What is Urusei Yatsura?

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

by Nathaniel Rudiak-Gould

PAGE 3

Mendou and the Plot of
“Lum the Forever”

At this point, having lined up examples of the workings of the central theme, I will try to integrate what are usually considered the “major plot points” - for example, the cutting of the cherry tree, the independent movie, and the war. It now becomes clear why I did not start with the plot in explaining the movie - it is very difficult to talk about it other than in descriptive terms without developing the movie’s theme first. I’ll segue into the plot by talking about a character vital to its operation who I have not yet discussed much - Mendou. Looking over the “events” of the movie in which characters from Tomobiki enact some change, Mendou is always a lead figure. It is he who plans the independent movie, he who discovers the problem of fading memory of Lum, he who organizes the symposium to address it, and he who starts the war to solve it. Simultaneously, he is the person among the cast who most embodies the conflict between Tomobiki and Lum (this is in the mode of interpretation #2, in which the movie is about the characters growing up, and the conflict occurs in their heads). His family has lived in Tomobiki for generations and is deeply rooted in its folklore that Mendou claims “should be deeply rooted in the consciousness...”, yet it is armed with the most advanced technology available. He is equally skilled with his samurai sword and radio phone (the two items he consistently carries with him) - a master of traditional politeness, yet easily falling into the same vein of UY insanity as Ataru - projecting a serious demeanor unmoved by the cheap emotions of others, yet obsessed with the alien Lum. Looking at the examples of interruption given above, you will see that he is the character who is most involved in capturing images of Lum with his technology (starting with the satellite at the beginning of the movie), and also the most interrupted by visions of Lum when in a world without her.

Symbol of and almost a guardian angel to the Mendou clan, the giant cherry tree Tarouzakura shares this same duality. Its roots are deep in the earth of Tomobiki and share its history, but its uppermost branches house thousands of the birds that Lum can understand (just as she can hear a song coming from inside the tree), and rain down cherry petals that both reflect the town’s accumulation of memories “like plankton drifting to the bottom of the ocean”, and connect it to the archtypal “Lum” opening credits of her jogging among the cherry petals. Hence, the transition between the scene of the other characters looking up at the cherry tree, lulled into the magical Lum moment, and Shinobu’s monologue about the collection of memories and direction of the town, while she stares downward on its streets, sometimes cited as one of the movie’s inexplicable lurches in storytelling, in fact is the perfect balance of the central theme.

When Ataru hits the tree with a salted axe, the two halves that Tarouzakura united through its rotten center are severed. The birds take off en masse into the sky (which after all, is the realm of Lum, the flying alien from above), along with the spirits accompanying Sakura which claimed to have a “special relationship to the tree”, but apparently the Lumlike aspect of it. The roots below the cut, which were intended to be used to graft a new Tarouzakura, later in the film are consumed by an upheaval of the ground (Tomobiki) and sunken in a lake, where they form the site of the town’s growing consciousness (represented as a baby attached to the tree). Meanwhile, the center of the tree disintegrates almost completely into foam, leaving behind only a skeleton.

The central dichotomy of Mendou’s character (derived from the film’s own) is also the driving force behind another of the movie’s conspicuous plot threads - the independent movie. Mendou has derived its basic structure from memories and old folklore that is the basis of Tomobiki, as told by his grandfather who literally lives deep under the crust of Tomobiki (judging from the magma, about as deep as you can get!), and cast it with familiar faces of Tomobiki (e.g. Onsen-Mark). And yet, as he himself states, he is ultimately using this scenario to show off Lum’s beauty, as she appears in a dramatic dea ex machina, stepping into the role of the Oni Princess of the original legend and prominently displaying all of her alien powers. The final scene of the independent movie is particularly interesting. It begins as a solemn pageant to Lum/the Oni Princess, but ends as Ataru sends the torii crashing down, pulling down the curtain above. When the scene is mysteriously replayed that night using the same props, presumably as it originally occurred in the legend, we see it end again with the torii falling over. This has several similarities to the scene recently described when he cuts down the cherry tree. After Lum wakes up, we see the birds that earlier flew from Tarouzakura’s branches when it was cut down fluttering overhead. Furthermore, we later see one of the torii swept into the lake together with the tree’s remains and during the investigation of the tree we see that the torii is in fact entwined by the tree’s roots. Meanwhile, Lum is struck by the sudden brightness and goes into a strange trance. This is perhaps the first case of the town working directly on Lum’s psyche, and causing her to lose her own identity (more on this later). Certainly she does not seem herself here, and later in the movie she describes how she began to feel scared while making the movie. This also seems a bit similar to the scene where Ataru, Mendou, and Megane are standing inside the skeleton of the tree, almost as though in a trance (and with the same music playing). Did chopping down the cherry tree free the town’s consciousness, while pulling down the torii begin the real attack on Lum’s?

