This, roughly speaking, is the other half of my “Anime Fandom in North America, part 3”. The first half was the column on the “real robot” anime TV serials.
The “teenagers from outer space” genre consists almost entirely of a single program, Urusei Yatsura. It was so massively popular and influential that it practically fills the 1980s all by itself.
Urusei Yatsura began as a weekly manga by Rumiko Takahashi in 1978. The tankubon paperback collections began in 1980. The TV animation began on October 14, 1981; I am guessing that the C/FO did not start getting video copies until early 1982. Those were “raw” copies from Japanese TV; untranslated. We had to guess what was going on, but it was clear enough from the visuals alone; and it was hysterically funny. By the time that new Urusei Yatsura animation was finished in 1991, there were either 195 or 219 TV episodes (the first season consisted of two fifteen-minute stories per half-hour episode, so the discrepancy depends upon whether those are considered as one or two episodes), six theatrical features, and nine OAVs. And tons of merchandising. Takahashi, who had begun as a shy early-20s cartoonist, ended as the richest woman in Japan from all the royalties pouring in. (By the time the Urusei Yatsura animation ended, Takahashi had already gone on to Maison Ikkoku, Ranma ½, and other creations, all of which brought additional floods of royalties.)
The plot follows (usually comically) Ataru Moroboshi, an oversexed Japanese high-school student; Lum, a cute space invader; and their friends, families, and acquaintances. Initially, Earth is confronted by a massive flying saucer, the forerunner of an invincible fleet. They have come to add Earth to their space empire – but their laws say that if their champion can be defeated by the invaded world’s champion in one week, they will go away peacefully. Their super-computer has picked Ataru as Earth’s champion, and Lum, the leading invader’s teenaged daughter, is their champion. (Typical Japanese nepotism.) Ataru wins by a typically Male Chauvinist Pig ruse, but Lum misinterprets his victory as a proposal of marriage. She insists on staying on Earth, moving into the Moroboshi household as his fiancée, and enrolling in Ataru’s Tomobiki High School as a fellow student.
One of the reasons that Urusei Yatsura remained so popular was that it was constantly growing and expanding. Ataru’s classmates and teachers were slowly added. Lum’s teenage space friends joined her on Earth, one by one. When Lum first moved in with the Moroboshis, Ataru’s mother cowered before her. By the time a year had passed, she was treating Lum like a daughter. In one episode around 1982 or ‘83, when a neighbor cowers as Mrs. Moroboshi used to do, she does a double-take and says to herself, “It’s true! You really do get used to anything.”
Urusei Yatsura also wittily equated the space invaders with familiar Japanese mythological characters. Lum’s family and the main space invader army were traditional oni demons with horns and fangs. Lum had cute little horns, but her father was not something you wanted to encounter alone at night. Lum’s space friends were thinly-disguised Japanese goddesses and supernatural beings, such as Princess Oyuki of Neptune = an icy snow maiden; Ran = a hone-onna, a beautiful succubus; Benten = Benzaiten, the Shinto goddess who protects Japan; etc. Many episodes sent the American fans to the books on Japanese history, mythology, or culture to find out who a new character was a pastiche of; or to the language books to find out what a visual pun meant. Other ingroup jokes were that “Ataru Moroboshi” literally means “to be struck by a falling star”, indicating the character’s constant bad luck. In the contest in the first episode, the number 4 on Ataru’s sports shirt is the Japanese equivalent of 13, the bad-luck number.
Ever since Uchu Senkan Yamato, we tried to translate the titles of each new series to be aware of what we were really watching. Urusei Yatsura was the first title that really flummoxed us. We ended up translating it as Those Obnoxious Aliens or Those Annoying Aliens, but we were aware that neither translation did justice to the really horrible Japanese slang/pun. There is a Japanese phrase, “urusai yatsura”, meaning “obnoxious people”, but “UruSEI” means “the planet/star Uru”. “Urusei” alone means “Shut up!”, usually shouted. “Yatsura” is derogatory slang meaning bums, jerks, nogoods, worthless people, etc., so “urusei yatsura” roughly means “those worthless jerks from the planet Uru”. When we were asked what the title really meant, we translated it loosely as “those lousy aliens from the planet Uru have moved into our neighborhood, and the property values have gone to Hell”. Significantly in retrospect, the mild arguing over whether “Urusei Yatsura” should be translated as “Those Annoying Aliens” or as “Those Obnoxious Aliens” was indicative of the later serious feuding within the C/FO that wrecked the club.
