(Catch my review of Oshii’s early career HERE)
Anime director and auteur Mamoru Oshii began his career at Tatsunoko Productions in 1977 where he was mentored under that studio’s head director before making the move along with him to Studio Pierrot in 1980. There Mamoru Oshii helmed his first anime production as head director on the critically-acclaimed and beloved Rumiko Takahashi adaptation Urusei Yatsura (for its first 106 episodes). By 1983, the Studio decided it was time to make a bold move into the feature film market with an adaptation of a new story within the Urusei Yatsura universe. And Oshii was the obvious choice to direct the film.
The film follows the exploits of Ataru Moroboshi, a young earthling, who is inexplicably the love interest for one of the universe’s most eccentric, powerful, and beautiful woman: the Oni princess Lum Invader. This film in particular begins with an art nouveau sequence in which only reds, blacks, and whites are utilized to animate a sequence from Ataru’s deep past. Therein, he and a mystery girl romp about a playground together eleven years in the past. We learn that the little girl is from an alien planet, like Lum, with its own culture and practices. One of which, and the most important in reference to the events of this film, is the engagement ritual in which a young suitor steps on the shadow of his would-be beloved. This signals his interest in the girl and thereby engages the two, and as luck would have it, Ataru is a very mediocre kid with a very unlikely past indeed as he stepped on this girl’s shadow at that time.
Years pass, and we are thrown back into the current world of Urusei Yatsura wherein Ataru runs about whimsically avoiding becoming Lum’s groom at all costs and through any gambit he can muster up (understandable for any real high school kid being pursued romantically by an alien, but infuriating for any young weebs like myself who can only dream of such a glorious fate!). Where was I again? Oh yeah: a mysterious message is sent to practically every person who knows Ataru on Earth, which relates his engagement and immanent marriage to a girl named Elle. His friends, already jealous of Lum’s affections for Ataru, are incredulous that Ataru would go behind Lum’s back and get himself engaged to another girl. Ataru is confused as he does not remember the events of eleven years ago, and anyway would most likely find them banal and not truly pact-worthy in nature.
And yet, Lady Elle has grown into a beautiful young woman who now reigns as Queen over her subjects as the ruler of the largest and most powerful planet in the galaxy system. Ataru is smitten immediately, which serves as the film’s primary conflict for most of its 100-minute run time of wily adventuring, boisterous action, wry comedy, and occasional musical sequence (which are all done surprisingly well). First Ataru willingly leaves with Elle’s entourage only for Lum and her friends to kidnap him and spirit him away to her own home planet where an impromptu wedding ceremony is planned. Elle’s spies steal Ataru back, almost causing a potentially cataclysmic war between the two planets for love on a scale far more weighty than Troy.
The spies eventually take Ataru successfully and he plans to marry Elle. But when Elle first sees the young man after 11 years, she mistakes him for one of Ataru’s friends in the group named Mendou Shintaru, which later leads to a midnight rendezvous avec les deux that results in Mendou learning about Elle’s secret cache of 99,999 frozen, handsome young men she keeps cryogenically frozen to preserve their youth and their love for her. The Queen is crazy after all. When Ataru finds all of this out, he refuses to wed with such a pernicious and seemingly evil alien broad, and is saved in the nick of time once more by Lum who is now welcomed with open arms as her entourage cause chaos on Elle’s home planet where the wedding ceremony takes place. Unfortunately for Ataru, once again, when he arrives home, he is immediately deposited within a large church where the vows are to be made between himself and Lum on the spot. Ataru runs for his life, and his freedom, out of chapel and prolongs of the saga of Urusei Yatsura once more for an indefinite period thereby.
Mamoru Oshii called Urusei Yatsura: Only You a failure of a film. However, artists in any medium are known to often be overly critical of their own work, and especially of their first work. As this was Oshii’s first feature-length project as a director, we really ought to take his admonitions of failure with a grain of salt and view the film on its own terms.
The first question is what should a film be? If the answer is taken historically and realistically in terms of what films succeed and are remembered, I would say a film is good if that film properly entertains an audience for its full run-time, if a film adaptation of a previously existing franchise fits well into that franchise, if critics like it, and if it is becomes a cult film at some future date. There are, no doubt, many other criterion one might add to this list, but these are at least important ones to reflect upon in the context of Urusei Yatsura: Only You.
I found the film to be extremely engaging and fun at times as a mere romp, while also aesthetically pleasing and artfully made in terms of animation. While not an intellectual effort on par with later Oshii films, there is a particularly good surreal sequence in which Ataru, Elle, Lum, and various others rewatch the inciting memory of eleven years prior and even interact with its characters: the child Ataru and Elle. This is a novel and interesting melange of reality and memory that prefigures much of Oshii’s later work. The film is definitely of the spirit of the larger franchise and has received favorable critical attention in the years since its release. And while not the cult film that’s its sequel Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer is, there are few anime films from the early 1980s that regularly receive releases in the Western home video market that do not simultaneously have something to do with Studio’s Ghibli or Madhouse. Plus, if you’re really into romantic-comedy action sci-fi series and can’t find a single one other than Tenchi Muyo, here’s a film for you.
