A Festival of our Own: The Urusei Yatsura/Project A-Ko Connection

Like many aficionados of classic anime, I waited with bated breath for my copy of Discotek Media’s backbreaking restoration of Project A-Ko [1986]. After rewatching the film, I made a b-line for the film’s extensive liner notes and special features. The liner notes do an excellent job of breaking down the film’s well-known beginnings as an entry in the influential and erotic Cream Lemon OVA Series. While I was familiar with this story, A-ko co-creator Yuji Moriyama1 said something at the top of his commentary track2 that stopped me in my tracks:

“The crew consisted mainly of people who had worked on Urusei Yatsura.”

As he continued to talk about the lessons he learned from the series along with immediate viewings of the first three Urusei Yatsura films, It all made sense. This specific group of creatives was the “spark,” the “change of heart” that led producer Kazufumi Nomura3 to propose retooling Project A-ko into a mainstream anime film.

Who lit that spark?

In 1981, a relatively new anime studio by the name of Pierrot4 was approached to adapt a manga that was sweeping the nation: Rumiko Takahashi’s sci-fi romantic comedy, Urusei Yatsura5. With how early on it was for the studio, there weren’t many seasoned staff on hand to take the rudder and direct this tiger-striped ship. A would-be director by the name of Mamoru Oshii6 was given the position to see if he really had what it took to handle an endeavor such as this7. Though young himself, the thirty-year-old Oshii found himself with a crew of teenagers and early twenty-somethings looking to break into the anime industry.

A significant number of future A-ko staffers were with Oshii from the jump on Urusei Yatsura. Animators Katsuhiko Nishijima8, Yuji Morijama, Masahito Yamashita9, Naoko Yamamoto10, Shiho Nakamura11, Manabu Tanzawa12, Tomohiro Hirata13, Yoshiharu Fukushima14, and Etsuko Tomita15. With them was Animation Director Asami Endo16, Storyboard Artist Motosuke Takahashi17, Color Designer Satoshi Uchida18. Production Advancement Coordinator Kenji Sakaguchi19, and Production Manager Yuko Mitsumori20.

For the animators in particular, Oshii wasn’t just their boss, he was their friend and mentor.

In the same commentary track, Yuji Moriyama talks very openly and frequently in regards to the lessons he took from his mentor during this time. Oshii preached the importance of giving every shot they composed some form of meaning with no shot going to waste. A mindset that Moriyama no doubt had drilled into his mind as Oshii taught him how to storyboard. His student ended up adopting his style, with Oshii later telling him to “Stop copying me!” once A-ko was released. It wasn’t the only part of Oshii’s composition that Moriyama took a shine to, co-coping the former’s approach to letting his stories end as they had started, despite what happened on the way.

What happened on the way to conclusions of many early Urusei Yatsura episodes became a divisive topic in and outside the studio. While Oshii was keen to reorient stories towards commentary on current events21, the animators took every chance to insert pop culture references and an excess of military equipment. Oshii’s own infatuation with the machinery allowed the staff to foster the same love and technical prowess in their animation22. A love that can be seen plastered throughout Project A-ko’s runtime. Rumiko Takahashi wasn’t as pleased with these changes to her work23. Although it led to creative clashes in the studio, her backlash pales in comparison to that of die-hard fans of the manga.

The vitriol dialed down slightly as the TV series settled into its moorings and especially following the release of Urusei Yatsura: Only You [1983]24.

Urusei Yatsura’s first film was a rather fraught production. Originally helmed by another director, Oshii and a handful of his TV crew took over the project25. Naturally, some new creatives would join the film as well, with future A-Ko Key Animator, Atsuko Nakajima26 joining the film’s production as an Assistant Animator. They didn’t have much time to wrap the film, Oshii recalled they had only about four to five months to get it out the door27. This was while still juggling the TV staff’s responsibilities on the series.