Urusei Yatsura was For Us. Previous Japanese TV cartoons were subsidized by their sponsors through the toy sales, which usually meant the parents buying the toys for their children. Urusei Yatsura’s fans were teenagers and young adults who bought their own merchandise: manga volumes, video games, videos (a tiny percentage of sales; videos were really expensive in Japan), and above all, records! The TV animation was produced by Kitty Films (actually subcontracted to Studio Pierrot), a subsidiary of Kitty Records, which was itself a subsidiary of the Kitty Music Corporation. Instead of pushing toys, Urusei Yatsura was aimed at pushing pop songs that the teen market would hopefully buy as records. While other TV anime programs started with one opening credits sequence and theme song and stuck with it through the end, Urusei Yatsura changed its opening every season to introduce and promote a new theme song, available on a single at record shops throughout Japan. The theatrical features had room for several songs.
Other examples of Teenagers from Outer Space during the ‘80s were surprisingly from America.
Galaxy High School. 13 episodes, September 13, 1986 to December 6, 1986 on CBS. The Japanese animation studio Tokyo Movie Shinsha (today TMS Entertainment) had opened an office in Los Angeles and was aggressively trying to break into Hollywood’s 1980s TV cartoon market. It had already produced the 1984 Mighty Orbots. TMS was aware of the popularity of Urusei Yatsura with Japanese teens, and pitched a similar series for American TV. Technically, Galaxy High was a reversal of the plot; two human high school students amidst alien teens at an interstellar high school. CBS bought the basic concept and assigned Chris Columbus to develop it and write the first episode. Two American teenagers, Doyle Cleverlobe and Aimee Brightower, are selected to attend Galaxy High School on the asteroid Flutor. In their American high school, Doyle is a hotshot sports star while Aimee is a brainy wallflower, but at Galaxy High, Doyle’s conceitedness makes him unpopular while Aimee’s friendly attitude makes her very popular. Aimee shows Doyle how to made friends by joining Galaxy High’s psych-hockey team as a team player instead of a glory hog. Other galactic students, all comically alien, are the class president, Milo de Venus (instead of no arms, he has too many), Gilda Gossip (mouths on six weaving tentacles over her head), Booey Bubblehead (a girl with a big transparent bubble for a head, so everyone can see how empty it is), and Creep, a shy, yellow, marshmallowlike flying alien with a big crush on Aimee. The teachers and staff of Galaxy High were equally bizarre. Chris Columbus reportedly named Doyle, Booey, and Aimee after his brother and sisters. Despite being very popular, CBS did not renew it. (Probably because it did not have any merchandise.)
Teenagers from Outer Space. This was a role-playing game, published by R. Talsorian Games on February 1, 1987. Mike Pondsmith, a leading developer of new RPG games and the founder of R. Talsorian Games, was a big anime fan. He developed Mekton, featuring giant robots and admittedly heavily influenced by Mobile Suit Gundam, in 1984. In late 1986-early 1987 Pondsmith developed Teenagers from Outer Space, inspired almost entirely by Urusei Yatsura. A second edition in 1989 was a bit more generic, with some influences of Galaxy High School. (There was a third edition in 1997.)
So that is Anime Fandom in North America, part 3, second half. For the record, there was a Teenagers from Outer Space 1959 black-&-white horror movie that had no influence on any of this. The 1959 movie is a Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorite, although it was never a very serious horror movie in the first place. To close, here is the complete Urusei Yatsura 3 theatrical feature, from 1985 when Lum was a fully-integrated student at Tomobiki High School.
I have more columns planned about early Japanese animation, but I am taking a break to talk about recent American animation developments for the next couple of weeks.