What is Urusei Yatsura?

Tomobiki, Lum, and the End of Forever:
An Analysis of Urusei Yatsura Movie 4

by Nathaniel Rudiak-Gould


This essay intends to explicate one of anime’s most infamously impenetrable works, Urusei Yatsura 4, Lum the Forever, a movie generally believed to have either no meaning at all, or a meaning that is entirely read into it by the viewer, derived from a few scenes but unsupported by the rest. While this analysis may be seen as a particularly elaborate attempt to produce the latter, I hope to demonstrate enough trends and connections between different parts of the movie to give weight to my interpretation. Because some points I pick up on will undoubtedly be red herrings, I have tried to include several pieces of evidence for each of my arguments. This analysis is intended to be complete, not in the sense that it is the final, indisputable word on the subject (obviously it will not be), but that it attempts to give a reason for every part of the movie to exist within a relatively unified framework. It may be modified over time as I acquire more information, as I have only seen through volume 24 of the TV series, and have perused only the little I can find of the purportedly large volume of discourse on this movie. In particular, I have not seen the movie “The Making of Urusei Yatsura 4”, which likely provides a lot of pertinent information. Finally, this analysis is aimed at people who have seen the movie at least a few times, since I often refer to minor scenes or lines of dialogue without specifying in detail the context in which they occur.

Much of the idea that the film is inexplicable probably derives from the fact that it has no narrative stem to it - that is to say, no single, logical plot that can be easily followed throughout the movie. Such a stem would allow the viewer to first analyze this obvious portion of the movie, and by progressively widening the metaphorical scope, draw in the remaining scenes. But what could the main plot be here? One person describes it as the making of an independent movie and cutting down a cherry tree, causing strange things to befall Tomobiki, another as the town acquiring its own consciousness, another as Lum losing her powers and people forgetting about her. Certainly, all these are important to the movie, but none really takes center stage. This puts the viewer in the frustrating position of not even knowing where to begin in understanding the movie. The same difficulty presents itself in analyzing it. It’s very difficult to organize my analysis without having to constantly refer to ideas I haven’t discussed yet.

If there is no way to readily approach the plot, perhaps we can unlock the theme from another perspective. That perspective, I believe, is to look at the central characters. That is, ignore the plot and minor details for now, and concentrate on what characters the movie really seems to focus on. Now, I would argue that there are two characters in this movie which are conspicuously observed, commented on, developed, and made integral to the plot by the director. One, as the title suggests, is Lum. The other is the town of Tomobiki itself. Whether seen as a physical being at the end of the movie, its opening eye earlier, merely the collection of memories that Shinobu refers to, the “dreams that a town has” that Sakura concludes the movie with, or the Tomobiki that the characters want to return to during the war, this loosely defined character is constantly present in the movie. Other characters appear and serve important purposes, and may even seem to have more of an effect on the plot, but none commands nearly as much of the director’s attention as these two. I therefore propose that “Lum the Forever” is really about these two characters, and in particular the dynamic between these two characters. This core theme becomes extremely complex because what exactly these characters represent is elaborated on in so many different ways.

Here are some themes of the movie that I observed that I believe are derived from this central Lum/Tomobiki dynamic. None is present in all of the scenes (hence the impossibility of mentioning a single “plot” to the movie), but all show up in enough places that I feel fairly confident in naming them.

  1. The film is the conflict between Lum on one hand, and the Tomobiki baby on the other, culminating when she sinks into the lake to meet it. This is the literal interpretation of the characters, recognizing only their physical manifestations.
  2. It is also the story of the conflict within the heads of the other characters, between their fascination for Lum, and their growing need to continue with their lives in the town/world which will no longer include her. Hence, it is the story of them growing up, in which Lum, originally conspicuously alien from Tomobiki and hence the object of intense interest from its people eventually becomes integrated as just another member of the town, losing her alien status, so that the people move on from their obsession with her. In this explanation, the “consciousness” of the town is nothing more than a metaphor for what is going on in the heads of the characters.
  3. It is also the story of the dynamic between the various ways that the director can approach the Urusei Yatsura universe, ranging from the crazy, meaningless comedy of its beginnings, here associated with Lum, to the surreal, dreamlike approach that became more prevalent, and here associated with Tomobiki. There are many scenes in the movie that quickly switch between these two modes, and they are often correlated with the appearance of Lum.
  4. It can also be seen as an extremely abstracted dramatization of the relationship between Ataru, an old resident of Tomobiki who “wishes always to be human” and Lum, the alien princess, working almost as a follow-up to this relationship as viewed in past Yamazaki efforts, namely “Remember My Love” and “After You’ve Gone.”
  5. It is also the story of the director and his fans as they reach the end of Urusei Yatsura itself, given special poignancy since this movie came out as the TV series ended and is Yamazaki’s last major work on the series. With Lum representing its world, and Tomobiki the wider world outside UY fandom, it suggests that the die-hard fans should forget their obsession with the series and its central character, and look at the possibilities of life without it. This plays on the equation of Lum with Urusei Yatsura in general which has permeated much of the fan reaction to the series, such that UY is often referred to as “Lum”, and referenced in pictures solely with Lum as its icon, rather than Ataru who is actually more ubiquitous in the series, or the entire cast. This is the explanation that Yamazaki put forth in his interview with Animerica.

My approach here is not to justify each of these in turn, but rather to explore the various methods that Yamazaki uses to explore the Lum-Tomobiki dynamic, giving a number of examples. Each example given will illustrate one or more of the themes above, usually implicit in my discussion. At the end of the essay, I will briefly return to sum up the evidence for each theme.

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