Over two years after the Urusei Yatsura manga was first published, an animated television series based upon the manga was developed by Kitty Animation and made its network television debut on Fuji TV at 7:30pm on October 14, 1981. So influential did the show become, that it helped change the face of anime.
With the popularity of the manga behind it, the show became an instant success. It was brought to life by a staff who would later go on to become some of the most respected names in the anime industry. Most notably of this group was director Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor 2, Jin-Roh) whose special touch transformed the familiar world of UY manga into something uniquely his own. This is the series that would cement his standing as one of the top directors (animation or otherwise) in Japan.
Under Oshii and his talented staff at Studio Pierrot, the anime became a very different experience than the gag and slapstick style of the manga. For the first season, each show featured two frantic 12 minute episodes back to back. Soon after they changed the format to one single episode that lasted for the full half hour. With this change the creators were given liberty to expand episodic nature of the manga into something less hectic and more story-oriented. Eventually this lead to a style that was more moody and dramatic. They also focused on characters that previously weren't central to the original stories. The show used a striking visual comedy style that bore little resemblance to Takahashi's style but rather the comedy instincts of the animators (less slapstick, more intellectual topical humor). However, unlike other adaptations where the animators have the gall to butcher the original source to satisfy their own egos, Oshii's Urusei Yatsura was actually equally as good as the manga, but in its own unique way. While there were plenty of misfires, in many cases the animators had even improved upon the original.
At the start of the TV series, there was a distinct kiddie-show feel to it. With bright colours, simple animation, cute character designs and a bouncy, silly musical score it belied its subversive nature. The subversiveness of the show was that it had very adult, sophisticated humor and complex scripts yet retained a child-like feel that might suggest a kids show. But watch one of the early episodes and you'll see how strangely grown-up it is, despite appearances. Partly because of this, the series immediately gained a massive following in both kids, and young adults. During this time the popularity of the TV series lead to the production of the first Urusei Yatsura movie titled "Only You." An old-Hollywood big production style sci-fi romance extravaganza, the movie was an extraordinary success and cemented UY's place in Japanese pop culture.
This child-like style of the early episodes eventually faded part way trough the second year when a more mature and expressive style gradually emerged. It was at this point when we can see that Mamoru Oshii's trademark style began to show itself. At this point, the animators were so familiar with these characters that they would often create entirely new stories for the show that still managed to be faithful to the characters and the spirit of the manga. Some of the best episodes from this time which included episode 75 "And Then There Were None" and episodes 105 & 106 "Scramble! To the Rescue of Lum!" and "Fight to the Death! Ataru vs. The Mendo Brigade!" were original creations from the animators. Far more dramatic and less comedic than Takahashi's usual fare, but compelling television nonetheless.
The halfway point of the show was in my opinion where Urusei Yatsura really hit the mark of excellence. It was highlighted by the release of the second movie, Beautiful Dreamer. Considered by most to be the best movie of the series, and perhaps even one of the best anime films of the 80's.
The TV series also matched the same powerful presence of the movie and UY was at the height of popularity. But soon Mamoru Oshii left the staff of the show to persue other endevors, and Kazuo Yamazaki (Maison Ikkoku, City Hunter) took the helm as director.
Oshii leaving the show may have worried many, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Yamazaki's directional style combined with advances in animation of the time made Urusei Yatsura one of the most well animated programs of the era. To be honest, Oshii's style was weighing down the series and getting too arty for its own good. It was supposed to be a comedy series, but it often delved too far into the area of the existential or social commentary. Yamazaki brought it back to its roots and made a show that was pure enjoyment.
Yamazaki's Urusei Yatsura turned out to be far more faithful to the manga with stories that focused on the comedy that made the manga so beloved. While Oshii's UY had begun to become detached from the manga, Yamazaki's UY brought it back to basics. It was also by far more visually appealing than the earlier seasons had ever been. Yamazaki and his staff had updated the look of Urusei Yatsura to something that was pure eye-candy. Sharp, rich with colour and full of detail. This would later become the animation style of anime like Maison Ikkoku and Project A-ko. Yamazaki's UY was certainly some of the most beautiful TV animation of the time. So much so, that the early episodes of UY are almost embarrasingly poor in retrospect.