Though stressful, the animation crew did take quite a bit away from the experience, Yuji Moriyama especially. As pointed out by Dr. Brian Ruh28, the plot of Only You escalates drastically over its 101 minute run time, akin to the Robert Zemekis film, Used Cars [1980]29. On A-ko’s commentary track, Moriyama mentioned that shortly before A-ko spun up production, Oshii talked about Used Cars with him. Specifically, how the film bounces from one little thing to the next before snowballing out of control. Hearing his mentor proclaim this as the best kind of storytelling, it became an approach Moriyama wanted to apply to what would become Project A-ko30.

In the eyes of fans, the juggling paid off. Only You was heralded by Urusei Yatsura enthusiasts as a celebration of fan-favorite characters with tiger-striped jets, pop culture references, and a plot more in line with Takahashi’s writing style. Speaking of Takahashi, she was quite pleased with the film. Oshii, on the other hand, wasn’t thrilled with what he saw as simply an extended tv episode. He wanted to make a film31.

For the animators, and Oshii especially, Urusei Yatsura became something that could be described as “Deja Vu on Deja Vu”. Waking up each day to spend your whole day in the studio, your head down to the celluloid grindstone. The world seemingly passes by as your life seems to be at a standstill. Oshii and company soon had the chance to channel those feelings.

The success of Only You quickly greenlit another film with Oshii directing. However, the team would spend the next six months struggling with the screenplay32. Minky Momo co-creator, Takeshi Shudo33 was approached to write the film, but he left the project as Oshii had a lack of confidence in his work34. With deadlines looming, Oshii picked up the pen and banged out a plot himself. According to Oshii, the storyboards and full story snowballed from there. With the ball rolling, Toho gave the team another six months on a tight budget of ¥80,000,000 (roughly $800,000) to complete the film. As long as the film got done, Toho didn’t care what it was about35.

As production ramped up, the team became the tightest it ever had been in Oshii’s eyes36. In addition to the crew that had been with him from the beginning, new staffers were brought on board such as Background Artist Shinji Kimura37, Key Animator Mitsuko Nara38, and Cel Painter Minoru Noguchi39.Much like the opening minutes of the film, Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer [1984]40, the staff had the vigor of students preparing for their school festival. Working themselves to the bone and pushing up to the last minute to get everything done. They even had a grouchy teacher in Oshii, who stayed with them through the night to make sure they were staying focused and on task.

The festival analogy comes back to Oshii himself, “it’s really like a festival, a school festival. You can do what you normally can’t. Think big and do the things you were normally holding back on. This crew was still really passionate, so when I told them about the movie they all jumped at the chance.”41

There were times when the staff had no idea what Oshii was up to, but they were in a kind of creative sync regardless. The passion they put into their “festival” was as if they weren’t going to get together again, which unfortunately became the case.

Movie program cover for Urusei Yatsura: Only You

Following the release of Beautiful Dreamer, an emotionally and physically exhausted Oshii left Studio Pierrot. There were a handful of reasons Oshii left, including razor-bladed letters42 from psychotic fans unhappy with his direction, struggles in the studio which almost led to his firing43, and continued creative conflicts with Takahashi. She saw Beautiful Dreamer to be “Oshii’s Urusei Yatsura, not mine”44.

The remaining staff, especially the original crew, were gutted by Oshii’s departure. Still, they found themselves working on one more film. A glut of hot talent was brought in to make up for the talent bleed from Oshii’s departure. Animators Shoichi Masuo45, Akiko Tsukui46, Hiroaki Gohda47, Kenichi Ohnuki48, Kumiko Kawana49, Tsukasa Dokite50, Tomoko Ootaki51, and Cel Painter Kayoko Yasukawa52.

