make any scene twenty times funnier.
Occasionally there's even nudity, with nipples. Of course we're talking about a cartoon here, but you still have to admire the principle. Episodes 53-54, for instance.
Urusei Yatsura isn't for everyone. Many have tried it and gone away confused or uninterested, especially if they weren't Japanese. It has that lacklustre opening run, it's inconsistent and sometimes it's just plain impenetrable. What the hell is episode 55? Somebody tell me. Even for me, there's such a thing as too much weirdness. Its highs are unbelievable, but just as often it's merely loud. It doesn't really have a story or non-accidental character development. It also has a horrifying lead character and a deeply subversive vein of humour in which all men are bastards and women are often mentally unbalanced. This is not an uplifting moral tale.
If I hadn't known of its historical importance, I don't know if I'd have stuck with this. However it's undeniably unique, creating a universe that I'd call one of the most distinctive and odd in SF. It spawned anime's most varied and interesting movie series, taking the show at times into outright arthouse territory, and a series of OVAs. It was truly revolutionary in its willingness to parody Japanese culture so completely and in all the ideas and character types it introduced into anime's meme pool. When they say of a modern show that, "It's been done before and better," odds are it's by Urusei Yatsura.