This aspect of the movie is particularly difficult because the conversation with Mendou’s grandfather about the Legend of the Oni Princess was cut from the final release, and I do not know what happens in it. This scene would probably not explain everything but it would certainly provide us with more information to work with. Who was the original Oni Princess? Who was the equivalent of Ataru’s character? Is his status as an outsider (like Lum, but unlike Ataru) important? What was the prototype for Tarouzakura? What are they hoping to find in investigating the sunken tree? Answers to these questions would not be unwelcome. My only clue is in a Japanese discussion of the film that I read, which I believe referred to the Oni Princess as a “human sacrifice”. Did she perhaps drown in a lake similar to the manner that Lum enters the lake? Though I do not know the similarity in the history between Lum and the Oni Princess, their typological association seems clear (Lum is an Oni Princess, they share powers of flight and an electrical “holy light”, and the Oni Princess interrupts the vision of Tomobiki in a manner similar to Lum’s interruptions.)
If we accept the Oni Princess as a prototype of Lum that is somehow channeling her powers, it can used to explain some of Lum’s interruptions for which no physical agent has been implicated, for example, the lighting up of the TV screens with her image, and of course the replay of the Oni Princess’ procession itself. Under this analysis, her skeleton becomes paired with the tree’s skeleton in the lake as prototypes of the current dynamic, just as Tomobiki’s emerging consciousness, sprouted from the roots of the tree will soon become paired with Lum, the Oni Princess’ new incarnation, as she enters the lake (is the otherwise inexplicable bits of cherry tree blossoms that gets sucked into the lake from above as it forms but that we never see afterwards a reflection of this??). The interruption of the “Holy Tree Investigation” by the Oni Princess’ skeleton, causing Mendou, Megane, and Ataru to scramble madly for the surface, thus becomes another of Lum’s interruptions, this time of investigation of the town.

Though there is some compelling evidence here, this section is still problematic without knowing the Oni Princess’ history. Due to the uncertainty, I won’t try to draw exact parallels between every point of the independent movie and the larger plot, since they would be difficult to justify. Several major points are clear. Cutting down Tarouzakura in the legend frees the “spirits attached to the villagers” and in real life seems to set loose their memories and dreams, and which helps to awaken the town’s consciousness. The Oni Princess is summoned by a prayer of all the villagers, and banishes the spirits into the ground. At the end of “Lum the Forever”, Lum reappears and the frozen dreams break down.

From the Beginning

So far, I’ve developed the central Lum/Tomobiki theme through a number of examples, and tied most scenes into this. At this point, I will finally begin discussing how the movie is structured from beginning to end.

The first portion of the movie, lasting until the cutting of the cherry tree / end of the independent movie is dominated by the anxiety of passing time. Lum mentions that they’re “17 already” and that she can’t understand the birds as well as she used to. Megane and Mendou are concerned with preserving their image of Lum - “We must capture this on film right now. A second chance at a layout like this is simply too much to hope for.” Tarouzakura is rotting inside and “probably won’t survive the next winter”. Mendou talks of Ataru’s sloppiness as what “worsens the destruction and decay in today’s Japan.” The town’s most simplistic powers are awakening in the blackouts - its interest is not yet directed, and its presence is not yet concentrated, seeming to exist only in the piles of discarded items, and slums where the rats gnaw. Only Ataru seems ignorant of the changing times, chewing out Lum for no reason, going after Ran, and callously ruining the memories of Lum. If there is a parallel in the independent movie’s plot, it is the sickness of the town’s leader.