Even with all that new talent, the original crew was at a crossroads about what to actually do with this film. Written by Urusei TV and Only You writer, Tomoko Kanparu53, Urusei Yatsura: Remember My Love [1985] is a film all about the struggle of what to do next after someone important leaves your life. The film opens on a beautiful fall day with everyone gathering for a grand festival march on a Magic Kingdom-esq theme park. The exhausted, but cheerful, Tomobiki High gang is having a good time before the festival abruptly ends and their lives are quickly turned upside down. Ataru is turned into a pink hippo, Lum disappears, and after a while, things go back to some kind of normal. By the end of the film, the cast decides that it’s time to move forward, with or without Lum. Or for the crew, with or without their mentor, Mamoru Oshii.

Having graduated from Urusei Yatsura, Moriyama, Nishijima, and their original crew compatriots had a few ideas for their next film. A film that they could make with the new friends they made on Remember My Love and other projects. Moriyama explains:

“His defection (Oshii) demoralized the crew and left us utterly unmotivated. We were ready to move on to something more interesting, something we could really sink our teeth into. Those of us who shared that sentiment got together and brainstormed. And this film (Project A-ko) is the culmination of all our ideas.”54

Echoing Oshii’s sentiments on Beautiful Dreamer, Moriyama said that the team wanted to make something they always wanted to do, but couldn’t before. Nishijima and Moriyama’s approach to developing Project A-ko was to snowball their ideas into storyboards and the screenplay, inspired by the work they did on Urusei Yatsura. The resulting film was loaded with a cornucopia of references, snuck in characters, and military equipment. Their aim was to make a fun film that wasn’t too worried about being anything deep55. An aim that came from the industry veering towards more serious and introspective works. It was almost as if Urusei old guard was saying “Hey Mr. Oshii, remember all the fun we had making anime together?”

It is a feeling almost unshakeable from Moriyama’s commentary, sharing everything he learned from Oshii and applied to his own film. Listening further, it seems that Moriyama found himself in a similar role as the one Oshii had in his life. Focusing on supporting work he did with newer animators such as Kia Asamiya56 and Masaki Kajishima57. Like Oshii in his Beautiful Dreamer commentary, Moriyama remained impressed at the work they did together, hoping that his students were still doing okay these days. In Asamiya’s case, Moriyama hoped he would return to animation despite being pleased that the former’s manga career had taken off. Moments like that drive home the idea that the students had become the teachers, overseeing a school festival of their own with Project A-ko.

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  1. Serving as Animation Director, Character Designer, Screenwriter, and a Key Animator on Project A-Ko, Moriyama has been on the ground floor of some of the most influential anime of all time. He served as an Animation Director on Aim For The Top! Gunbuster, Macross Plus, and Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise. In recent years, Moriyama has kept busy contributing to single episodes of series like Accel World, Valvrave the Liberator, and Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun.
  2. Referred to heavily throughout this article, this commentary was originally recorded for Central Park Media’s 2002 Enhanced DVD release of Project A-ko. Thankfully, Moriyama’s insightful commentary has been included on all of Discotek Media’s releases of the film, including their superb Perfect Edition Blu-ray.
  3. President and Founder of Studio A.P.P.P., Nomura produced many notable OVAs including Pop Chaser, Golden Boy, and the first adaptation of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure’s Stardust Crusaders Arc. He’s still running the studio today, with A.P.P.P. primarily serving as a support studio for other productions.
  4. Founded in May of 1979, Studio Pierrot is an animation powerhouse, producing hit shows such as Kimagure Orange Road, Yu Yu Hakusho, Naruto, and Tokyo Ghoul.
  5. Takahashi’s first smash hit, Urusei Yatsura follows of the mis-adventures that befall Tomobiki Town’s teenage lech, Ataru Moroboshi and his friends following his accidental engagement to alien princess (and anime icon), Lum. During and since the manga’s run from 1978 to 1987, Urusei Yatsura has been considered a classic. A new anime series from David Production is set to air later in 2022 to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the manga’s publisher, Shogakukan.

