Urusei Yatsura was the sci-fi Simpsons of ‘80s Japan. It was funny, clever, and creative to the point of insanity. It starred a sexy alien in a bikini. It was The Simpsons of Japan before The Simpsons had even aired in America. And by now, many people have forgotten it. Here's why it's time to rediscover the joys of Urusei Yatsura.
Urusei Yatsura was created by Rumiko Takahashi in 1978, who would later go on to create a few series you might have heard of, such as Ranma 1/2 and Inuyasha. But while Urusei Yatsura is still her best, funniest series - partially because of how weird and creative it was, and partially because she actually focused on comedy as opposed to an agonizingly drawn-out "will they/won't they?" romance - the anime was even better. Many of Japan's top comedy minds worked on the show, which ran from 1981-1986.
The story begins when the Earth is invaded by aliens with a penchant for tiger stripes. They have come to conquer Earth, but Earth has one chance - to beat the invader's beautiful, tiger-horned daughter Lum, in a week-long game of tag.
Ataru Moroboshi is the world's unluckiest and most lecherous high school boy, whose terror at being randomly selected to play the aliens in tag instantly vanishes when he realizes he'll be able to grope the curvaceous, bikini-clad Lum. This is, until, Lum revealed she can 1) fly and 2) generate bolts of electricity. Ataru fails pitifully for most of the week, earning the scorn of pretty much every single person on Earth; but the evening before the last day of the game, his long-suffering girlfriend Shinobu promises him she'll marrying him if he, you know, manages to save the Earth.
Thus buoyed, Ataru's lechery saves the day when he uses a cunning suction-cup gun to steal Lum's bikini top and grab her while she chases after it, screaming "Now I can get married!" …to which Lum agrees. Now Ataru has an alien living with him, who is determined to marry him, and mercilessly electrocutes him every time he hits on another girl (which he still tries to do constantly). Also, Shinobu is not pleased.
While most "harem" anime star a gaggle of girls who all love one milquetoast guy, Urusei Yatsura stars one awful guy and the parade of beautiful women he lusts after, be they aliens, creatures of Japanese myth, schoolmates, or more. But the reason I call it the Simpsons of Japan is that, besides the object of Ataru's very wide-spread affections, Urusei Yatsura developed a giant cast of well-rounded characters that allowed for a variety of fantastic, hilarious tales. Here are just a few of them:
• Mendou, the son of the richest man in Japan, whose class, wealth and arrogance hides a heart just as lecherous as Ataru's
• Cherry, the incredibly obnoxious, terrifyingly creepy Buddhist monk who seemingly lives solely to make Ataru even more miserable
• Ten, Lum's bratty, fire-breathing cousin who loathes Ataru
• Ran, Lum's super-girly best friend whose split personality plots revenge for Lum constantly throwing her under the bus when they were children
• Kurama, the human queen of the crow-like Karasutengu aliens, who is forced by her planet's law to marry Ataru after he woke her up with a kiss
• Rei, Lum's ex-fiancée, who's a super-hot guy who turns into a terrifying tiger-striped-bull thing when angry, who is also obsessed with food and intensely stupid
And there are many more. Like The Simpsons, Urusei Yatsura could take any combination of these characters to create comedy gold, which they did, season after season. Every character was rich enough to be the star of an episode, and thus Urusei Yatsura never ran out of stories to tell during its five-year run.
But the other glory of Urusei Yatsura is the way it savaged Japanese culture, pop and otherwise, much like the best episodes of The Simpsons does with American pop culture. Whether it was retelling Japanese myth through its cracked, often sci-fi lens, parodying the apocalypse anime of the early ‘80s, or having an episode where Ataru accidentally summons the devil through his jogging routine (an episode which ends with Ataru and the devil both trying to pull each other's souls out through their mouths), anything could happen in Urusei Yatsura.
But most of all, Urusei Yatsura is genuinely funny. Like, hilariously so. And not just in an "oh, Japan's so crazy!"-type way (although, as explained above, it's certainly crazy). It could air on Fox or Adult Swim today and get laughs as is, I guarantee (although I'm admittedly biased, as I actually have an Urusei Yatsura tattoo). Alas, Urusei Yatsura is no longer available in the U.S. - neither the anime nor the comic. You can probably find some DVDs or the very few comic collections Viz released in the '90s, and you probably should. I mean, any anime where the entire cast actually develops a disease that gives them traditional giant, sparkly anime girl eyes is worth watching for that idea alone.