I'm about to review a film that only a tiny proportion of the population should even consider watching. I know Urusei Yatsura pretty well and even I was confused. I know the characters, but here they're trapped in a chaotic impenetrable mess in which weirdness happens at random, there's barely a plot in any conventional sense of the term and reality is pretty much whatever the filmmakers want it to be. I dread to think what someone would think if they didn't have foreknowledge of the cast, since that was pretty much the one anchor that kept me going.
Of course all that's business as usual for an Urusei Yatsura movie, so I'd better go into more detail.
Urusei Yatsura, for those who don't know, is a Japanese anime series that began in 1981 and spawned 195 TV episodes, 11 video specials and 6 theatrical movies. The fourth one, Lum The Forever, was released around the time the TV series ended and the production team had planned to make more films, but the manga's creator Rumiko Takahashi hated this one so much that she refused to allow it. The fifth is an adaptation of her manga finale to the story, called The Final Chapter, and the sixth was a tenth anniversary special. To sum it up briefly, Urusei Yatsura is one of the most important landmarks in anime comedy and insane even by their standards. The first time I heard of it, the description was "what you'd have got if Douglas Adams were Japanese". It has a cousinly relationship with Ranma 1/2, another Takahashi comedy blockbuster, but Ranma 1/2 is fairly straightforward. Except for people changing sex or turning into animals, it's set in the real world. Urusei Yatsura however would happily do science fiction, Japanese folk legends, fairy tales, slasher movies or anything else that seemed like a laugh at the time.
You'll never have a clue what's going to happen in an Urusei Yatsura episode. Aliens? Axe murderers? Father Christmas? All of the above getting drunk together at a party on Lum's UFO? All equally possible. It's a crazed show, but over time it built up an impressive cast and became a classic. I'm not such a fan of its early years.
All that said, Lum the Forever might be the most impenetrable Urusei Yatsura film. Watch the others and you'll appreciate how scary a claim this is. For example, let me summarise the plot. Lum loses her alien powers, which might have something to do with Ataru cutting down a tree. There are film-within-a-film and dream sequences, then everyone fights a war. Anything else? No, I think that's it. Everything else you'll see is bizarre random shit. Nevertheless the weirdest thing about all this is the fact that everything still feels as if it might have some kind of meaning, even if it's only on a metaphorical or symbolic level. I loathe rubber reality stories in which nothing matters, but that's not what we have here. Well, not quite. Reality is as it should be. It's just that we're operating on Urusei Yatsura laws of physics, but even more so than usual.
Opinion is divided on this film: incoherent gibberish or a multi-layered masterpiece? However even had it been just an excuse for the animators to turn off their brains and go crazy, you can't deny that the wild imagery is effective. You may have seen trees being cut down before. You probably won't have seen the granddaddy of all trees spontaneously spray out a ring of fire around its base, destroy itself with acid and melt away to a series of wooden hoops sticking up from the ground like dinosaur bones. This film looks amazing. Watching it on drugs would be... actually, let's not go there. That's a scary idea. Forget I said anything.
The director Kazuo Yamazaki has said he made this film to tell the show's fanboys to stop obsessing over an anime and get a life. To quote him at the 1997 Anime Expo:
"Life's too precious to be wasted. That's the kind of message I put into the movie. But in retrospect, I think I made a mistake there and I regret it somewhat. The story I'd wanted to tell was about the Urusei Yatsura world, the Tomobiki-cho, being one living organism. Within that organism, the foreign object called Lum would be intruding. There was the process of the various immunological responses of the organism called Tomobiki-cho trying to assimilate Lum and the process of that turning into a synergy. I don't think I was as skilled back then when I made Lum the Forever. When it came out in the theaters, I bought a ticket and went to see the movie. And when the movie was over, I was leaving the theater and saw two boys, about 10 or eleven years old, come out looking rather disappointed, and one of them kicked the floor and spat. Hence I regretted what I made and I've sworn never to make a work that lacked entertainment value, even if it had a serious message in it."
Yamazaki wasn't just messing around but instead really was trying to say something with this film, but one unfortunate side-effect of that is that it's not very funny. Urusei Yatsura is supposedly a comedy! Ironically this film played best with the fanboys it was indirectly attacking, since they're the ones most likely to go the extra mile or ten required to extract some kind of meaning from it.
Trying to analyse its plot is pointless, but one can make some headway by trying to work out what the movie is focusing on instead. That would be Lum and the town of Tomobiki itself, which from Yamazaki's words above would be metaphors respectively for the Urusei Yatsura franchise and for real life. So as Lum's powers fade we see formerly infatuated classmates starting to take an interest in other girls. Note that at the end of the film, we don't actually see Lum return to normal but instead end on a fade-out of a TV screen that had previously held Lum's image. Meanwhile Tomobiki is defined and referred to in all kinds of ways, including both as a living being and as the sum of the people who live there. They forget Lum and grow up. They obsess over her and start a pointless war. In the end they succeed in resurrecting the past. I could continue and probably make this sound like a savage (and scarily accurate) indictment of fanboys everywhere, but at the end of the day it's just one possible interpretation. This is a film open to all kinds of readings, which admittedly in some people's opinions could be because it contains no meaning beyond that imposed on it by the viewer.
I've been harsh about this film, but there's a lot here I liked. The ending of the war is very Japanese indeed, which was interesting. I quite liked Lum being able to communicate with birds, which is quite sweet and also appropriate for the character. It's bizarre that the otherwise excellent animation fails when it comes to people spitting, though. Or maybe it's just the sound they're getting wrong?
At the end of the day, this is an art film in all the best and worst ways. It feels like an extended jam session after the animators lost the real script and had to piece together something from half a dozen films they had in the drawer, but it also has enough wild Urusei Yatsura energy to keep you watching anyway. I normally hate this kind of thing, but I was okay with it. Had anyone described it to me beforehand, I'd have been convinced that I'd be bored out of my mind. However had I been unfamiliar with these characters before I watched it, I suspect I would have been.