Only the heartiest of franchises can last through nearly 200 television episodes, a dozen or so OVAs, and 6 feature length movies. Urusei Yatsura is one, however, and it's a foundational comedy series upon which countless imitators have spawned. It made a sensation of its creator, Rumiko Takahashi, now one of Japan's wealthiest women. Even twenty years after its debut, despite aging source material and character styles, this show is a riot.
Meet Ataru Moroboshi...high school student, lazy slob, idiot by day, lech by night. Consistently unlucky, he's the kind of kid you'd have a hard time assigning to clean the bathroom for fear he'd somehow break the pipes. It's bad enough that aliens come to invade the planet, but it's even worse when Ataru is chosen as Earth's representative in a competition to determine the world's ultimate fate. Ataru's nemesis is Lum, a sprightly girl with little horns, a tiger-skin bikini, and the secret ability to fly. If Ataru can't catch Lum by the horns in three days, Earth is doomed. His occasional girlfriend, Shinobu, tells him that she'll marry him, but only if he wins--she couldn't stand being married to a loser.
Ataru does cleverly solve his dilemma and, amazingly, wins the contest. However, the entire time he's screaming about marriage, and so Lum believes that he wants to marry her. As the show continues through its zaniness, we see Ataru trying to set things right with Shinobu, who thinks that he's involved with Lum. And Lum, insanely jealous of that relationship, is more than willing to use all her powers to keep her "Darling" committed to her alone. When the supporting cast of wacko aliens and crazy neighbors shows up, all ready to pound on Ataru, Urusei Yatsura becomes a madcap blast.
The first season or so includes two stories per episode, generally following the plots laid out by Takahashi. About the second season or so, the team working on the anime started to break away from the manga and started creating their own stories, and this is the point at which the show really takes off. I'm not implying that the manga is bad, simply that the show grew immensely once freed from the shackles of telling pre-determined storylines. (It's best to watch the first episode, which lays the groundwork mentioned above. From there, you can skip virtually anywhere in the series, since characters often come and go at random anyway.)
Urusei Yatsura often uses a "throw in the kitchen sink" approach to comedy, blending broad physical comedy with immense amounts of wordplay, witty banter, puns, and parodies--even the title itself is a pun. Thankfully, its American distributor AnimEigo has compiled extremely helpful liner notes that explain many of the cultural references and puns that don't work in English. Obviously, this style of comedy doesn't necessarily work for everyone, particularly when you actually have to work to get the jokes. There are also a number of episodes that aren't all that humorous even when you understand it all. However, a good number of them make me laugh out loud often, and a few have had me in stitches. Don't let the rudimentary artwork stop you, either, because usually the show moves so fast you don't have time to notice.
The other standard that Urusei Yatsura sets is the foundation for the "ordinary guy stuck with extraordinary girl" scenario. Although star-crossed lovers are nothing new, anime has a habit of bringing together mortal men (or boys, more likely) with uniquely super-powered women. Whether that's a statement about gender relations in Japan, I don't know. What we do know is that UY started the trend. Countless other programs as varied as Tenchi Muyo, Oh My Goddess, Video Girl Ai, and Buttobi CPU all use the same formula. Some improve upon it, others merely copy it, but UY made it popular.
Ultimately, the television series is enjoyable, though vaguely unfulfilling at times. The characters do not grow over the course of the program--if they did, perhaps it would no longer be as funny--and certain concepts get tired, which is why it rates a B+ overall (despite having some excellent episodes). This was Takahashi's first major work, and it has flaws that aren't as evident in her later material. However, I really enjoy it and like it more than her most popular show stateside, Ranma 1/2.
Meanwhile, the UY gang continued on for some time in feature films and OVAs. The best UY films breathe new life into Lum and company by emphasizing story over pratfalls, particularly in the smartly told Beautiful Dreamer and the artsy brainteaser Lum the Forever. The same is true of the OVAs; most (but not all) have better production values and scenarios than the TV show. (You'll find longer reviews on the films and OVAs separately from the TV show here at The Anime Review.)
I think the best way to wrap this up is just to go back to what I wrote in my original pocket review. "It's just a completely crazy show...great explosive fun."
Urusei Yatsura TV -- mock violence, brief nudity in some episodes -- B+