    Undeniably, one of the most influential manga artists of all time with megs hits like Ranma ½, Maison Ikkoku, and Inuyasha. Rumiko Takahashi, again and again, shows a deft balance of comedy, action, and romance in her works.

  6. Known for his cerebral films, Mamoru Oshii has directed some of the most celebrated and dissected anime films put to celluloid. Films such as Angel’s Egg, Ghost in the Shell, and Patlabor 2. He’s often ventured outside of anime with films such as The Red Spectacles, Avalon, and most recently, Blood Friends, a film that shares concepts and characters with his return to directing episodic anime, Vlad Love.
  7. Source: Ruh, Brian. Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. 2004, pg. 12.
  8. Project A-ko’s Director and second Screenwriter, Nishijima also directed Blazing Transfer Student, Agent Aika, and a handful of erotic series. Nowadays, Nishijima works similarly to Moriyama, contributing to episodes of series like Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan, Senran Kagura Shinovi Master, and Redo of Healer.
  9. A Key Animator on Project A-ko, Yamashita’s career includes key animation credits on Venus Wars, Megazone 23 Part I, and recently, both seasons of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans.
  10. A Key Animator Project A-ko, Yamamoto’s credits include key animation on Kimagure Orange Road, The Irresponsible Captain Tylor (OVA), and recently, Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt.
  11. A In-between Animator on Project A-ko, Yamamoto’s credits include in-between animation Angel’s Egg, Robot Carnival, and Lupin the Third: Bye Bye, Lady Liberty.
  12. A Key Animator on Project A-ko, Tanzawa’s credits include key animation on GoShogun, Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and City Hunter: Shinjuku Private Eyes.
  13. Project A-ko’s Assistant Animation Director, Hirata’s credits include Key Animation on BAOH, Dirty Pair: Project Eden, and Macross Frontier: Sayonara no Tsubasa. He’s also known for directing the animated openings to the first three Suikoden games.
  14. A Key Animator on Project A-Ko, Fukushima’s credits include key animation on Fight! Iczer-1, The Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love?, My Hero Academia, and Fire Force.
  15. A Key Animator on Project A-ko, Tomita’s credits included key animation on Metal Jack, You’re Under Arrest: The Motion Picture, The Prince of Tennis, and Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn.
  16. A Key Animator on Project A-ko, Endo has contributed made numerous contributions to some of the most popular anime of the ’80s, ’90s, and today. Her Animation Direction credits include Magical Angel Creamy Mami and Ranma ½. She has also served as a key animator on Pokemon, Serial Experiments Lain, and most recently, Great Pretender.
  17. A Key Animator on A-ko as well, the multi-talented Takahashi might be even better known for his Storyboarding and Direction on classic Sunrise Super Robot series such as Future Robot Daltanious, Reideen the Brave, and Voltes V. More recently, he’s lent those same talents to Tokyo Mew Mew and Bleach.
  18. An In-between Animator on Project A-ko, Uchida is known primarily for his finishing animation and color design work. His credits include finishing animation on Angel’s Egg and Robot Carnival along with recently providing digital paintwork on Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection ‘F’.
  19. A Line Producer on Project A-ko, Sakaguchi seemingly left the anime industry after serving as production manager on Project A-ko 2. His scant credits include production management on Dallos and production desk work on Mrs. Pepperpot.
  20. Mitsumori’s position as Line Producer on Project A-ko was her last project before leaving the anime industry, later receiving a “Special Thanks” credit on Robot Carnival. Prior to her departure, she served as a Producer on Bismark and Production Manager on the majority of Creamy Mami.
  21. Source: Ruh, Brian. Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. 2004, pg. 16.
  22. In the commentary track for Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, Oshii admits that the animation team’s passion for tanks and military equipment lead to more than a handful of heated discussions with the series’ producers.

