Urusei Yatsura (Complete OVA Collection) Review
Urusei Yatsura is the archetypal early 80s animé series, and remains – two decades on – one of the most popular shows of its genre. The very first animated offering by the redoubtable Rumiko Takahashi (an endless font of creative and well-beloved stories, including Maison Ikkoku, Ranma ½, and the recent sensation of Inu Yasha, whose finale only just aired last month), this is a tale of a beautiful alien princess, a lecherous young man, and how volatile a mix the two can be when brought together.
More specifically, Urusei Yatsura concerns the invasion of Earth by a race of space beings known as the Oni. ('Oni' actually means 'demons'; it's Takahashi's way of slipping in some humorous allusions to mythological characters and situations familiar to the Japanese. Not unlike the 'oni' of old legends, the extraterrestrials who come to take over our planet in this show are horned creatures wearing tiger skin outfits.) But despite their vast technological superiority, the Oni don't want it said that they didn't give us puny Earthlings a chance... so they randomly select one human and present him with a simple challenge: if he – in ten days of trying – can win a game of tag, the Earth will be spared.
Alas, then, for the Earth... because the one chosen to save it is none other than Ataru Moroboshi, a lecherous wastrel without a single noble bone in his body. So spineless is he, in fact, that for a while it looks doubtful that the government will even be able to convince him to participate. But all that changes when he discovers the identity of his opponent: Lum, the lithesome daughter of the alien warlord. Motivated by no higher cause than getting his hands (even briefly) on her body, Ataru throws himself into the game. Unfortunately, no one mentioned that Lum can fly...
After nine days of futile attempts, each more desperate and inventive than the last (picture Wile E. Coyote trying to get his hands on the Roadrunner), Ataru has just about given up when his long-suffering girlfriend Shinobu tells him to buck up for the sake of the planet, and that if he wins she'll marry him. All fired up at the thought of his impending wedding night, Ataru comes up with one last scheme that's foolproof. (No, I won't tell you what it is; you'll have to watch the TV series to find out!) But in his glee at the unexpected victory, he shouts out 'Now I can get married!' and Lum, misinterpreting this as a marriage proposal, promptly takes him up on it.
That of course is merely the set-up for an extremely entertaining series of events. Shinobu having to suffer the ignominy of having Lum move in with her erstwhile boyfriend, Ataru's parents seeing their home regularly demolished by the never-ending stream of alien visitors come to check out the 'happy couple', and every boy at Tomobiki High School scheming of ways to get rid of Ataru and/or get Lum for himself are recurring themes. The cast size quickly snowballs, adding a number of key regulars, including Ten (Lum's brattish fire-breathing cousin who takes an immediate dislike to Ataru), Rei (an old food-obsessed suitor of Lum's who has a disturbing tendency to shapeshift from a handsome young man into a giant layabout tiger-beast), Mendou (a suave, sophisticated, and very rich classmate of Ataru's who wants our 'hero' out of the picture), and many, many love triangles to the already bizarre storyline.
The public's craving for Urusei Yatsura outlived the manga [Japanese comics] (which made it to 34 collected volumes), the original TV series (numbering around 200 episodes!), and no less than 6 feature films, so over the years 11 more OVAs [original video animations, each generally just under a half-hour in length] have been undertaken to sate the hunger of the UY fandom. It is these 'single-serving' instalments that have been gathered together by MVM for this welcome DVD box set release.
Considering that the TV series was broadcast from 1981-1986, some may fear that these OVAs (from 1985 to 1991) may make too many references to the weighty body of material that preceded them to be enjoyed by the casual (or even first-time) Urusei Yatsura viewer. I'd like to put such fears to rest; even the rawest UY neophyte will find the OVAs pretty easy-to-follow (or at least, as easy-to-follow as any story gets in this surreal universe of Takahashi's). Even though they tend to feature most of the recurring cast, fear not, for the web of relationships is fairly straightforward to infer from the context, so it's all more or less self-explanatory. It would be shame if you felt put off from watching these excellent encapsulated episodes by the notion of having 'missed' the TV series that went before it.
On a side note, Western fans have been waiting a long time for this, and it comes as a bit of a surprise to see the UK get the first whack at it for once. Usually, because of the larger prospective market in the USA, animé series tend to get snapped up, licensed, translated, dubbed, and released Stateside and only later given R2 distribution. For example, MVM is the official UK distributor for AnimEigo titles, and when I first received these screener discs I dutifully searched online for information regarding the R1 version so I could offer some comparison of features... only to discover that this collection isn't currently available in America at all! (However, before you lot mark this down as a win for Ol' Blighty, I should point out that I eventually turned up a press release by AnimEigo stating that they were in pre-production of the R1 Urusei Yatsura OVA collection and that it would be available by first quarter 2005. This sounds ominously like they may be working up something extra-special, in which case any die-hard UY fans out there may want to cool their jets a bit and see if the US release turns out to be superior to this R2 one.)