With the chopping of the cherry tree (releasing spirits attached to the villagers) / end of the independent movie (described later as breaking a spell), the tone switches to crisis. The world is indisputably changing and the characters are unprepared to face it. Lum begins to lose all of her powers and her unique personality. Mendou and Megane, so concerned to preserve memories of Lum, now find that they are forgetting her and falling into other routines. We see many scenes of life in Tomobiki. The emphasis switches from scenes of Lum being interrupted to Lum interrupting these scenes of routine, as they are suddenly jolted by an image of her. Mendou begins to realize the gravity of the problem, and Megane frantically joins him. Tomobiki itself is changing - the signs of different seasons appear at once (cicadas for the summer, dragonflies for Autumn, and snowflakes for Winter, although its April), and a mountain grows in the center of the town. The town’s consciousness becomes concentrated in a specific spot, at the roots of Tarouzakura, and takes a literal form. Its concentration on Lum becomes more defined.

The number of different paths this section of the movie follows makes it appear unstructured at first, without an explicit plot that the making of the independent movie offered for the first section, and this section probably contributes most to the idea that the film is nothing more than a series of random events. At a certain point in the movie, however, all of the different paths the movie has followed come to a climax at once - Lum herself has finally been physically removed and has entered the lake to meet the town, which now has the specific form of a child. Concepts of Tomobiki, collecting to form the town’s consciousness throughout the movie have similarly taken a physical form in the frozen dreams of past and future cities. Mendou’s investigations have reached their conclusion, and all the people in the town have gathered together into a single place to discuss the problem. The moment that Ataru storms into the room to announce that Lum is missing is and everyone yells “WHAT?!! together is the same moment that Lum sees the first sign of the town’s consciousness, which appears as a child’s sketch of buildings in a town.

At this point, the movie abruptly changes and plunges into its climax section - the war. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the movie, and most likely convinces many viewers still loosely following the story that it makes no sense at all. The main difference between this and previous sections is that whereas up until this point, all the difficult scenes occurred as isolated strange incidents, as puzzling to the characters as to us, and thus difficult not alone but in the number and variety of them, in this final section the characters’ motivations are inextricably attached to the movie’s theme. Any hope of a tidy explanation of the movie’s events, briefly present in the conference scene becomes lost as the characters themselves appear to abandon their senses and operate by some kind of inscrutable logic that only the director is in on. However, I believe that after studying the earlier portions of the movie, this logic becomes more clear.

The war sequence begins with a scene between Mendou and Tobimaro, both descendents of families with long ties to the town, and is set on an old bridge suggestive of these former times. Mendou sings a nostalgic song of their friendship as children and the passing times. This quite resembles those Lum-interruption scenes discussed earlier which begin in an unusually serious tone and involving some concept of the city without Lum. Elsewhere, such scenes are switched to comedy by Lum’s appearance. Here, however, Lum does not appear but instead Mendou attacks Tobimaro with his sword, and the tone again suddenly switches to comedy (sort of), in which a crazed Tobimaro runs for his life from Mendou’s bombers. With this seemingly insane act, Mendou has turned against the “normal” city of the past suggested by the beginning of the scene.

The logic of the characters, then, in this final period of the movie embraces the theme of a battle between Lum and Tomobiki. In destroying the city itself, by breaking down the frozen dreams of the cities without Lum, by pretendingly pitting old friends and neighbors against each other, the war is an extreme tactic to prove to the town that a world without Lum is not acceptable. Hence Mendou’s battle cry “It’s for the sake of Tomobiki!”. However, this approach is essentially a chaotic lashing out, concentrating almost entirely on attacking the town’s consciousness as a method of showing their need for Lum, not on recreating the Urusei Yatsura world that Lum lived in. The overall effect seems to be to plunge the city into a nightmare. The characters put on their military outfits lifelessly as though it were routine. The scene of Megane ritually polishing his helmet while a stray missile obliterates the images of Lum around him is particularly disturbing. There are brief scenes of comedy, but as the war continues, with more and more of the town leveled, Megane reduced to insane screaming, and the possibility of death more and more present (Mrs. Moroboshi finding her husband among the ruins), we see no reason to believe that Lum will ever return, or that she would fit with this nightmarish world.

