Urusei Yatsura: Behind the Anime

By Andrew D. Johnson, with thanks to Rumiko Takahashi

Slick Narrator: It was the breakout anime hit of the '80s, the cartoon smash that captivated millions of people throughout Japan, and eventually helped introduce Americans and Europeans to dazzling Japanese cartoons, popularly known as "Japanimation" and "anime". It also helped bring its green-haired extraterrestrial female lead, Lum, to worldwide movie and musical stardom.

But behind all the fame and fortune, things were not quite well with the cast of the hit Japanese series, "Urusei Yatsura".

Ataru (20 years older and middle-aged): You can probably guess my medical bills were rather high from that show. My health insurance record was so bad, they didn't even let me in the building!

Shinobu: It was just so hard to find work after that series! I was turned down for the roles of Ukyo in "Ranma ½", Skuld in "Oh My Goddess", and Miaka in "Fushigi Yuugi". I mean, it was probably because not many directors want to hire someone typecast as a mentally unstable second banana, but I think they were also kind of afraid that I'd hurl a piano or something at them when they made me do something over again.

Mendo: I hated that series. Every freaking part of it. I mean, I told everyone I wanted to develop my singing career, yet that stupid show kept me down and didn't give me any breathing room at all! Gah! Get that camera out of my face! I need some time alone.

Narrator: The series may have fond places in the hearts of most Japanese people who came of age in the early and mid '80s, and of most Western anime fans, but ultimately the tale of the cast themselves is one of substance abuse, betrayal, and the alienation of fame. Tonight on "Behind the Anime": Urusei Yatsura.

(The "Behind the Music" opening theme starts playing, over flashing negative versions of various scenes from "Urusei". Some words run across the top of the screen: Dream, Fame, Success, Money, Groupies, Drugs, Arrests, Downfall.)

Narrator: The story of "Urusei Yatsura", or, loosely translated, "Those Annoying Aliens", begins here, in the bustling Tokyo suburb of Tomobiki. (The camera shows a panoramic view of the city below.) It was here, in the fall of 1977, that the life of 16-year-old Ataru Moroboshi, then an ordinary schoolboy, changed forever.

Ataru: Well see, I was just walking to school one day, when suddenly this huge tiger-striped spaceship comes out of nowhere! (Ataru is standing on the street in Tomobiki where it all happened.) Then this bright light shines down on me, and next thing I know I'm inside this spaceship! I was pretty scared then, so I asked their chief, "Who are you? What do you want with me? And where are you from?" I was obviously afraid they would dissect me or at least.you know, probe me where the sun don't shine! (Laughs.)

Narrator: Of course, the purpose of the alien's mission was rather different.

Ataru: And so then they tell me, we actually want to both experiment with alien-human breeding and conquer the Earth by mating a female alien with a human to produce a half-alien baby and propagate. I was obviously hesitant at first, but then they showed me.her.

Narrator: "She" was Lum Invader, princess of the Planet Uru in the Andromeda Galaxy. Her race called themselves the Onis, perhaps because of their resemblance to traditional Japanese demons by that very name. Like Lum's race, mythological Onis are said resemble fearsome monsters, dress in tiger skins, have fangs and horns, and fly. However, Ataru, always having a strong libido, fell madly in love with her.

Ataru: It was like, damn. You know how sometimes you see a girl or guy, and you just know they're the right one for you? Well, Lum was sort of like that. I say "sort of" because (starts laughing again) at that time my dream in life was to become the Japanese Hugh Hefner. (Cue "Theme from Shaft" as background music.)

Narrator: Of course, there was a catch.

Ataru: Well, I guess you know what happens next. We had to have a tag game to test my worthiness as a suitor. If I won, I Lum would be my girl. If I lost, Lum's family would have me for dinner, and I don't mean TO dinner.

Narrator: Ataru was given a day to chase Lum around her ship, but one thing he hadn't bothered to check out; Lum could fly.

Ataru: So the first couple times, yeah, I was kinda scared. But of course, it would get uglier later on, after the tag game.

Narrator: But later, Ataru finally got lucky. (We see a reenactment of the two playing tag, in slow motion.) He found a patented Urusian plunger gun, fired at Lum's bikini top, and tore it off.

Lum (1982 interview, giggling): I'm sorry, I laugh every time I remember this. So there I was topless, and he threw my top over his shoulder, and (HA HA HA!!!) grabbed my horns. I thought, omiGOD what a man, and it was right then that I decided I wanted him to be my "Darling".

Narrator: In just the nick of time, Ataru had won the match. But there was still one more catch.

Ataru: And so then, Lum tells me, "Whee! I'm gonna marry you, Darling!" And I'm like, "Whoa! I mean, you're cute and all, but I don't believe in steady relationships!" And so she refuses to even let go of me for the next week!