Episode Guide (and Potential Spoilers)
Just for reference, the OVAs aren't presented in actual chronological order on these discs. If you're keen to watch them in the order of their original broadcast dates, it is: 'Ryoko's September Tea Party', 'Memorial Album', 'Inaba the Dream-Maker', 'Raging Sherbet', 'Nagisa's Fiance', 'The Electric Household Guard', 'I Howl at the Moon', 'Goat and Cheese', 'Catch the Heart', 'The Terror of Girly Measles' & 'Date with a Spirit'.
1: 'Inaba the Dream-Maker'
Notable for the appearance of a new recurring character (OK, so he only shows up once again, and only as a cameo in another OVA, but hey), this episode is vintage Takahashi. Inaba, who's job is to work with a bunch of weird bunny creatures (no, really) that inhabit a dimensional nexus called 'subspace', ends up losing a key that can unlock doors to alternate realities... which promptly falls into the hands of Shinobu, Ataru, and Lum. Over the course of this longer-than-usual OVA the gang discovers more about how subspace works, and – even with the posse of vengeful rabbits from the Destiny Production Management Bureau hot on their trail – manages to visit a number of alternate futures, some more sobering than hilarious.
2: 'Raging Sherbet'
Ataru and Ten are stuck in a stuffy room together in the worst of the Tokyo summer heat. The reason for this is because Lum, Benten, Oyuki, and Ran are off to view Oyuki's new business idea... a 'sherbet ranch' on Neptune, where these weird 'sherbet birds' thrive. Ran immediately gets the idea to make some money by taking one of the sherbet birds (in an air-conditioned cage, of course) to Earth to sell infinite numbers of sherbet cones to overheated customers. Warned strenuously that the bird must never leave its cage lest it get upset, off Ran goes with the bird, hoping to make enough money to get a date with Rei... which generally means buying the tiger-boy lots of food. When the bird's air conditioned cage starts to break down in the overpowering summer heat, things start to get out of control.
3: 'I Howl At the Moon'
When Lum chances upon Ran taking great pleasure in feeding Rei her delicious cherry rice cakes ('sakura-mochi'), she asks to borrow the recipe to make them as a treat for Ataru. Of course, airhead Lum accidentally punches the wrong code into Ran's electronic cookery book and flies off to make Ataru a very different culinary concoction. (As Ataru himself later points out, the gourmet specialties of Lum's homeworld tend to affect humans a bit oddly.) Ataru and his teacher, 'Onsen-Mark', begin to turn into wolves in short order. 'Tsukimi-dango' is what Lum actually made, and now has to get the antidote to both Ataru and Onsen Mark before 24 hours have passed!
4: 'Catch the Heart'
When a strange entity gives Ran a basket of heart-shaped sweets that cause a magical heart to pop into existence over the head of whoever eats them, she runs off to feed them to her beloved Rei (as she's been told that whoever catches the floating heart will likewise capture the affections of the person who ate the sweets). Too bad that Rei is such a glutton that he not only devours each sweet but also the magical heart that appears above his own head! When Ran tosses the basket aside in epic frustration and Lum picks it up, events are primed for merry mayhem as everyone begins to realise how this game works and tries to be the first to grab each other's hearts.
5: 'Goat and Cheese'
The inevitable 'scary' ghost story episode. While the gang are visiting the Mendou estate, they chance upon an odd statue of a goat up on the hill. He explains that it's a likeness of his great-grandfather's goat, and that terrible things will happen to anyone photographed in front of it. Well, with a set-up like that, you can bet that the very next thing that happens is that the whole group is captured on film with the goat looming eerily in the background! The backstory is particularly amusing, not merely because it draws upon a well-known Japanese superstition, but because it highlights how mental Mendou's family really is. (Compare with the Kunou family in Ranma ½, which shares many of the same characteristics.)
6: 'Date with a Spirit'
Not the strongest OVA on these discs, this one deals with Ataru's infatuation with a lovely ghost who has (with very little provocation) decided to attach herself to Sakura's fiancé, Tsubame. While Sakura tries to control her vexation, the gang try to figure out what's the young ghost's story.
7: 'Terror of Girly Measles'
In a tongue-in-cheek meta-reference to animé character designs, this episode sees Ten (and through him, Ataru) coming down with a contagious alien disease which makes the victim's eyes turn big and twinkly (you know, like the heroines of 'magical girl' animé shows). Ataru, apparently unable to understand the concept of 'quarantine', continues girl-hunting all over Tomobiki and infects other guys along the way. A particularly funny bit occurs when Ryuunosuke (a girl who, for reasons we won't go into, tends to dress and act like a boy) begs Ataru to 'infect' her so that she can get 'girly eyes' and look more feminine.
8: 'Nagisa's Finance'
When Ryuunosuke and her father open an inn on a remote island, the whole gang come to visit, thinking it the perfect excuse for a holiday. But when they get there, they realise the place is haunted and the only reason they were able to afford the inn was because he bought it for 300 yen!
As it transpires, the ghosts haunting the island are actually Ryuu's dad's best friend and his daughter Nagisa, who perished not long before. Nagisa and her dad were trying to perfect delicious 'sea urchin shaved ice', and of course died after consuming a large quantity in the search for the perfect recipe. This episode has a very Takahashi twist ending which I'm sure you'll appreciate. (Hint: as it turns out, Ryuu's and Nagisa's fathers had agreed when young men to marry their children together someday.)