Ataru’s approach to bringing back Lum, his famous apocalyptic jogging as the war rages around him, takes a different approach. He sees little value in attacking the city. “What ABOUT Lum? Ha! Besides, even if we start this proxy war and break down all the frozen dreams, even if each one of us longs from the bottom of our hearts for the return of Tomobiki the way it used to be, and even if this town goes back to being the Tomobiki it used to be, there’s still no guarantee that Lum will come back, is there?” Instead, he focuses on Lum and his relation to her. He goes running just as Lum did in the first scene of the movie, and as if to catch Lum in tag in the first TV episode. Typifying the difference, note the scene in which the submarine destroys the bridge he is walking on, snapping the power lines (a symbol of the city), but barely hindering Ataru himself, who simply drags himself up and continues running.

What success do these methods have in bringing Lum back? The war ends with its instigators throwing down their weapons in fatigue, and mourning “Let’s go back to the world where we belong - to Tomobiki”. This could mean the old Tomobiki with Lum, but they do not mention her name, and they are giving up, not continuing their battle. They are finally willing to accept Tomobiki without Lum. Meanwhile Ataru, having run for days, finally collapses, saying “Lum” with his last breath. At this moment, Lum for the first time in the movie, actively defies the town’s consciousness, separating herself from it instead of melding into it, with the line “I’ve got to get back.” This line is echoed by the young versions of Tomobiki residents who say it in turn just as their real-life equivalents repeated “To Tomobiki...” Lum turns to leave, but is not challenged by the baby consciousness, which says “It’s okay. I can keep on living with the memories alone. The upper world belongs to all of you.” The town’s surrender here seems quite different from its attempts to undermine Lum’s independence through the rest of the movie, culminating in her literally being subsumed into the city, playing with its old memories. It seems that the appeal to Tomobiki may have convinced the town (the gathering of the fog), while Ataru’s plea woke Lum out of her trance. This moment is thus the counterpart of the cutting of the cherry tree / end of the independent movie, which released the town, and attacked Lum. The parallel within the independent movie also becomes clear. Lum, the Oni Princess appears when the village is united in prayer. With her return reappear also the ghosts that disappeared when Tarouzakura was cut down (including Kotatsu Neko), the cherry blossoms that decayed, the birds that flew off, and slapstick comedy (Ataru’s absurd pratfall, and Megane’s attack). The frozen dreams released from the townspeople are broken down as in the legend the spirits are banished into the earth.

But do not forget how the independent movie finally ends, with the tearing down of the starry curtain over the parade for Lum. This is paralleled here by the final fade-out of the TV screen that earlier held Lum’s image. Of all Urusei Yatsura productions (that I’ve seen), this is the only one that does not restore the status quo. Lum’s return is only temporary, and the causes behind her disappearance are still very much in motion (the town’s consciousness is still growing, not destroyed). Only the crisis of realization of the problem is over. Lum will eventually lose her distinctive characteristics and the other characters will have to go on without her. “Lum the Forever” is not the movie’s credo. Rather, it is the mindset that it assaults. Observe the concluding dialogue: “And from now on, the days repeat on and on as usual, right?” “No, not necessarily. Even if the days go around, in a path of endlessly nearly concentric circles, as a whole, they should ultimately lead us to a new place... no-one knows what lies ahead of us” Sakura’s final line, “Dreams that a town has, eh?”, seems less a description of the events of the movie as a continuation of the lines before it - a realization that they can only advance now through their dreams of the future, with Lum’s world inevitably passing.

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