Shinobu: Ataru and I were dating at the time, and I wanted to go steady, so that was obviously the end of us. (Giggles)

Narrator: But it was the start of an adventure that would involve most of the rest of their lives. It seemed that Lum, once she moved into Ataru's house, set off a chain reaction that would make the once-ordinary suburb of Tomobiki a capital of weirdness. For instance, a couple months after Lum's arrival, two new faces arrived at their high school, Shutaro Mendo, heir to an industrial empire and the richest boy in Japan, and the sickly school nurse Sakura.

Sakura (smoking a cigarette): I had plagued by disease demons all my life until I met Mr. Moroboshi. It seemed that all his inherent bad luck acted as a magnet for my diseases, which left me cured and completely healthy. (Coughs.)

Narrator: And then more aliens began arriving, such as Lum's cousin Jariten, and childhood friends Ran, Benten, and Oyuki. Benten was one of the "Luck Deity" race, Ran was one of Lum's species from Uru but of a different race, and Oyuki was the princess of Triton, Neptune's icy moon. Eventually, though, Ataru began to feel as though the overbearing Lum was crushing and manipulating him, and constantly tried to escape her. But he was "shocked" to discover that Lum was serious about their relationship. (Show a clip of Lum shocking Ataru.)

Ataru: The first time I felt like I was gonna die. But then, you know, you kinda get used to it, like in a sauna.

Narrator: Their real-life antics amused tabloid-readers and talk show- watchers throughout their native Japan. So much so that in the summer of 1978, a 21-year-old manga, or comic book, artist named Rumiko Takahashi, looking for a new idea for a series, came calling on the Moroboshis.

Ataru's Dad: She couldn't have come at a better time. My idiot son was going to have to repeat at least two more years of high school, and since Ms. Takahashi promised us a quarter of the royalties, we could finally help pay off our mortgage, plus rebuild our house after all those times Lum wrecked it!

Narrator: Rumiko set to work, cranking out one 15-page strip a week, and "Urusei Yatsura" premiered in Shounen Sunday magazine in September 1978.

Shinobu: I thought- wow! I'm drawn into a manga! The only problem is, she made my butt look big! (Bursts out laughing.)

Mendo: As a rich elitist, at first I was against selling ourselves out like that, but then, when all the women started asking us for autographs.heh, heh.

Narrator: The manga became phenomenally popular, and the real-life hijinks of Ataru, Lum, and the gang added fuel to the fire. Of course, some changes were made.

Rumiko: Well, you probably know that in the debut strip, I changed some elements to make it more.exciting. For instance, I dragged the tag game between Ataru and Lum out over a week instead of just a day, and instead of the Onis eating Ataru if he lost, they would take over the world. I think it made the story all the more interesting, don't you? And then the idea that Ataru never wanted Lum as a girlfriend at first, so Shinobu would dump him. As an author, you have to think in the long term; how some action in the present could cause endless problems in the future.

Narrator: By the beginning of the 1980s, "Urusei Yatsura" was one of the most popular mangas in Japan. Sure enough, in 1981, a producer from Fuji TV, one of Japan's largest television networks, came to Rumiko with an offer to produce an sitcom based on her comic. She introduced the concept to her protégés gently.

Ataru: So she comes up to us and asks, "How would you guys like to be TV stars?" And I said, "Oh, no way! I'm gonna follow my boyhood dream to become Tokyo's best squid gutter!" Ha ha! I mean, c'mon, who wouldn't want to be a TV star if given the chance?

Shinobu: Yes ma'am! Let's get this show on the road!

Ataru's Dad: Well, since we were the stars, we'd be getting all of our share of the pay! So who wouldn't want to follow up on an offer like that! The only thing I was worried about was if any tension would come up between Lum and Shinobu regarding all the affairs I'd had with them since Lum moved into our house. So, when does that camera come on? Ohhh... Uh oh.

Narrator: Tokyo's Kitty Studios set to work on taping the show in the summer of 1981, and the first episode of the TV series premiered on Fuji TV on October 14, 1981, in the 7:30 timeslot.

Ataru: I was worried that the network execs distrusted the show and wanted to kill it. I mean, we showed in the same timeslot as "Mobile Suit Gundam" and "The Love Boat".

Narrator: Whether the network wanted to kill the show or not, the show was an instant hit. By mid-season, in January 1982, the show was Japan's Number 1 program. The gang from Tomobiki had become unlikely superstars.


Ataru: Man, I couldn't believe how sweet life had become. We were on Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, "Celebrity Jeopardy"- we just had a golden touch. Sometimes it was great to be up that high.and sometimes it was awful.

And later: Shinobu (voice cracking a bit): We got 50,000 letters a day from all over the world, and all of them were addressed to Lum, Lum, LUM!! I think there were something like FIVE for me all the time the show was on!

Benten: I took one look at Lum, and.her skin was just hanging onto her like cloth. Those dark circles under her eyes, and the needle marks on her arms.I told her, Lum honey, you've gotta get help.

Narrator: When "Behind the Anime" continues.