Manga Review: Urusei Yatsura Volume 1

11 mins read

Review by Clark A.
Rumiko Takahashi is one of Japan’s more prolific manga authors, cranking out long-running hits for the entirety of her adult life. The likes of Inuyasha left an impact on western audiences back in the early 2000s. Her earliest hit, though, the science fiction-romantic comedy Urusei Yatsura, is now over 40 years old and could use that recognition from a younger audience.
Despite its age, Urusei Yatsura is worth seeking out. The first volume of this re-release sets the tone for a transcendent manga with influence on decades of media.
The mere existence of Ataru Moroboshi, the most lecherous and ill-starred high school student on earth, seems to attract supernatural phenomena. That escalates to a new level when tiger stripe-obsessed alien invaders challenge him to a duel with the fate of the world at stake. His mission? Grabbing the horns of the bikini-clad alien princess, Lum. Determined to grab other things at the behest of his own “horn”, Moroboshi pursues the flying gal with mastery over electricity. It takes his childhood friend, Shinobu Miyake, proposing to him to sufficiently psyche himself up. Upon saving the world, Lum misinterprets his desire to marry Miyake as a proposal to herand falls in love instantly.
From here we get a sort of twisted harem story that, at times, almost reads like a response to future writers in the medium. Rather than focusing on the romance and tantalising the audience with “will they/won’t they” pairings, you have a pervert actively pursuing them and being rejected (or waffling back and forth depending on his idiocy). It’s a far cry from many modern manga, wherein the nondescript protagonist passively manages to a cult of women around him. You’d think the skirt-chasing Moroboshi would be sold on a loyal and attractive princess who forgives his folly, but her personality and otherworldly baggage make him hesitant. Or maybe he’s just too sick.
In this introductory volume, audiences get a taste for the type of nonsense the denizens of Tomobiki Town are subjected to. Watermelon-eating imps emerging from mirrors, intergalactic taxi drivers siphoning oil as payment rather than cash, and ramen-eating tigers begin to seem like natural occurrences. The opening chapter doesn’t beat around the bush, effectively establishing the setting and characters from the first few pages. You get a decent read on who the characters are and they’re already being thrust into comedic situations.
Individual chapters usually have a three act structure conducive to casual reading but the plot threads, new characters, and general progression carry over. The events that play out are simple enough to digest despite the absurdity. It’s how Rumiko Takahashi depicts them that give them hilarity and substance, though. As a result, you’ve got a formula where anything can and will go down. The characters don’t necessarily evolve to the extent witnessed in more modern romantic comedies, however, so the relative predictability can weigh after a while. It’s best enjoyed a chapter or two at a time, savored to appreciate every minute intricacy that makes those chapters unique.
Adding an extra layer to Urusei Yatsura’s jokes is its use of Japanese mythology, linguistics, and cultural references. This is something Takahashi has regularly incorporated into her works, including the aforementioned Inu Yasha. Some are famous enough worldwide to catch immediately like the three wise monkeys reference in chapter 7 or the English version of the word game Shiritori in chapter 9. Not every pun or double meaning lands flawlessly due to the nature of localisation and cultural inside jokes, but some can be intuited via context. I caught the kanji for back luck or evil appearing in Sakuranbo’s soup, no doubt foreshadowing the peril about to befall Moroboshi, but the dialogue would have covered it anyway.
Thankfully, Viz also includes an appendix for some of the references as well so the cultural barrier is by no means impenetrable. The comedy has enough slapstick, charm, and inherent surrealism to carry it, but it might even spark an interest in further reading for those looking to get the whole picture.
The manga’s characters in particular transcend the language barrier. Moroboshi is unabashed about his laziness, selfishness, and perversion. He’d be thoroughly detestable and unsavoury in the real world. As a caricature of a high school ne’er-do-well, his antics are amusing and his trickery inspires a begrudging respect. Much of his charm probably derives from the smirks and mischievous mug shots Takahashi’s art bestows upon him. When he’s thrust into unlucky events, it feels like his comeuppance rather than mean-spirited abuse.
Lum is comparatively saintly, even putting aside that bias-inducing character design. She’s honest with her emotions and devoted to Moroboshi through thick and thin (to a fault perhaps, considering the apple of her eye). Her simultaneous intellect and naivety is logical given her alien status. When she’s angry and destructive, it feels justified enough; she’ll electrocute Moroboshi for his lechery but also those who would berate her sweetheart. She even winds up saving the earth despite once being the invader.
The supporting cast keeps things fresh throughout too. Moroboshi regularly finds himself caught up in love trianges (or whatever misshapen love polygon the plot demands), but there’s plenty besides love interests. The obnoxious monk Sakuranbo is a regular, inspiring irritation from all those around him as he “helps” deal with the supernatural. The responses to Moroboshi’s tomfoolery from his parents are often hilarious, particularly when they wind up caught up in his antics. The worst you could say is that the characters are a bit formulaic in their reactions and behaviours here, but there’s more to the gags and plots than that. It’s also counteracted a bit by the ever-expanding residents of Tomobiki. Even if some are one-note, they serve their purposes admirably or have interesting relationship dynamics with others.  

Though not a seasoned veteran at this point in her career, you can discern how Rumiko Takahashi’s expressive characters and transitions from panel to panel reveal the strength of manga as a medium. This original version of Urusei Yatsura actively benefits from not having the fluidity of movement the animated equivalent does. Some manga struggle to find that equilibrium between conveying information effectively visually and textually, but you can tell Takahashi’s talent from chapter one. Being a comedic manga first and foremost gives this one a certain license to be extra expressive, I’ll readily admit, but she takes full advantage of it. As well, her simple yet detailed backgrounds instantly transport you to the space she’s depicting.
Not every slapstick beating of a character needs motion lines and not every joke needs a grandiose multi-panel buildup. Takahashi orchestrates various visual ploys to diversify her jokes and invoke a sense of suspense or surprise accordingly. You’ll miss gags just drifting from text bubble to text bubble. Sometimes the funniest ones simply appear without any real acknowledgement from the characters. An incompetent monk studies American sci-fi in order to send an imp home, an idiosyncratic background character walks through the street carrying a cat by the tail, and the streets of Tomobiki are flooded in fire safety signs after the world is briefly flooded in oil. The flexible pacing of manga versus anime better lends itself to these understated chuckles. As a side note, even if you’ve seen the anime, there’s quite a few differences and stories you won’t find there.
The bonus material encourages an extra appreciation for the series. Quotes from Rumiko Takahashi herself, esoteric statistics on how many times Lum has used her electric attacks, and details about Tomobiki Town’s weather all deepen the connection to this fictional universe.
Some might claim Urusei Yatsura’s art style is “dated” or get intimidated by the series’ length, but I implore remotely interested parties to give this jumbo re-release a chance. Most anime and manga fans have probably tasted a little of it vicariously, what with its influence spilling into every entertainment industry under the sun. Deceptively clever comedy injected with a proud Japanese heritage makes this an enjoyable history lesson.  

– Clark A.
Anime Editor

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