This Week: Urusei Yatsura: The Obstacle Course Swim Meet (Urusei Yatsura: Za Shougaibutsu Suieitaikai)
An alternative subtitle for this could be “How To Attempt A Reunion In An Incredibly Obtuse Fashion.”
Urusei Yatsura is one of those franchises that was around me a lot way back when, but I never actually made a dedicated watch of much of it at the time. I would catch a moments of one of the films here and there or see copies of the manga at the physical anime club I attended in the late ‘90s and early 2000’s, as the folks older than me liked it a bunch, but that was about it. Even so though, it is very difficult to forget a character like Lum, so I have still associated her with my image of anime as a whole.
Certainly cosplay of her tiger stripe bikini and go-go boots outfit is the kind of thing that gets a lot of iconic attention even today, and as a character she has incalculable imitators. Something I have been doing in the background these last few months is making a specific go through of the entire franchise as a part of a New Year’s Resolution goal. I have now made a hardline injection of watching all six films (to the point where I went on a Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer bender here just a few weeks ago), seen all the dozen or so OVA’s, and the TV series is… still a work in progress. We are talking nearly two hundred episodes of mostly episodic comedy content, so that is going to take some time. Half of the series had Mamoru Oshii as the Chief Director though, so it will get done.
Then there is this piece, from the It’s a Rumic World exhibition celebrating the long and influential career of original manga series creator Rumiko Takahashi. New (in 2008) Urusei Yatsura animated content seemingly falling out of the sky after a seventeen year break.
Which, for a series with an entire theme song about how weird space is, well, sounds about right.
As I have been doing this larger series marathon, I was most interested in how everyone would sound after hearing so much of their younger work so recently. Despite the almost twenty year gap, virtually every cast member reprises their roles.
Lum is still Fumi Hirano, Toshio Furukawa remains Ataru, Kazuko Sugiyama is still the eternally bratty Jariten, and so on. Even the voices for the Moroboshi parents and old man Cherry are back (whose voice actor, Ichiro Nagai, did happen to pass away this year on January 27th at the age of 82). The only missing returning part I can find is that of Ryuunosuke’s father, Mr. Fujinami. Their original voice actor is still alive though, so I’m not sure why they are the odd man out. Strangely, Mr. Fujinami’s scenes I feel got more attention than some others, given the slow motion effects and such used in them throughout an episode long running argument with his daughter / son.
If one was being really finicky, they all probably sound a liiitle bit off, but remarkably close to where they once were. And some of that may even be me second guessing myself in places. I mean these characters are generally hyperactive teenagers or young adults. It is not like Kiyoshi Kobayashi still voicing Daisuke Jigen since the 1970’s and gaining extra whiskey gravel weight in the meantime.
But everyone still pretty much sounds on the mark, which I found to be a delight. By far the kind of reprisal event animation allows for that is far more difficult to pull off in live action. A drawing of Lum is a drawing of Lum, after all, no matter how many years have gone by.
I feel as though the vast majority of the effort did go to tracking everyone down and getting them on board for the project however.
The scenario is just not all that interesting.
Go read the title again, and that is pretty much the entire plot. Go to school, and there is an over the top obstacle course to navigate so as to avoid a pile of punishment homework. It is the kind of thing where everyone gets to yell, scream, and shout some catchphrases, but that is about it. No space alien misadventures or spirituality and mythology mixups. Which really made this come off as rather, well… lacking, sadly.
I’m not exactly looking for anything high concept here. I mean previous adventures are about anything from birds of Neptune whose noses produce sherbert, boys catching a disease that gives them anime girl eyes, and a goat spirit who will kill you if they can eat your photograph.
Basically, what draws me to the series even today is things were weird (super weird, as the lyrics go), but there is a lot of imagination behind its doors that allow for visually appealing artistic and tone explorations. That these characters are so elastic that they can bounce between such diverse locations or situations. Yet feel wholly complete still regarding their motivations and personalities.
This half hour short kind of missed the boat completely on that front.
While everyone is clearly having a whole lot of fun being together again, they do not really have much of a script or situation to navigate so much as the glut of them are rattling off all their most remembered lines. And there really are probably way too many people crammed in here, but I do fully understand the reasoning behind getting absolutely everyone they possibly could and stapling them all into a new episode. It still seems a lot like a design by spreadsheet job though, reliant on just shuffling through obstacle course events alone in its attempt to stay “wacky” over a more inspired gig to explore.
It is especially odd to me that the project was handed to Yoshitomo Yonetani, who has no prior involvement with the franchise, while a number of the previous directors across the numerous films, OVA’s, and television work were still around and available. Certainly Mamoru Oshii would have probably been expensive (though he and Rumiko Takahashi rarely saw eye to eye anyway), but other options are plentiful. I mean, heck, remember Yume Tsukai which I wrote about a few weeks ago and came out just two years prior to what I’m writing about here now? Directed by Kazuo Yamazaki, who did the third and fourth Urusei Yatsura films and oversaw about the second half of the TV show after Oshii left. And other folks with directing experience elsewhere in the series had recentish works around the time of this special as well, like Satoshi Dezaki.
It seems like such a missed opportunity, to not have a returning director with production experiences of this cast from years prior leading this operation one final time.
So it looks like a Urusei Yatsura, and it quacks like a Urusei Yatsura, but is it a Urusei Yatsura?
Well, it does not quite walk like a Urusei Yatsura given the passionless direction, so it would be like a mechanical duck if you are following this tortured line of expression. It lacks much of the same self sustaining drive as what it is modeled after, and in parts is more akin to following form (catchphrases, etc) over function (pacing for why and when they were used).
But in the grand scheme of things, it is really no worse than a forgettable entry of a two hundred episode comedy television show. One just hopes for… something more, I suppose. That inventive eye for the fantastical spark from all those years ago that I find myself enjoying even today elsewhere in the franchise. With all the modern technology and the raw effort taken to get all this voice talent back together one more time backing it up, I do not think it is unfair for me to have dreamed. In all likelihood, this kind of reunion will not happen again.
As the new Sailor Moon series has taken the step of retrieving the original Usagi for the Sailor Moon Crystal revival, ideally it can learn some lessons from this one-off project. To use the positive aspects of that opportunity without succumbing to merely being either a lazy imitation or losing sight of what made its predecessors what they were.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.