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Urusei Yatsura: OAV boxset

creator: Rumiko Takahashi

343 minutes (12) 1981-6
MVM DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
This set is the perfect way to encounter the tail end of a cultural phenomenon. Manga artist Rumiko Takahashi began her most successful and famous series Urusei Yatsura (trans: 'Those Obnoxious Aliens') in 1978 and it was quickly animated. 26 years later, fans are still thronging associated conventions, whilst it would be surprising if any admirer of anime could not recognise and name its most prominent character, the leopard skin bikini-clad Lum the alien. The first TV series to be based on the original manga ran for 216 episodes lasting from October 1981 to March 1986, and even included a season when the somewhat cerebral director-artist Mamoru Oshii (Avalon, Ghost In The Shell) was involved. There then followed six equally successful animated feature films and finally eleven OAVs (original animation videos) - with which Takahashi became gradually more and more dissatisfied, before she eventually ended the run. This set consists of those last OAVs and in a way it is a shame that it is not the feature films which is on offer (although they will almost certainly appear), as their extended format and higher budgets are more satisfying for casual viewers unused to the TV series' byways and running jokes.

The convoluted and increasingly surreal Urusei Yatsura storyline concerns the tempestuous relationship between two focal characters: Ataru Moroboshi - "possibly the most unfaithful, unlucky and lecherous idiot to have ever been born" and Lum - the bikini-clad-alien package of sex appeal, jealousy and electricity, who's in love with him. Lum has a number of unusual abilities, the most obvious of which is her power to fly (she's often levitating just above ground level) and a habit of throwing around high-voltage electricity when miffed. She's the daughter of a mighty space warlord, leader of a race called the Oni. In Japanese mythology, the Oni were evil demons, often depicted with horns and tiger-skin clothing. Lum herself has a cute little pair of horns and, naturally enough, the striped beachwear with it to prove her lineage.

The series chronicles the misadventures of these two stubborn teenagers, along with a veritable entourage of super-weird characters including Ten, Lum's diminutive cousin and the super rich Mendou, rival for Lum's affections. Lum originally came to earth as part of a group of conquering extraterrestrials. After a tag-race (sic) to decide the outcome of the invasion, during which the fool Moroboshi was somehow chosen to champion his species, Lum thought the unexpectedly victorious Earthling was proposing to her, and the comedy action never looked back. Naturally a good deal of what during the series includes parody of the science fiction genre, but in interview its creator has mentioned that she thinks of the show as being foremost a comedy. One of the things that made it so beloved of its fans, and enabled it to maintain such a momentum over so many episodes, is that it also pokes fun at much more than genre conventions: from film and television clichés to ancient legends and lore, as through its run it dragged in love triangles, fantasy, mythology, high school life, sexual politics, pop culture and much else. One specific inspiration for the show is arguably the American sorcery sitcom Bewitched, which also aired in Japan for many years.

Like any other long running series however, the narrative began to show strain towards the end of the run, and while the animation reached a peak of excellence during the last few TV seasons as well as in the movies (of which this reviewer at least has fond memories), the ensuing OAVs show an increasing drop off in quality. Having said that, for admirers this set will prove indispensable viewing, for it conveniently gathers together what proved to be the third and last stage of the saga in one place. Others, perhaps coming new to the series, once they adjust to the exaggerated humour and antics of what's on offer, will find a good deal of the imagination and gusto of the show intact. The episode Inaba The Dream Maker for instance, spins a witty variation on Alice In Wonderland, whilst on the same disc one of the funniest segments of all, Rage! Sherbert, includes an amusing slapstick chase sequence through the skies above Tomoboki Town. By the end of the second disc the strains are beginning to tell; starting with the strange Goat And Cheese, the episodes start to lose continuity and use varying animation styles that don't quite gel with Urusei Yatsura's established manner. The wonder is not that the series managed to pack so much into one successful format, but that it managed to keep it up to popular success and for so long.

Western viewers will find some of the humour a matter of taste. It hardly needs emphasising in these post-Overfiend days, but the anime universe encapsulates a wide variety of styles, theme and talent, ranging from the sexual excesses of hentai, through to the political deliberations of such films as Jin Roh, the poignancies of Grave Of The Fireflies or the apocalyptic vision of Akira. Urusei Yatsura has a peculiar flavour of its own, which has no doubt contributed to its continuing longevity. Beneath its crazy, adolescent surface a bewildering range of influences and throwaway references produce an in-your-face cultural commentary all of their own which means that some shows, at least, bear second or third viewings. But such referencing, which can be dense or fast moving, and with the added handicap of subtitles, means that an exact western audience is in some doubt. Too slyly sophisticated and too specifically Japanese for most children to enjoy, while uncomfortably suggestive of a throwaway children's cartoon for many adults to sit through without guilt, one wonders just how many units will be shifted in the UK outside of the specialist anime lovers market.

Each of the discs covers three or four episodes with chapter index, and includes all 11 OAVs. The accompanying PC-CD is especially useful, as it puts some of the series in context, although its breezy communication preaches to the converted, and makes light work of the cultural barriers awaiting any casual viewer of the set.
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