The Urusei Yatsura Viewing Project, part 74: “The Old Man of the Willow Tree”

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Episode 74: “The Old Man of the Willow Tree”

Original airdate: June 29, 1983

Corresponding manga chapter: “Terror of the Willow Ghost!?”, volume 13, chapter 4 (Japanese tankobon release)/overall chapter 128

Minor character introduced: Willow Tree Fairy

Summary: In classroom 2-4, Onsen-Mark finishes up his English lesson, and with some time left, tells the class he’ll tell them a story.  Ataru requests”Gross stories!”, but when confronted claims he said “Ghost stories” instead.  Onsen-Mark declares that he’ll choose his subject, by gum, but when Lum asks what a ghost story is, he runs down the seven ghost legends of Tomobiki High.  These include past stories, like Crimson Mantle and the sleepy classroom, and some bog-standard examples, like the laughing anatomy class skeleton.

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The class is distinctly and vocally unimpressed.  Mendou interrupts them to insist that Onsen-Mark is being a true craftsman, leading off with a bunch of boring cliches to set up the real story.  Onsen-Mark takes the chance to save face, and buys time while looking out the window for inspiration.  It comes in the form of willow branches blowing in the wind.

He tells a tale of the old willow tree on the edge of the school grounds, and how a student used a Solingen knife to cut into its bark.  A green spirit crawled out of the trunk and chased them away.  The student with the knife contracted a terrible fever, and took a year to die in horrible agony.  Every year on the anniversary of the stabbing, the trunk of the tree shimmers as the blade reflects the moonlight.

Lum says that she wants to see the tree in question, and she, Ataru and Megane go to look at it.

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Ataru scoffs at the story, but Megane says that the detail of the brand of knife gives it an odd air of verisimilitude.  Ataru pulls out a marker to draw graffiti on the tree, which Lum hopes will let her meet the spirit of the tree.  Ataru is highly insulting of the tree as he draws, and as they leave we see his drawing: the Mendou clan octopus, with the legend “Jerk!”.  When they’re gone, the tree twists around, as a mysterious voice curses them for defacing its body (all right, maybe it’s not that big a mystery).

The trio is still discussing the story as they walk home.  They’re interrupted by a bald man with long white hair and beard and a white robe (with an octopus drawn on the back) and staff, who collapses in front of them.  They rush to his side to help; he says it’s all over for him, and gives them a rolled-up piece of paper.  Megane opens it to discover directions to a hidden treasure, and Ataru tosses the old man aside to have a look.  As they leave, the man rises up and says that he’ll get those shiftless, no-good kids.

He walks away muttering and passes Mendou, who takes exception.

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The old man gets the better of him, knocking him down with his staff, and tells him that if he wants to get his own back he’ll show up at the Tomobiki clock tower at midnight.  Down the street, Ataru and co. are looking at the map and discussing the split when the man and Mendou run past.  Megane is impressed that the old man is outpacing Mendou, but Ataru can’t be distracted, and they agree to meet up at midnight.

The old man and the Mendou streak onto the school grounds (causing a completely gratuitous panty shot on the way).  Perm also notes that he’s faster than Mendou even though he’s walking, and we see that his sandaled feet aren’t touching the ground.  Mendou stops to rest by the old willow tree, and hears the voice repeating the challenge to meet at midnight.  The man is gone, and the scene gets spooky before we go to the eyecatch.

We return to Tomobiki High at night, under a full moon.  A light moves inside; it’s Onsen-Mark, who’s been pressed into patrolling the school at night to save money on security.  He’s startled by movement out of the corner of his eye, but it’s just his reflection.  The sound of a piano sends him into a tizzy again, and he concludes that Ataru must be responsible.  A ball bounces past him, and he hears a voice…which turns out to belong to Kotatsu Neko.

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Onsen-Mark utters a bad pun and gets a bit hysterical, which isn’t helped by a sakura petal drifting past him.  He charges into the dark to find himself in front of the unopenable locker.  He drops his flashlight, but the locker turns out to be a cardboard standup.  Another charge into darkness brings him face-to-face with a skeleton, and he faints.

Ataru, Megane and Lum propel themselves over the school wall.  Looking at the map, they find that the shadow of the clock tower will point to the treasure at midnight. (The moon is huge enough to cast quite a shadow, because apparently the Chandrasekhar Limit is something that happens to other people.)  There are ten minutes to go, but the trio hears a sound and charges to check it out.

