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This image has haunted me since I first saw it in the Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer movie. This is where my interest in Urusei Yatsura started and it is where this character of Ataru first began to break up my brain. It depicts Ataru Morobushi in a crazed daze, holding this shaved ice flag over his shoulder, atop a post-apocalyptic landscape.
For me, Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer has a similar energy to Akira. Both have this kind of sneering punk nationalist thing threading itself through their blood. Which is something that is pretty relevant these days. I think of the perpetual presence of the tank in the movie and the various military helmets and armbands worn throughout also speak to a kind of dialog with military fascism. The film identifies that marriage of surrealism and fascism that kind of fucked Dali up, and uses that as a texture over which to overlay a circus of insomniac post-society madness. In this film, Ataru and the gang are trapped unknowingly in a giant dream by Mujaki, a kind of dream demon. They are doomed to keep repeating the same day over and over as more and more people within the city vanish. Eventually they start to realize what is going on, which leads to even more surreal, dream-related, hijinks. It is a beautiful film and one of the early works of Mamoru Oshii that I think can be recommended to anyone without qualification.
So getting back to this opening image of Ataru Moroboshi--it has a power to it. Even isolated in a screenshot, it is something that I think about pretty often; but I have been struggling to understand why exactly. I’ve been trying to unpack this damn thing ever since I saw it. And more than that, I’ve been reading the manga put out by Viz media by the masterful Rumiko Takahashi which is the source material for the anime, and searching for another occurrence of this aspect. Like if I could find its twin it would suddenly become clear to me, because I could play the two off each other and really correlate an understanding of what it was stirring in me.
I think the manga is farther behind the anime, at least of the new Viz re-releases(which are how I’m reading the series) so Ataru in this earlier incarnation, has more of his faculties than he does in the second anime movie. But the foundations are the same in both the movie and the manga, even from the beginning. The foundations are essentially: Ataru as lecherous unlucky degenerate, who is both single-minded in his pursuit of beautiful women who are not Lum(his alien wife), and also obfuscated from his real feelings for Lum, which are actually fairly sweet and innocent. These feelings only ever rise to the surface when the prospect of Ataru losing Lum in a real tangible way arises. Which, because of her superpowers and her sincere obsession for him, is not very often. Both Lum and Ataru are at their root people who would actually do anything for the other if push came to shove, but more often than not it is Ataru who needs Lum’s help so we rarely see the side of Ataru that actually cares about Lum and would risk himself to save her as he does in the Urusei Yatsura movie.
Their relationship is actually a pretty complex dance of Ataru appearing to reject Lum for Shinobu over and over, only to come back to Lum either by electroshock-force or comedic misfortune. And as for Lum, she is constantly evading the attention of other earth men(in particular Mendo, who is the love interest of Shinobu--completing the insane love circle) who are smitten with her, focused only on her own lust for her darling Ataru. It is this pattern of Ataru running, Lum pursuing. Ataru fucking up. Lum saving him, but also electrocuting him. And everything returning back to the original order to start the episode that makes up the basis of Urusei Yatsura.
What is interesting though about these cycles, is not per se their pattern--which is not really unique (think Pepé Le Pew cartoons)--but it is the sheer carnage and armageddon that these cycles wreck. Ataru is ostensibly a threat to the social order of not only Japan, not only the earth, but reality itself. He is a degenerate. A complete maniac. But he is also a dangerous revolutionary.
It is complicated to address a character like Ataru in this day and age. Ataru is a complete womanizer who lives to objectify and assault women. But dismissing him is not as simple as say in a Milo Manara comic where you just say “dirty old italian man” and wash your hands of him. Urusei Yatsura is the creation of one of the all-time great women in comics: Rumiko Takahashi. And as much as Ataru is the driving force of any of the plots in Urusei Yatsura; it is Lum who became the pop icon. Shinobu is a fairly fleshed out character as well. The women in this comic are all pretty funny and are more dimensional in most respects to Ataru. They are all also all much stronger than Ataru, either through super powers, or martial arts. Even Shinobu can overpower him when needed. It is definitely a world of superheroines, that revolves around Ataru’s harem narrative. Added to that is that even though Ataru is doing these terrible things to women, if you were to characterize the work along those lines, you would mischaracterize it. Because all of this is pretty much played for laughs and anarchy. Takahashi isn’t asking you to consider the ramifications long term of Ataru’s leachery--sure everyone condemns him and he is almost always punished for these acts, pretty brutally really--but this is not a book that is looking to lead a serious conversation on sexual assault, and I think would be a poor example for it. But that is a complication that has rattled around in my head, especially as I try to reconcile my affections for Ataru (which I think you are supposed to feel a kind of affection for Ataru, I think the work is pretty explicit here--so if you aren’t, I think the book is not really working for you as intended).