    While we’re on the topic, the commentary track from Central Park Media’s 2004 Collector’s Series release of Beautiful Dreamer is heavily pulled from in this article as well. Discotek Media was able to include this fantastic commentary on their later releases of the film.

  23. Source: Ruh, Brian. Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. 2004, pg. 12.
  24. In Only You, the mysterious space queen Elle comes to collect Ataru to fulfill his childhood promise of marrying her. Lum and friends go after him, with intergalactic chaos ensuing.
  25. Source: Oshii, Mamoru, & O’Donnell, John & Homma, Masumi. Audio Commentary. Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, Central Park Media, 2004.
  26. Another creator who has contributed to numerous hit series, Nakajima’s credits include Animation Direction on Maison Ikkoku, Character Designer and Animation Director on Ranma ½, and most recently as Character Designer and Chief Animation Director on Komi Can’t Communicate.
  27. Source: Oshii, Mamoru, & O’Donnell, John & Homma, Masumi. Audio Commentary. Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, Central Park Media, 2004.
  28. Educator and Author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. His most recent edition of the book and ongoing coverage of Oshii’s exploits position Ruh as one of the western world’s foremost experts on Oshii’s Career. He received his Ph.D. in Communication and Culture from Indiana University.
  29. Source: Ruh, Brian. Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. 2004, pg. 16.
  30. Source: Moriyama, Yuji. Audio Commentary. Project A-ko, Central Park Media, 2002.
  31. Source: Oshii, Mamoru, & O’Donnell, John & Homma, Masumi. Audio Commentary. Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, Central Park Media, 2004.
  32. Source: Oshii, Mamoru, & O’Donnell, John & Homma, Masumi. Audio Commentary. Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, Central Park Media, 2004.
  33. Aside from Minky Momo, the late Takeshi Shudo is best known for his series composition work on Pokémon during its initial hot period. This included work on the series’ first 152 episodes along with its first three films.

    Shudo was posthumously honored at the 2020 Tokyo Anime Awards Festival with a Meritorious Service Award for his contributions to the industry.

  34. Source: Takeshi Shudo’s Yahoo Japan Blog. “Plot of Unproduced Urusei Yatsura 2” Via The Wayback Machine (Archived on December 29, 2016)
  35. Source: Oshii, Mamoru, & O’Donnell, John & Homma, Masumi. Audio Commentary. Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, Central Park Media, 2004.
  36. Source: Oshii, Mamoru, & O’Donnell, John & Homma, Masumi. Audio Commentary. Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, Central Park Media, 2004.
  37. Project A-ko’s Art Director, Kimura started in Background Art before also taking up Art Direction. His backgrounds could be seen in Akira, Golgo 13: The Professional, and My Neighbor Totoro. As an Art Director, his credits include Tekkonkinkreet and Blood Blockade Battlefront.
  38. An In-between Checker on Project A-Ko, Nara’s credits include Key Animation on Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam and In-Between Animation on The Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise. Nara left the industry following the completion of her work on Honneamise.
  39. A finishing animator on Project A-ko, Noguchi is also known for his colorwork. His credits include Color and Paint on Mobile Fighter G Gundam, Color Coordination on Samurai Pizza Cats, and Color Designation on InuYasha the Movie: Affections Touching Across Time.
  40. While preparing for the Tomobiki High School Festival, everyone starts to notice that they’re seemingly repeating the same day over and over again. Soon after, Ataru’s gang dives deeper into the mystery surrounding the time loop and how it eventually ceases to affect them.

    Watch this film, it’s considered a classic for good reason.

