Eyes on Yokai: Urusei Yatsura
Anime fans who watched shows during the 1980s and 1990s may be familiar with the name Rumiko Takahashi. Takahashi is one of the most popular manga authors in the industry, and has produced several of the most iconic works in anime history, such as One-Pound Gospel and Ranma ½. Her first major work, Urusei Yatsura, was published in Weekly Shōnen Sunday from 1978 through 1987. The initial premise of the manga focuses on an extraterrestrial race who reach Earth and present a randomly-selected human the opportunity to save the planet by participating in a game of tag. As fate would have it, the responsibility falls on shameless womanizer Ataru Moroboshi.
The series’ yōkai elements begin with the introduction of the invading aliens. Even though they are extraterrestrials, the beings physically resemble the oni of Japanese folklore. Lum Invader, the central alien of the series, bears the characteristic oni horns and striped yellow clothes.the game of tag they play is even known as onigokko in Japanese. A typical game of onigokko involves the same rules as Western tag, albeit with the person who’s “it” being referred to as an oni. That Lum and her father would participate in such a game would make sense, given the context.
To elaborate, the oni of folklore were traditionally depicted as having red and blue or green skin. They typically appeared mainly as villains in their respective works. Fans of Dragon Ball, for example, may remember the oni (such as King Yemma) as inhabitants of hell.
The oni aren’t the only mythological beings to appear in Urusei Yatsua, which features numerous references to yōkai and other elements of Japanese folklore throughout its run. For example, the manga’s tenth chapter features Oyuki, a princess who rules the planet Neptune. She is based upon the yuki-onna, or “snow woman” of folklore. In the original tales, the yuki-onna takes on the appearance of a woman clad in a kimono, with the ability to generate snow. Various, albeit differing accounts of the snow woman can be found throughout Japan. Aomori and Yamagata prefectures, for example, have tales of the similar shigama-onna.
Another early chapter, the eighth, features the Setsubun festival, marking the transition to spring. In it, two rival alien clans, which represent oni and kami respectively, engage in a battle. Moreover, the kami side even includes a representation of the Buddhist deity Benzaiten. The conflict ends with both sides participating in the mamemaki “bean-scattering” ritual. In reality, the rite consists of participants tossing beans to cleanse the environment and dispel any oni or other malevolent beings that might be present. To see the oni-type aliens in Urusei Yatsura engage in this ritual is ironic, as they use it to take their frustrations out on Ataru, who interfered with the battle.
Later, in chapter fourteen, Ataru encounters a kappa-like alien bathing in a spring. I briefly mentioned kappa in my introduction, but to reiterate, they are imp-like yōkai who frequent rivers and have a predilection for cucumbers. This particular chapter features an underwater kappa city. In it, Ataru inadvertently saves another kappa trapped in a tree, and the grateful alien transports him to his home, where he entertains Ataru (eventually giving him a mermaid).
Even the karasu tengu, or their equivalents at least, make an appearance. The sixteenth chapter introduces a group of crow goblin-like extraterrestrials who embark towards Earth in search of a suitable “prince” to awaken their princess, Kurama. The karasu tengu of legend are typically depicted with wings, illustrating their capacity to transform into birds of prey (in this case, crows). Buddhist theology presents them as harbingers of war, and their mythological origins lie with the Chinese “heavenly dog” known as the tiāngŏu, despite resembling birds who can take human form rather than canines. Later classical depictions of the karasu tengu are known as hanataka tengu, or “long-nose tengu;” these versions more closely resemble humans, albeit with red skin and characteristic long noses. Fans of the video game company SNK may recognize the hanataka tengu form, as Art of Fighting character Takuma Sazakaki (father of Ryo and Yuri) has an alter ego known as “Mr. Karate,” distinguishable by his tengu mask. Princess Kurama later appears to show Ataru an example of a “real man.” It turns out to be her father, the famous warrior (and founder of the Kamakura shogunate) Minamoto no Yoritomo, who is initially mistaken for a woman in the manga.
The manga’s thirty-first chapter (and episode 21 of the anime) introduces the dream-manipulating demon Mujaki, who appears similar to a master of ceremonies at a circus. He controls a nightmare-eating yōkai known as a baku, which resembles a tapir. Like the karasu tengu, the baku originated within Chinese folklore. The relevant forebear in this case would be the mo, which refers to a chimerical being with parts from different animals, such as the trunk of an elephant and a tiger’s paws. Interestingly, Western scholars mistakenly assumed the term mo to refer to a tapir when introduced to early Chinese descriptions and artwork of the beast in the 19th century. This assumption has since fallen out of favor, though, as subsequent scholars recognized the mo’s true chimerical nature.
These examples show the fairly comprehensive references to Japanese folklore found within Urusei Yatsura. The series adopts a science-fiction format to introduce classic yōkai as alien beings capable of traversing the galaxy and interacting with both each other and humans. Occasional references to pop culture and Western mythology appear, as well. One such chapter involves the being Belial, a reference to a demon from Christian theology, while two Ultraman figures appear in a background role to represent Gemini in the Western horoscope.Takahashi would later go on to make a more thorough examination of Japan’s history, specifically, the Sengoku era, and the presence of yōkai with her famous work Inuyasha.
The success of Urusei Yatsura helped form the foundation for Takahashi’s overall success as a mangaka, with her exploration of Japanese culture as a mainstay of her career. Urusei Yatsura is a comedic examination; the oni, tengu and other yōkai present within the work are reimagined as aliens with advanced spacefaring technology, while humanity (and Ataru in particular) constantly encounters them and their shenanigans. The series retains the unusual aspect of the yōkai but, through comedy, Takahashi is able to present them in a new format for an audience at a time when space operas were more commonplace.