It is actually that this side of the Ataru question exists that I think makes him so difficult to wrestle with in a modern sense. I think this complication is the root of obsession. Because I think reading or watching Urusei Yatsura, you like Ataru. So this is my central dilemma with Ataru and what has stopped me in my tracks comics criticism wise. Like how do you explain to a modern critical audience affections or considerations for characters who are not role models? Is it always necessary that our perspective in these matters should be like a parent guarding our theoretical children from abhorrent deviant behavior by fictional characters? Can we acknowledge that these elements exist, without causing them to mar our ability to interact and explain the work? Is it morally wrong to enjoy a fictional character who does something that is wrong that you would never do and would hate in real life? I don’t think that it is, but I am cognizant that this is a position which is quite controversial in modern western discourse. But then I also question the utility of--like if I want to talk about what it feels like to be harassed by men on the street as a woman, I don’t think that citing Urusei Yatsura is going to explain things very well at all, and in fact, my case might be made better and more clearer by just speaking directly about these scary experiences? I would like to reserve my scorn for real life monsters, really. But still--this is a problem that I have thought about a lot with Ataru, and I think it is a dimension of why he has obsessed me as a character. Well it is one track, at least. Because this type of character is not in and of itself novel in any medium, and is in fact well trodd. So I would say it is a fairly minimal part of what makes Ataru worth talking about, even if it is a complication which in contemporary discourse would be given the most weight.
The second track is again, this image from the anime. Ataru after armageddon has unraveled every level of society, and with his idiotic flag, has become a zombie for the new anarchy. He is sort of a leader of this world, but only in a very loose sense. It is more like, people naturally like following him around than that he is commanding them in the way that say a character like Mendo, with his japanese sword, and elitist fascist ideologies would. So I think you can call the new world that Ataru has created an anarchic one.
I think that a character is functionally a complex idea form. Their form is a language unto itself, their body’s movement through space is the syntax--they’re a word, they’re a letter, a sentence, a novel--they’re beyond all of that, they are the image in place of the frailties of all descriptors. Ataru is not a paragraph explaining all of the things that Ataru stands for as an idea. He’s a placeholder form that through our time spent with him becomes filled with meaning by our experience watching him and what he does. He’s more than a word because in a comic or anime, he has a character that says “lines shaped like this are Ataru”. He’s more like a letter or symbol in comic form. I say all of this to say, any particular frame or panel of Ataru represents a different aspect of this incarnation which exists within our relationship to the comic or anime itself. Each panel, each frame--these are different aspects of the idea of “Ataru” expressing themselves in our reality. I say this to say, that while generally it can be said that I like “Ataru” it is this particular aspect of “Ataru” --expressed in the screenshot from the anime-- that I am most obsessed with. It is this aspect which informs all other interactions that I have with the “Ataru” symbol.
The knock-on affect of this affinity is a kind of skewed relationship between the manga and myself. I read the manga in relation to this particular aspect of Ataru. It is a kind of triangulating search for a repeat expression of this aspect. I think this is a normal thing too. Think about someone like Spider-man--and how people might have a particular Spider-man that they think of when they talk about him. The Spider-man of your youth maybe. Maybe Todd McFarlane’s Spider-man, maybe David Lafuente’s, maybe it is Toby Mcguire in the movie. But there is some image of the idea of a character that becomes embedded within us when we fall in love with a character. And then we may spend the rest of our lives trying to recreate or re-experience that manifestation of the character within our reality. And truthfully, we really can’t. Even when I watch the exact same anime over again, it is slightly different from the first time. The image changes every time we go to look at it. It is kind of sad really. To be affected by beauty, which is what I am talking about here, and then to be so desperate to return to it, that you only find yourself falling farther and farther away from it.
There’s this thing where they say the more you recall a memory the more it changes, the more it fades from the reality you have experienced. Nostalgia becomes this poison which distances our minds from the visceral experiences we are fortunate enough to have spread over our miserable existences. It is our desperation for these things which exist only once, and come from outside of life, which drag us into misery.
But this is also life I think. Living is dragging our bodies across time until they can do it no more. To live is to desperately read through a manga searching for the feeling which brought you there, and really what we can hope for is that in our searching we might encounter the surprise of a different aspect of beauty which will also move us. The idea that this might happen is the only reason to have a functioning conscious mind I think.
I feel like for the last almost two decades I’ve been watching a slow motion car crash over and over again, and I’ve seen systems put in place that make resistance to this horror more and more difficult. I’ve seen massive war protests come to nothing. I’ve seen wall street protests do nothing but put protesters in jail. I’ve watched two parties shuffle back and forth in a white supremacist race to see who can terrorize the most people of color throughout the world and profit the most from it. And in the background to all of that: the rise of fascism, the coming climate crisis-- and it’s a panic. It’s a slow burning 20-year plus panic.
For me, Ataru in this image is the manifestation of the wreckage of the failed systems of societal order. Ataru has stopped the tanks finally. Leaving them sunk at the bottom of a pool. But the city has no mind left. His country is an insomniac within a dream within a dream on top of a giant tortoise held up absurdly by strange symbols to the old order whose meanings have escaped for all time. His answers are debauchery, debasement, and then a rabid love that annihilates him in a storm of electroshocks(further eroding his mind, rinse, cycle repeat until hopefully one day there is nothing left). He is the romance of the fire. Ataru does not live in the mind, he lives in the body. It makes him indefatigable. Maybe that is what I get from him. Maybe that’s what I like about him. I think it is what Lum likes about him. A spirit that burns long after the mind has been ravaged. I need that kind of inspiration. Even if it costs everything, and all that is left is a skeleton twitching through muscle memory waving some failed flag of protest--to survive life undefeated and unbowed until the maddening very end--I need that shit.