[Next up: the first OVA Dallos]
As far as Japanese directors go, Mamoru Oshii is probably the most acclaimed and revered alive. He has won awards from film academies in his home country to France, Great Britain, Spain, and Italy. Oshii has been nominated for the Golden Bear and the Palme d’Or for his animated films: two awards more prestigious than even the American Oscar and more important when deciding if a film is a masterwork that holds a place of importance in cinema history. Oshii has helped to mentor and influence some of the greatest modern Japanese directors including Kenji Kamiyama and the now-deceased Satoshi Kon.
He is a filmmaker of both philosophical anime, and of science fiction and surreal live-action films who finds his influence in the domain of the greatest of all directors to ever grace the medium: Tarkovsky, Bergman, Fellini, Melville. And he recognizes the importance of Science Fiction films like This Spaceship Earth, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Blade Runner as at least fundamental to the grammar of the medium as Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane. If all this were not enough, his career has given us the first OVA in Dallos, the greatest anime head-trip in Angel’s Egg, an enduring cross-media science fiction work in the Kerberos Saga, and arguably the greatest animated film ever made in Blade Runner’s only true spiritual successor: Ghost in the Shell.
Over the next four months or so, I will reviewing and analyzing the career of Oshii on this blog, and I had planned to begin with an essay on his first feature-length film Urusei Yatsura: Only You. However, Oshii’s career began long before this film’s release in 1983 and that narrative is an integral part in understanding how he developed into the filmmaker we know, love, and admire today.
Unlike another father of modern Japanese animation, Isao Takahata (who studied French Literature at University, could not animate to dying day, and only lucked into a directing job with Toei that spring-boarded him to an illustrious career of his own), Mamoru Oshii was always a cinephile with an interest in directing films one day. As a youth, his father exposed him to tons of films by European arthouse directors. At Tokyo Gakugei University, Oshii continued to explore his interests in filmmaking and consumed at much as possible. He must of trained as an artist there as after graduating in 1976, he managed to gain a job as an animator for Tatsunoko Productions, which was just over a decade old at the time and had previously scored a big hit with its animated TV series Speed Racer.
While at Tatsunoko, Oshii worked primarily as a storyboard artist and episode director, while occasionally penning an episode as a writer for many of the Studio’s productions. From 1977 until his departure from the studio in 1980, Oshii worked in some capacity on the following shows: Ippatsu Kanta-kun, Yatterman, Gachaman, Majokko Tickle, and Zenderman. However, the money must have been good or Oshii must have enjoyed working there as he returned on three subsequent occasions between 1980 and 1987 to work on the series Dashu Kappei, Gyakuten! Ippatsuman, and Zillion. One can consider this time spent with Tatsunoko as a period of development for Oshii as he learned the ins and outs of the production process of anime from many different vantage points and built up a highlight reel or resume for himself that he could later refer to in order to promote himself as a director deserving of the helm of series director or head director on a film.
At Tatsunoko, the head director of the studio’s most popular productions like Speed Racer and Gatchaman was Hisayuki Toriumi. Toriumi took Oshii under his wing while at Tatsunoko and when the former made the move to Studio Pierrot in 1980, so too did his protege Mamoru Oshii. There, they worked together on the World Masterpiece Theatre-like Wonderful Adventures of Nils anime for which Oshii storyboarded 11 episodes and directed 18 out of series total of 52 episodes. And later, Toriumi helped Oshii write the script of his OVA series Dallos. During their time together at Pierrot, it seems that Oshii began to come into his own as a director and after Dallos in 1983, the two never worked together again despite Toriumi continuing on as a director of animation until 2001. Toriumi’s career past this split include classic OVAs and Films like Area 88, Lily C.A.T., Like the Clouds Like the Wind, Baoh, and Sohyryuden: Legend of the Dragon Kings.
For a time, Oshii’s work at Pierrot remained relegated to occasional jobs as a storyboard artist and episode director. From 1980-84, he worked on the following shows for Pierrot: Rescueman, Yattodetaman, Belle and Sebastien, Golden Warrior Gold Lightan, Miss Machiko, and Mrs. Pepper Pot. Most important, however, was Oshii’s work on the exceedingly popular Urusei Yatsura from 1981-84. On this TV anime adaptation of a classic Rumiko Takahashi manga, Oshii created storyboards for 21 episodes, directed 24 episodes personally, and served as the series head director for the first 106 episodes of its run (more than half of its final total run). The anime was so popular that it later spawned 12 independent OVA episodes and 6 feature-length films. On the first two films, Oshii was given the opportunity to direct. It is through Urusei Yatsura that Oshii began to helm big productions as a director, and particularly through the series’ second film Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer that he began to be known as a director interested primarily in the Surreal, the Philosophical, and in how these modes of operation relate to Science Fiction and Fantasy.
From this point forward, Oshii’s work would continue on through production houses like Studio Deen, Headgear, and Production I.G.. He would begin work on his Kerberos Saga through live action films, animated films, and manga, eventually settling on the former (live-action filmmaking) as his favorite way to create narratives. But in every new venture throughout his life, Oshii has given his all to make the production artful, thoughtful, and ultimately, consumable media made to satisfy more than the Society of the Spectacle, but transformative media crafted to satisfy the intellect. This is just the first chapter in my investigation into the career of Mamoru Oshii. I hope you’ll tag along with me.
[Next up: Urusei Yatsura: Only You]