That was a pleasant surprise. You see, I'd been led to believe that the quality of these deteriorated as the series went on, but in fact they hold up very well. They're more consistent than the Urusei Yatsura movies, that's for sure. The only real difference between these and their parent TV series is the variation in art styles over the years and I only had a problem with that in episode 9.
I'd been expecting the different production teams to struggle to capture the Urusei Yatsura spirit, but no. To me they all feel true. I think that's quite an achievement, actually. Obviously some are funnier than others, but that's inevitable when you've got a series as uncontrolled as this one. It also helps that most of them run under half an hour, which is the right length of time for the gang to get in, wreak havoc and get out again without having to worry about movie-length stuff. The first two are just under an hour each, but after that they tend to run to 25-26 minutes.
One trivial point involves the theme music. The first episode came out during the show's run and just uses the themes being used at the time. Inaba the Dreammaker has original songs, but then the next four episodes have this Frankenstein's arrangement that tries to hammer together lots of different themes from the show and is remarkable mostly for its singer's pronunciation. You see, there are quite a few bilingual Japanese musicians who'll use English in their songs, but also plenty more who deliver it like Daleks but don't let that stop them. In this particular case, we have a singer of the latter kind who's included two lines from a song that really needs bilingual delivery. Whoops. After that, the producers just start using existing theme tunes from whatever era they've decided to run with this week.
Apparently these episodes are more faithful to Rumiko Takahashi's original manga, which can be detected in both the art styles and the characters who appear. Thus you'll get relatively little of Lum's Stormtroopers and a surprising amount of Sakura and Tsubame as a couple, for instance. It's made clear that they're unofficial versions of Takahashi's own Kyoko and Godai from Maison Ikkoku, incidentally. All that's interesting too. Going through the episodes in the order I watched them:
1. RYOKO'S SEPTEMBER TEA PARTY (48 minutes, 1985)
It's a clip show. You know, one of those money-saving episodes with a framing story and then a bunch of highlights from earlier in the series. This one involves Ryoko inviting most of the female cast members to a tea party and getting them to tell stories about themselves. It's a fairly neutral framing story that for the most part isn't really trying to make you laugh, although I'd personally find Asuka the Armoured Girl funny even if she was reading the telephone directory. I did enjoy the climax of gratuitous sadism, though.
The clips themselves tend to be taken from someone's debut episode. Ryoko gets two clips and is funny in them, because she's a psycho. Shinobu's clip involves the tiny shapeshifting fox who's in love with her and that's merely charming. Ryuunosuke's good, as always. Criminally, Asuka doesn't feature. All that's fine, but then we get a clip with Ten's mum and a rather poor attempt to give us the gist of an entire episode (a Ten Little Indians parody), in both of which cases you'd be better off watching the originals.
2. INABA THE DREAMMAKER (57 minutes, 18 July 1987)
Copes well with its length, I must say. Shinobu meets Inaba, a boy in a rabbit suit who happens to be employed by the Destiny Production Management Bureau. Soon she's visiting her own possible futures. You might think you can guess where this is going, but in fact the story doesn't spend as long as you'd think on the obvious gags. There's a theme, you see. It's about learning to accept what's around you instead of blaming the world and projecting it all on to fate, other people or your ludicrous sexual fantasies. We meet Inaba's co-workers, who also for no obvious reason wear bunny suits. At one point they're about to execute Inaba and so Shinobu naturally goes all Incredible Hulk on them. That was funny.
This is quite a gentle episode, funny in places but also sweet. It has some nice character bits and introduces Inaba, who I believe in the manga eventually became Shinobu's boyfriend. He makes cameos in a couple of later OVA episodes, for instance going on a date with Shinobu in Raging Sherbet.
3. RAGING SHERBET (26 minutes, 2 December 1988)
Oyuki has invented birds made of flying sherbet and Ran has a plan for them. Yes, it's the show's scariest (but most polite) character versus its most raging psycho. It's a fun episode, but somehow I expected more of a rampage from the sherbet. I liked the episode's first half best, I think, but the ending has a whopping great fanservice shot of Benten and Ran in the bathhouse, complete with nipples. That surprised me.
