Probably the most successful of the three "What The Hell Is Going On" Urusei Yatsura movies. It's arty, but it's also a properly structured movie that just happens to involve time loops, recursive space whatsits and nested dream states. It's also maybe a bit dull in the middle, but don't tell anyone I said that.
The film's secret is that it's directed by Mamoru Oshii, who'd been working on the TV series since the beginning but until now hadn't broken out all Oshiiish. He's best known for Ghost in the Shell and for being weird and experimental. I've been led to believe that these days this film is widely loved among Western anime fans, but back in 1984 it didn't go down too well in Japan. Neither Rumiko Takahashi nor the fanbase liked it. Oshii caught a lot of flak and ended up quitting Urusei Yatsura to go off and do other things, including a live-action film called The Red Spectacles (1987) which I've heard described as almost a remake of this one.
The film starts with the gang hanging out by the beach at a post-apocalypse Tomobiki, with the school looking as if it's either been nuked or abandoned for a couple of centuries. That's the pre-credits sequence. After the theme song, we return to something more closely resembling normality and it takes about half the film to get back to that point. This would be Urusei Yatsura "normality", of course. Tomobiki High School is having a festival and so the gang is turning their classroom into a Third Reich coffee shop, complete with a real tank from Mendou's private army. Megane thinks this is more tasteful than Ataru's harem idea. He might be right, but I spy a flaw in the logic. Naturally Lum and Ataru manage to turn this into a disaster, albeit a minor one by their standards, and soon everyone's having to stay at school overnight. That's the normal bit.
The weird stuff would include driving into town and finding that the population has been replaced by a truck of mannequins and four dancers with no faces. Surprisingly Mendou and Ataru don't seem too fazed by this. The first people to realise something's wrong are actually Sakura and Onsen-mark, the latter of whom turns out to be living in something you'd expect to find on Red Dwarf. Onsen-mark is soon hypothesising about the Japanese legend of Urashima Taro, which involves a turtle, a dragon palace and going back to your village to find that a hundred years passed while you weren't looking. Pay attention during this bit. A Japanese audience would have known all this since childhood, but for you it's more likely to be new. It's important because it becomes something of a motif, inspiring some wacky imagery that takes this way beyond your ordinary SF space-time loop story.
What's impressive is that this film has enough plot for me to have to be careful of spoilers. The problem is that much of the first hour does a pretty good job of pretending to be plotless. Oh, stuff happens. It's just that most of it tends to involve impossible space-time phenomena and so it might not even occur to you that the characters' actions could matter. Such an assumption would be wrong, mind you. Sakura makes a pretty good Hercule Poirot of the supernatural and the story is always moving forward somehow. Unfortunately most of the cast either haven't noticed or don't care, reacting to the weird stuff by goofing off or doing whatever comes naturally. Even when the world's ended, they just go swimming, rollerblading and fishing. That would be the dullness I was talking about. This film could be said to have a well-structured plot, but only if you don't care that for much of the time its developments have nothing to do with the characters. You could perhaps say that it's a kind of Fortean detective story, but if so, it's one where the detective isn't the most important character.
I suppose that's what they mean by "arty", i.e. not necessarily trying to be entertaining. I'm not simply being rude there, by the way. This is an interesting film that fully deserves its reputation, but don't go in expecting a rollicking laugh-a-minute crowd-pleaser. For starters it's not particularly funny, although it has its moments. Sakura is good for a giggle or two, but I had the most fun with Shinobu's super-strength.
Fortunately a villain turns up towards the end, which spices things up. Villains are fun. This one ends up pitted up against Ataru, which yields an assortment of dream states, including a harem. That was a good bit. Ataru may be an idiot, but he has a visually appealing taste in fantasies. There's a surprising amount of meat here underneath what could have been yet more random silliness, including philosophical discussions on the meaning of reality and another look at Ataru's strange mindset. I liked all that. It gives you something to think about, but it's also more straightforwardly entertaining in a "protagonist vs. antagonist" way and gives the film a satisfying ending.
Anime movies don't tend to be very good, especially when based on TV shows, but the Urusei Yatsura film series stands out as being strong and distinctive and this entry is a huge part of the reason why. I've seen it described as "David Lynch does Scooby Doo" and that's not a bad comparison. If nothing else, this film is beautifully crafted. The imagery is wonderful and Oshii often creates some startlingly dreamlike visuals. I was particularly struck by Lum walking on water, to pick but one spoiler-free example. It also has an explanation for all its events and you'll go away in the end satisfied that at least it hung together and made sense, in its own surreal way. It's not a character-driven film, but this cast are always going to have a unmistakable presence, no matter what. Whatever else it is, it's impressive.