  41. Source: Oshii, Mamoru, & O’Donnell, John & Homma, Masumi. Audio Commentary. Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, Central Park Media, 2004.
  42. Source: Ruh, Brian. Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. 2004, pg. 38.
  43. Source: Ruh, Brian. Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. 2004, pg. 44.
  44. From an interview with 8-Man and Genma Wars co-creator, Kazumasa Hirai. In his 1985 book, The Gentle World of Rumiko Takahashi.
  45. Project A-ko’s Mechanical Animation Director, the late Shoichi Masuo’s skills were lent to some of the most influential anime series and films ever made. His credits included Assistant Animation Director on Macross: Do You Remember Love?, Key Animation on Akira, and amongst his other roles on the series, Key Animation on every Evangelion production through Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo. Masuo was posthumously given an Honorary Special Skills Director credit on Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon A Time.
  46. A Key Animator on Project A-ko, Tsukui’s scant credits include key animation on Locke the Superman and The Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise. She left the industry following the completion of Honneamise.
  47. A Key Animator on Project A-ko, Gohda got his start in key animation with credits including Aim For The Top! Gunbuster and Dirty Pair: Project Eden. More recently, he directed the 2005 Ah! My Goddess TV Series and was a Chief Animation Director on Bloom Into You.

    In his commentary, Moriyama mentions that Gohda had just come off his Key Animation work on The Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love? before working on A-ko.

  48. A Key Animator on Project A-ko, Ohnuki has done a little bit of everything from storyboarding to character design. Ohnuki might be best known for his Character Animation Direction on most recent Gundam series beginning with Mobile Suit Gundam Seed. Outside of Gundam, his credits include Key Animation on Arion, animation direction on Carole and Tuesday, and his role as Chief Character Animation Director on Kyokai Senki.
  49. A Key Animator on Project A-ko, Kawana was a frequent collaborator on Oshii’s films, serving as a Key Animator on Ghost in The Shell, and Patlabor 2. Outside of Oshii’s works, Kawana was a Key Animator for Den-noh Coil and served as Assistant Animator Director on Roujin Z.
  50. Described by Moriyama as Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s presumed heir apparent, Tsukasa Dokite is almost inseparable from his work on the Dirty Pair series. He served as Character Designer on the original series, Chief Animation Director on the OVA Series, and Animation Director on Project Eden.

    Recently, Dokite served as the Character Animation Director on Mobile Suit Gundam Narrative and as a Key Animator on Hathaway’s Flash.

  51. An In-between Animator on Project A-ko, Tomoko Ootaki’s credits include animation on Crusher Joe: The Movie and Key Animator on Cat’s Eye. Ootaki would take a break from the industry after completing In-between Animation work on Robot Carnival before completely leaving it following her contribution to 1994’s Please Save My Earth.
  52. An In-between Animator on Project A-ko, Yasukawa has only a few credits to her name. She served as a Finishing Animator on Urusei Yatsura: Lum the Forever, Robot Carnival, and Mobile Police Patlabor (OVA) before leaving the industry.
  53. Like many of her Urusei Yatsura compatriots, Tomoko Kanparu made a name for herself in the anime industry with her writing on series such as Dr. Slump, Dear Brother, and Kodocha. However, she may be best known for overseeing the series composition of NANA.
  54. Source: Moriyama, Yuji. Audio Commentary. Project A-ko, Central Park Media, 2002.
  55. Source: Moriyama, Yuji. Audio Commentary. Project A-ko, Central Park Media, 2002.
  56. Creator of manga such as Silent Möbius and Steam Detectives, Kia Asamiya had quite the sizable career in animation as well. His animation credits include key animation on GoShogun: The Time Étranger, Heavy Metal L-Gaim, and uncredited key animation on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

    Asamiya has additionally been deeply involved in anime adaptations of his work either in animation or writing capabilities. Most notably, he was Chief Director, Storyboarder, and Writer on Silent Möbius: The Motion Picture.

    For Tokusatsu fans, he contributed the monster designs to 2012’s Kamen Rider Fourze.

  57. Creator of Tenchi Muyo, Kajishima contributed to many hot anime productions of the ’80s before putting his eggs in the Tenchi Basket. His non-Tenchi credits include Key Animation on Megazone 23 Part II, Gall Force – Eternal Story, and Bubblegum Crisis.