In the anatomy lab, Onsen-Mark turns the lights on and off a couple of times, and shines the flashlight around to discover that there are a lot of disturbing things in a science lab.  The old man drifts down behind him; he turns and literally jumps out of his skin for a moment, then charges through the skeleton and out the window, leaps back up, falls through a couple of floors, and runs away with the old man chasing him.  The chase comes to an abrupt end when Onsen-Mark hits a wall.  The old man goes on a rant about kids these days and how no one has any damn respect and that as a Willow Treee Fairy with 4000 years of mystic knowledge he’s bigod gonna teach them a lesson.

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(See?) Onsen-Mark leaves the school to see Mendou enter the ground, sword in hand.  Mendou explains that he has to meet the challenge of the old man for the honor of the Mendou clan, while Onsen-Mark hauls him away.

The Willow Fairy waits by the shadow of the spire, which falls right by his willow.  He imagines Ataru and Megane digging without finding any treasure, and burying them alive by filling in the hole.  Mendou, meanwhile, will show up, get clobbered by his staff, and hung upside down.

Ataru, Megane and Lum are heading to look for the shadow, but come across Onsen-Mark and Mendou instead.  Onsen-Mark asks Ataru to help him restrain Mendou, but Ataru can’t even and just wallops him with the shovel instead.  The trio heads off, but Onsen-Mark grabs Mendou’s (sheathed) sword and smacks the boys with it.

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In the teachers’ lounge, Mendou is stretched out with a cloth on his head, and Onsen-Mark is having trouble believing the treasure story.  Ataru is annoyed that he thinks he can boss them around because he’s older.  Onsen-Mark tries to teach them some respect, but Lum turns on the TV (with a story about a flatulence-powered combine harvester) and when he turns back, the boys are drinking his plum wine.

Mendou leaps up to face the challenge, but when he sees the jar of plum wine, grabs it and takes a mouthful to spit onto his blade as a blessing.  Ataru sees this as sacrilege, however, and keeps kicking him so he swallows it instead.  Onsen-Mark stops him from stabbing Ataru, and Megane slips him some more wine, proving that Mendou is an utter lightweight (though the head injury probably doesn’t help).

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When Mendou collapses, Ataru confronts Onsen-Mark with a closet full of contraband seized from students.  Mendou challenges him for being disrespectful to his lord.  Onsen-Mark decides that he’s tired of being sober, and chugs the rest of the wine.  They chase each other around the room until the dawn.

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The Willow Fairy gets sick of waiting, and a glance at the graffiti on his tree gives him an idea.  Come the morn, Ataru and Mendou come to and are greeted by this sight on the ceiling:

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Mendou grabs his sword before Ataru can reach it, and accuses him of being the only one childish enough to do such a thing.  While Mendou slowly stalks forward, Lum wakes up, points to the ceiling and says “Look! Darling’s graffiti!”

Surrounded by students, Mendou declares he’s no longer a Mendou (casting aside his credit cards), just a killer, and goes after Ataru, who protests his innocence.  Ataru slips past him and Mendou gives chase, showing us what the campus looks like now:

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Changes from the manga version: The chase sequence between the Willow Fairy and Onsen-Mark is filler.  Everything else is pretty close.  Rather than Megane, Ataru is accompanied by Guy-Who-Looks-Like-Perm.

Thoughts: This episode is a jump backwards in the quality of the filler.  Story-wise, it’s not bad (it fits the narrative, at least) but it’s really easy to spot, not just story-wise-speaking but animation-wise-speaking.  For some reason, while the character designs and animation are standard during the manga adaptation sequences, the original sequences have rubbery animation and strange, exaggerated and off-model faces.

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I could almost accept the change in animation during the school night-time sequence as stylization to heighten the effect, but that kid on the left is someone who just shows up to poke the Willow Fairy with a stick when he’s playing unconscious.  I don’t know if this change was deliberate or just the result of the original parts being given to a different team, but either way it’s jarring.  The off-model characters in the early episodes could be excused as part of the learning curve, but here I don’t know.

I mentioned the classic Japanese high school ghost legends in the Red Mantle episode, and we see the theme again here (including the references to previous episodes–the list is from the manga, BTW, not the anime).  The ghost is the science lab is often an anatomy model rather than a skeleton, but either way there’s clearly a long history of trauma there.

The core story is very Takahashi: paranormal element shows up, has a conflict with the characters, leading to a weirdly anticlimactic ending.  She’s still using the structure in Rin-ne, but fortunately there’s plenty of room for changing up the details.

Next episode: Everybody dies!

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