4. NAGISA'S FIANCE (26 minutes, 8 December 1988)
Wow oh wow. Never has it been clearer that Ryuunosuke and her father were the inspiration for Ranma 1/2. There's a screaming plausibility gap in the episode (why didn't Ryuunosuke say that sooner?) but this point is crucial for the story structure and at least the episode makes some kind of effort to address it. For me, this was the funniest episode of all of them. What a bunch of loons. Imagine a psychotically delusional monomaniac and his unwillingly gender-bending daughter, then bear in mind that that's merely the established starting point of the episode. By the way, this is also a ghost story.
5. THE ELECTRIC HOUSEHOLD GUARD (25 minutes, 21 August 1989)
An episode centred on the Mendou family estate, starring Shingo. Who's that? Why, he's the electricity-drinking retarded Tarzan dude we previously met in episode 192. It wouldn't hurt to rewatch that before starting on this episode, which can be slightly disconcerting in the way it treats him as a regular cast member. The plot is random gibberish, but that's Urusei Yatsura for you. More importantly it's also funny, helped a lot by the presence of Kyoko. This time she has grenades.
6. I HOWL AT THE MOON (26 minutes, 1 September 1989)
Lum cooks. Need I say more? This time Ataru turns into a werewolf. It has its laughs, but it ends up being a Lum-Ataru episode and thus more about exploring their relationship than about getting wacky.
7. GOAT AND CHEESE (26 minutes, 21 December 1989)
Oddly enough, much more of a horror story than the werewolf episode. There's a killer ghost goat. As a story about the Mendou family and what complete bastards they all are, it's hilarious. As a horror parody it's a bit too wilfully stupid, although on the upside there is an expensive-looking Godzilla action sequence.
8. CATCH THE HEART (25 minutes, 27 December 1989)
Ran makes some candy which makes a red heart blink into existence above your head. If anyone grabs this heart, you'll immediately be in love with them. I think you can see where this is going. This is where I thought the OVAs started overusing Urusei Yatsura's comedy music, but it's another good episode.
9. TERROR OF GIRLY-EYES MEASLES (25 minutes, 21 June 1991)
This is the one where I didn't like the art style. You see, catching the Girly-Eyes Measles will turn your eyes into cliched manga pools of super-cute, approximately one-third the size of your head. You know, as you get all the time in shoujo anime. This is an awesome idea and I love it to pieces. Unfortunately they seem to have decided it wouldn't have worked with Takahashi's slightly cartoonish style and presumably for contrast have changed the visuals to something that I find cheap-looking and wrong. I must admit that the new Lum fills out her bikini slightly better, though.
As for the story, it's clearly been long enough since the TV show ended that they think it's worthwhile throwing in lots of one-shot cameos for minor cast members. However apart from all that, I like the episode and I love the central idea.
10. DATE WITH A SPIRIT (28 minutes, 21 June 1991)
The last proper episode, since Memorial Album is another clip show. Oddly enough, the series finishes with something that's more like a normal story than a random roller-coaster of destruction. Tsubame and Sakura (again) find their relationship put under strain, this time by a ghost girl called Maiko who's latched on to Tsubame and won't let go. This gets played more realistically than you'd expect. However my favourite bit in the episode is the life-and-death climax, in which Ataru and Mendou have latched on to the "life-and-death" bit and are thus trying to murder each other.
11. MEMORIAL ALBUM (28 minutes, 1993)
Another clip show, but completely unlike Ryoko's September Tea Party. This time they're doing something with it. The framing story involves a communications satellite which is gaining self-awareness and using its memories to learn about loneliness, love and the meaning of existence. Instead of just lots of comedy clips, here we see Sakura being crucified, the regulars as superpowered androids, boys dressing up as girls, the earth in the sky and of course a big disco number. It's funny and good to watch on a "turn off your brain level", but it's also something of an existential experience. I really liked it, actually. I can't remember ever seeing another clip show quite like it.
Overall, I thought this was good stuff, which is always a slight surprise for Urusei Yatsura. The show can be brilliant, but you never quite know what you're going to get. However when it comes to these OVAs, don't listen to the nay-sayers.