I was well prepared for this film to be different from the first Urusei Yatsura film, as well as the franchise in general. I had heard this was when Mamoru Oshii’s style really came to the fore, and in that regard it certainly didn’t disappoint. It is full of the stylistic flourishes that populate his other films. This had me rather worried, though. Urusei Yatsura is a zany comedy. I couldn’t see how Oshii’s slow dramatic buildups would work for such a concept, but surprisingly it does. I was geared up for a boring slog and instead found myself in one of the best Oshii films I’ve yet seen.
It starts with a very typical situation for the series. The students are preparing for a festival day, which is a rather common high school activity in anime. The usual hijinks between Ataru, Lum, and Shinobu are in full swing, and everything feels normal. Actually normal is a bit of an oxymoron in Urusei Yatsura. The students are preparing a Nazi themed café, complete with an actual tank in the middle of the shop. (Maid cafés are the stereotypical themed cafés in most anime.) Things wind up turning far more mysterious, however, when one of the teachers finds his apartment overrun by mold. He then proposes that they are all trapped in a time loop, reliving the same day over and over again, similar to the situation in Groundhog Day.
From there the film gradually phases out the comedy, and turns on the mindfuck. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it sure as hell is confusing. It comes very close to horror in the way it builds up suspense and a constant fear that something is deeply wrong with the world. The characters split up to head home for the day, and all of them wind up lost in the familiar areas they use every day, which now twist and turn around in the dark until the characters find themselves back at the school. It made me wonder just what Oshii would do with a true horror film. I had never considered it before, but his slow, deliberate pacing and eye for evocative imagery seems like a perfect fit for the genre. The only other film of his that I would rate higher than Beautiful Dreamer is Ghost in the Shell, which also had some horror undertones. I wonder if perhaps Oshii missed his true calling.
It seems like a complete bastardizing of the Urusei Yatsura world, and I certainly never expected such a story to work in this series. I think it does primarily because the series is all about strange phenomena in the first place. This kind of crazy shit was always happening; it was just never treated as a serious situation, or was at least explained and ignored in short order. The characters are never handled differently in this film either. They stay true to their personalities and reactions at all times. What changes is actually which characters the film focuses on. Instead of Ataru and Lum leading the story, they seem to be background characters much of the time, while the more serious-minded Sakura and Mendou take a far more central role to the story. This allows the movie to be a disturbing Twilight Zone kind of tale without betraying any of the principles that the series is founded on.
Because of all this switching around of tone and focus, this might work well as a stand-alone film for people who aren’t familiar with the series. Just be aware that it is not really representative of the series. It’s a very different beast, but it’s one that turned out surprisingly well.