9: 'The Electric Household Guard'
Saizo (an old geezer who has served as the Mendou family's ninja in the past) brings round his grandson Shingo to take up the mantle and serve young master Mendou. Which would be all fine and well if only Shingo didn't immediately fall head over heels in love with Mendou's manipulative sister, Ryoko. (And yes, it's really interesting to see Takahashi establishing character archetypes that she refines and reuses in later series. You could change Mendou/Ryoko to Kunou/Kodachi and have the exact same story work fine in the Ranma ½ universe.
10: 'Ryoko's September Tea Party'
If you haven't seen much of the Urusei Yatsura TV series before this, well, here's your chance. Basically the obligatory 'filler' OVA consisting primarily of flashbacks, this episode probably consists on balance more of cut scenes from the TV shows than of new animation.
11: 'Memorial Album'
Another 'heavily padded' OVA, this one operates under the premise that the Mendou family's personal satellite (yes, they're very wealthy), apparently kitted out with an AI system, has been watching their antics from beyond the atmosphere all these years and can give a clear perspective on what they're really like. However, something seemed vaguely wrong with both the audio and video in this last episode; the former was kind of murky and the latter is very obviously pixellated.
Presented in the standard 4:3 TV aspect ratio, it has to be said that the video quality here is a bit iffy across the board. The second disc in particular had many fleeting 'glitches' apparent which there were no scratches on the screener disc to excuse. Also, during an early episode on the third disc, there was a very visible burst of macroblocking that I was able to get to repeat consistently... and, as mentioned before, the final OVA ('Memorial Album') looked bad all around.
Also detrimental to the picture quality is the presence of hard subs throughout. Not only are the English subtitles burned into the video masters (so no, you can't turn them off), but they are also almost always overlaid directly on top of the Japanese text, so that there's no hope of reading the original credits even if you knew Japanese. This is an absolutely horrible decision and I can't believe a company experienced in the distribution of animé made such an obvious error.
While the audio won't precisely have you jumping for joy, it's at least not seriously flawed like the video; it's merely very rudimentary. Although my DVD player identifies the soundtrack as Dolby 2.0, considering the vintage of the earlier OVAs, I wouldn't be surprised if they were originally recorded in mono and just split into matched stereo feeds. A little lacking in the bass department, there's nothing actually wrong with the music or the dialogue here... but the sound on this box set does have the disadvantage of being only available in the original Japanese language. This is something of a rarity nowadays, as animé has become popular enough as a genre that most Western distributors pay to have an English dub of their properties produced prior to DVD releases. In fact, the best thing about the audio on this box set is probably the various fun remixes of the opening theme tunes presented across the eleven OVAs.
The disc menus here are incredibly basic, consisting entirely of deathly-silent, static screens... and not even featuring particularly nice artwork. Each menu offers only two options: 'Play All' & 'OVA Index'. And that's about the size of it. There are no special features whatsoever on the three DVDs in this box set, so if you're looking for extras, you'll need to pop the included CD-ROM into your computer drive.
Unfortunately, the content of this final disc is less than inspiring. Essentially just a collection of HTML pages covering a very small slice of Urusei Yatsura lore, this feels like a half-hearted attempt at providing some additional content without putting any real effort into it. Numerous grammatical and spelling errors are present in the content on this disc, which is also disappointing.
The 'Characters' section is meagre, only covering 5 characters from the Urusei Yatsura universe (Lum, Ataru, Shinobu, Mendou, and Ten), despite the fact that – being a collection of OVAs – the material on the preceding three discs naturally features a vastly expanded cast of recurring characters (Ryuunosuke, Benten, Ran, Oyuki, Rei, Tsubame, Sakura, Cherry, Onsen Mark, etc.) that should have been included here also.
'We Love Lum' is a one-page fan piece with a bit of useful info regarding the main character of Urusei Yatsura, but it's mostly stuff that will already be known by all but newcomers to the show.
'About Rumiko Takahashi' does the same again (albeit at marginally greater length) for the world's most famous mangaka. There are a fair number of interesting tidbits on Takahashi-sama here, so it's a vaguely worthwhile addition to this disc.
'Other MVM Titles' showcases three of MVM's other animé properties: Fruits Basket, Tenchi Muyo, and Kiddy Grade.
Finally, 'The UK Animé Club' is merely an advert for Animé Connect.
All in all, if you're looking for a vastly more-detailed background on the wonderful, wacky world of Urusei Yatsura, you'd be better advised to pay a visit to the superb Web site Tomobiki-cho.
Well, the strengths of this box set certainly don't lie in the video, audio, or extras. However, you shouldn't let the extremely basic treatment this DVD release has received dissuade you from seeing this great set of OVAs, several of which are absolute gems with most of the rest being still of excellent quality. If you've enjoyed any of Rumiko Takahashi's other works (or are just a fan of witty comedy animé in general), then I can wholeheartedly recommend this collection.