Monday, July 25, 2011
MYTHCOMICS #21: URUSEI YATSURA (1978)
PLOT-SUMMARY for “A Good Catch” (Rumiko Takahashi, 1978): High-school boy Ataru Moroboshi begins his first adventure by having a fight with his girlfriend Shinobu and a slapstick encounter with a demented Buddhist monk named Cherry. After Cherry prophecizes that Ataru is doomed, the teenager returns to his house and learns from his parents that he’s been selected for a unique destiny. An alien race, whose members resemble the horned Japanese demon called the “oni,” has announced that it plans to overwhelm Earth with its superior technology. However, Earth can avoid invasion if one human, selected at random by computer, can defeat the aliens’ combatant in a special game of “tag.” Ataru has been chosen for the task, which he accepts gladly once he sees that his opponent is Lum, a curvy young female oni dressed in a tigerskin bikini. However, as the contest begins—giving Ataru ten days to overtake Lum and “tag” her by grasping her horns—he learns to his chagrin that Lum can fly, and thus can easily elude him.
For seven days Ataru fails to catch Lum. The entire world reviles him for his failures, while Shinobu chastises him for his lustful inclinations. On the eighth day Ataru manages to leap high enough to grapple with Lum, but she knocks him off and he falls, albeit with a prize: her tigerskin bikini-top. That night Lum, still half-naked, shows up at Ataru’s house trying to get her top back, but even though they fight again she has to retreat without it. The ninth day’s contest begins. Though Lum has the disadvantage of still being half-naked and thus trying to conceal her breasts during the contest, she again avoids being tagged. Shinobu, hoping to give Ataru motivation, promises to marry him if he wins. The last phase of the contest begins, but Ataru conceives a trick. He pulls out Lum’s bikini-top, suckering her into coming close enough that he can pull her down and firmly grasp her horns.
Earth is saved, but Ataru makes the mistake of crying “I will marry her” while he’s contending with Lum. Lum thinks he proposed to her, and Shinobu, whom Ataru meant to marry, remarks archly that Ataru’s still holding onto Lum pretty good. The story ends with everyone but Ataru thinking that it’s a great idea for him to go off to the planet of the oni as Lum’s husband.
MYTH-ANALYSIS: First, a few points:
(1) This analysis is based upon the Gerald Jones translation of the Japanese original, published in 1989 by Viz Comics.
(2) The ending is little more than a joke with no impact on Ataru’s future adventures; indeed he and Shinobu appear in the next UY story with no reference to Lum at all, who only joins the feature’s cast as a regular presence in the third story.
(3) The third story is the first time in the manga where Takahashi gives Lum her famous electrical powers, which is why she only fights Ataru hand-to-hand in “A Good Catch.”
URUSEI YATSURA epitomizes the old saw, “A man chases a girl until she catches him.” Following Lum’s re-introduction in the third UY story, the bulk of the series charts Lum’s never-ending battle to bring Ataru to the marriage-altar, Takahashi’s feminine reversal of the pattern of masculine pursuit and conquest.
That said, there’s no evidence that Takahashi meant Lum to become a regular cast-member when the artist conceived “Catch.” Nevertheless, even had Lum never appeared again, “Catch” would stand as a solid comedic tale based on the mythology of sexual conflict.
The first action in the story consists of Shinobu slapping Ataru for looking at some other woman, which in his private reverie he admits having done. Ataru’s licentiousness, though not extraordinary for a high-school male, is the aspect of his character that marks him for his “doom,” as Cherry calls it. When he’s confronted with a sexy girl as his opponent, Ataru drools like a letch and gets clobbered by Shinobu. Later Shinobu upbraids him for having fallen into the aliens’ trap by letting Lum tantalize him. From a purely rational point of view, this seems unfair. No Earthman would have had any better chance against a flying opponent, no matter how pure his heart. But the comic purpose of the story is to dump on Ataru, and males generally, for their wandering eyes. It might be argued that Ataru does overcome whatever lustful feelings Lum arouses in him in order to get serious during the last days of the contest, but Takahashi doesn’t really emphasize any mental transformation on Ataru’s part.
Indeed, any conscious attraction Ataru feels for Lum seems to go south as soon as he realizes that she’s tricked him by concealing the fact of her flying-power. However, Takahashi was enough an entertainer to continue suggesting sexual titillation at every turn. When Ataru jumps onto Lum on the seventh day, she calls him a “pervert” even as she knocks him off of her, even though he shows no desire for anything but victory. That same evening Lum pays Ataru a visit in his room; an action that suggests a sexual rendezvous even though there is none in the offing. When Lum demands the return of her bikini, Ataru reveals that he’s got it stuffed under his tracksuit. Lum is offended that he’s apparently “wearing it,” but in context the motive seems less like transvetitism than an attempt to train while focusing on a trophy taken from the enemy. When Ataru challenges Lum to take back the bikini by force, and she accepts, neither one has sex on their minds. But readers are likely to think of sex as the two teenagers go at each other.
The bikini itself serves as a talisman of sexual displacement. Obviously the fragile logic of Takahashi’s story would’ve gone awry had Lum simply donned a different bikini-top, and the only explanation the text can give is that “She must not have a spare.” This contrived notion gives Takahashi an excuse to titillate her readers with a handful of boob-shots, but it should be noted that even though Lum is handicapped by trying to conceal her bosom with her arms, she still wins the ninth-day contest, kicking Ataru off of her while exclaiming, “Never underestimate a woman!”
The bikini-theft parallels a similar displacement of sexual conquest in the European cycle of “swan-maiden” tales. In this archetypal story-pattern, a male protagonist comes across a lake where swan-maidens in human form are bathing, having left on the shore the feather-suits that can transform them back to swans. The hero steals one of the suits, forcing one of the maidens to assume the status of a mortal woman, whom he then marries until such time as she gets her swan-suit back. In “Good Catch,” Ataru manages to steal Lum’s top, but Lum isn’t reduced to helplessness. Even when handicapped, she fights back savagely. It might be too Freudian to claim that either the swan-suits or Lum’s bikini-top represent the male’s “taking” of the female’s virginity. Nevertheless, Ataru’s theft does give him in the end a psychological advantage, and he uses her top to trick her in the same way that she used her looks to trick him.
After Ataru beats Lum—albeit with trickery—her fierce demeanor vanishes once she thinks he’s proposed marriage to her. Should one interpret this as a female’s being seduced by a male’s demonstration of superior strength and/or cunning? Or is it, as I noted at the start, a sort of subtle revenge? Perhaps Lum “stoops to conquer”—which is another way of saying that she conquers the conquering male by drawing him into her (literal) orbit, making him one of her demonic people. Of course this specific “doom” is set aside for the sake of future stories, since Ataru remains largely on Earth. But a lot of later stories end much the same as the first one, with Ataru and/or his male friends condemned to suffer some outrageous fate as a punishment for lustful desires. Perhaps there’s a sense in which, from the outset, Ataru is consigned to a comedic version of the Japanese hell—one where he will be the eternal victim of demonesses who constantly present alternating faces of feminine compassion and feminine sadism.