At the height of Urusei Yatsura's virtuosity, the 3rd movie was released and served to show how far the series had advanced visually. Not as artistically ambitious as the previous movies, but still a big box office success. The TV show continued to air on Fuji TV every Wednesday evening at 7:30 as it always had and its fan base was as strong as ever.
This lasted until March 19th, 1986 when the last episode of UY aired to make way for Takahashi's other series Maison Ikkoku the following week. While no longer the zietgeist it once was, Urusei Yatsura was still very popular with legions of fans. But since the staff of UY were going to be switching over to producing Maison Ikkoku, they decided it was as good a time as any to end the show.
To mark the end of the show, and Yamazaki's last treatment of UY, he directed and co-wrote the screenplay for the 4th Urusei Yatsura movie "Lum the Forever". An artistically ambitious movie, the meanings behind this dream-like movie are known only to Yamazaki and Toshiki Inoue (co-writer). However Yamazaki has gone on record to explain how he was exausted and disillusioned at that time and the movie became a commentary to otaku, that he wanted to tell them that life was too precious to be obsessing over some stupid animated show. It was a rather harsh way to say goodbye to the show, but it was a very well produced one at least.
After some time out of the spotlight the following year, an hour-long Urusei Yatsura TV special based upon one of Takahashi's longer story arcs, Inaba the Dreammaker. This show featured a very different style of animation from the TV show, yet a style that more closely resembled Takahashi's own drawings.
Soon the Urusei Yatsura manga was concluded and thus an animated version of the final storyline was put into production. This 5th movie was released in 1988 under the title Urusei Yatsura: Kanketsuhen (translation: The Final Chapter) and was shown in theaters as a double-bill along with the Maison Ikkoku Kanketsuhen. This movie proved the most faithful adaptation ever of Takahashi's Urusei Yatsura and a fitting good-bye to one of the most popular anime of the 80's.
UY was officially over by this point and if they left it as is, UY would stand as a near perfect animated series. Even so, in the years after the Final Chapter, it lived on in direct-to-video OVA releases. The early OVAs were all quite good, but after a few years they began to decline in quality and went through so many sets of hands that the animation style differs drastically from video to video. This was around the same time that the 6th UY movie was produced and released along with the first Ranma ½ movie in 1991. Somtime after that, Takahashi pulled the plug on any more animated adaptations of Urusei Yatsura. But with 195 TV episodes, 6 movies, 2 TV specials, 8 OVAs, and various video releases, Urusei Yatsura had an exceptionally good run. It still reigns as one of the pinnacles of 80's animation and a favorite among anime connoisseurs.
Current Availability of the Anime
In Japan during most of the 80's, Urusei Yatsura TV episodes were initially only available in a collection of "best of" video tapes that included only selected episodes. Later came the 50 laserdisc set which included the full series. Much later they were available as VCDs and are now available on DVD. Urusei Yatsura is also currently re-running on Japanese TV in certain parts of the country. Reruns in Japan aren't a common thing, so this speaks well of the lasting appeal of UY.
For the Japanese-impaired in North America who want to watch UY in English, North Carolina-based company AnimEigo has successfully subtitled half of the TV series (up to volume 25) 5 of the movies, and all the OVA series. They're a small company, but their subtitling is among the best in the business. They've done an incredible job translating UY, a series that has been deemed by some companies too difficult to translate. All of these releases are available on VHS, but recently they've also been releasing DVDs of the series and are already coming along nicely. Soon they're also planning to dub the series as well. All of their TV volumes contain 4 whole episodes. A really great deal considering most anime shows are domestically released with only 2 or 3 episodes per tape.
AnimEigo's Urusei Yatsura tapes were quite common during much of the 90's but they've recently become harder to find now with the North American anime boom of recent years. Now older titles like UY get lost in the shuffle, but they're still out there. With the new DVDs continuing to be produced, their fan base is starting to grow. Rentals may be easier to find now. If you can't find a store near you that sells or rents Urusei Yatsura subs/dubs, the most surefire way to get one without hassle is to order online from AnimEigo's web site. I've ordered from them myself many times over the phone as well as through their web site and I'm always happy with my order.
thing they don't have the rights to release is for movie 2, which is available
from US Manga Corps. This movie is also available both subtitled and dubbed.