Monday, August 30, 2010

Urusei Yatsura Volume 1

By Rumiko Takahashi. Released in Japan by Shogakukan, serialized in the magazine Shonen Sunday. Released in North America by Viz.

(n.b. - I'm going to be reviewing these volumes as they came out in Japan's V1, rather than in Viz's Lum Perfect Collection. Hence this review covers chapters 1-9.)

I've been reviewing Rin-Ne, and while I enjoy it, one of my complaints was that Takahashi had made her two leads far too nice. Sure, they're occasionally grumpy or protest when something stupid happens, but they're generally nice people. You can imagine hanging out with them. This is not Takahashi's usual schtick. She specializes in mining comedy out of horrible, unlovable people and making you enjoy it. So I thought I'd go way, WAY back to 1978, where she got her first big series for Shonen Sunday, which translates broadly as "Those Obnoxious Aliens".

It strikes me that while Takahashi is a household name, UY is not necessarily one, so I will give a brief summary. Ataru Moroboshi, a luckless boy trying to hold a steady girlfriend in cute but untrusting Shinobu Miyaki while still finding time to look at other girls, is picked to represent Earth against a race of invading aliens. He has to play a tag race against the beautiful oni Lum, and if he loses the Earth will get invaded and he'll be an outcast. But no pressure. Even worse, he wins, and through a series of wacky misunderstandings, Lum ends up thinking they're engaged. Now Lum is living with him, Shinobu hates him, and he *still* has his horrible luck ensuring that bad things happen to him every chapter.

It's immediately striking how simply awful the entire cast is. Ataru is the most sympathetic, and even that's just because of getting so much crap piled on top of him, not because of any innate likability. Shinobu is ready to mistrust him and storm off at a moment's notice, even when it's clear from his words and the scene in front of her that he's not guilty. Now, one can argue having read most of the series that she is justified in that Ataru is a perverted lech, but we don't see that here. We mostly just see a normal guy who occasionally likes to look at gorgeous women in a 'hey, hot babe' sort of way. The *real* Ataru only shows up in Chapter 8, which casually introduces space-biker babe Benten, where he drops everything and leaps up a tall pole to start macking on her. But in the first few chapters, it's actually rather startling to see Ataru trying to stay faithful to Shinobu, and her hair-trigger temper doesn't help in the least.

And then there's Lum. Oh my god, what a harpy she is in these first few chapters. The mind just reels. The oft-told story is that UY was supposed to feature Ataru and Shinobu as the main character, with Lum as the 'other woman', but Lum's insane popularity caused the editors and Takahashi to rewrite things to make Ataru and Lum the main couple. It's so often told that it reeks of publicity, but I'd buy it judging by this volume, where my main wonder is how Lum got so popular just from this. Must have been the looks and bikini, as she is awful. Clingy and jealous, with a hair-trigger temper even worse than Shinobu's, there's absolutely no question why Ataru wants nothing to do with her. (At one point, his parents are away from home, and warn Ataru not to try anything while home with Lum. He genuinely sounds annoyed they'd think that of him. Oh, Ataru, where are you?)

That said, the last chapter of the volume, showing Ataru and Lum having to deal with fallout from Lum's cooking (legendarily bad, in the best manga tradition) shows them bouncing off each other quite well, certainly better than he does with the normal Japanese girl Shinobu. I suspect this, more than any popularity contests, might be why Takahashi turned towards Ataru and Lum; they just click together.

There's a lot of the major cast introduced here. Ataru's horrible parents, Lum's gruff father, Ataru's 4 school friends (who Takahashi would quickly write out of the manga but who would be major characters in the anime - especially Megane). I'd mentioned Benten already, and we also meet Lum's handsome-sometimes fiance Rei, who cares only about food and drives Lum crazy because of this. (Seeing her dealing with a bit of what Ataru has had to suffer from her makes you feel warm and happy.) We see the Shinto priestess Sakura, who I'd actually forgotten had been introduced as suffering from various heart conditions, diseases, and maladies, all of which vanish after her introductory chapter thanks to Ataru's bad luck being stronger.

And then there's Cherry. I've been going on and on about how unlikable the cast is in this series, but every Takahashi series seems to have one character whose mere presence causes the reader *and* the cast to react in irritation and loathing. In Maison Ikkoku it's the freakish Yotsuya, in Ranma 1/2 it's the perverse Happosai. And here it's Cherry, the world's worst Buddhist Monk, a short, ugly man whose main job seems to be annoying Ataru as much as is humanly possible and leeching food off of anyone he can find. Every line of dialogue he utters, from his portents of doom to his ludicrously awful puns makes you want him to vanish and never come back. He will be with us through the entire 34-volume series.

I feel I should note that the series was quite a hit, and not just because of young boys looking at shots of Lum in her bikini. Takahashi creates horrible people and makes them suffer horrible things because she's an expert at making it funny, and this volume is funny. It's not funny in a way where you identify with any of the characters, or share in their pain. It's funny in a ridiculous, how-much-more-can-she-pile-on way, where you tune in next week to see if everything will finally snap under its own weight and fall into a pit. It is barely controlled chaos, right from Chapter 1. It's also laden with puns, as I noted before, both subtle and blatant. Viz does a fairly decent job of trying to find Western equivalents for most of the weirder ones (Cherry's are especially difficult to translate, as they're so genuinely bad.)

If you can track down a copy of the Lum Perfect Collection somewhere, I do recommend it. Especially if you only know Takahashi from her Inu Yasha and Rin-Ne series, this is a great example of what happens when she just pushes on the accelerator and drives the entire manga careening out of control from the start. Sure, the art is terrible compared to her recent work, but it has its own late-70s shonen charm. More to the point, UY was a big influence on a double-dozen other series, and you'd say it was a parody of the hot magical girlfriend series (Tenchi, Oh My Goddess) if it didn't come before *all* of them. Recommended with caution (UY can be hard to take, sort of like a loud Osaka comedian who can't stop), but still recommended.


  1. Ummmm...Yotsuya was my favorite of the comic relief characters in Maison Ikkoku. I mean, I hate his guts, but many of his scenes were quite simply the funniest in the manga. Also, wouldn't Maison Ikkoku be an exception to your theory of what makes a Takahashi series good? The main characters are likable, or at least have redeeming qualities (Except for Yotsuya). Well, maybe not in the first volume, but for me that was the low point of the series. But anyway...yeah, Urusei Yatsura!

  2. Maison Ikkoku was in a different magazine and written for an older audience. She toned down her slapstick for it, in my opinion. It appeared in the men's magazine Big Comic Spirits.