The magical anime girl of the 1980s is a figure of reverence for many a retro clothing company or vaporwave SoundCloud artist. Alongside reboots, reprints, and new adaptations of retro works, the aesthetics of these figures have experienced a reemergence in the past decade, bringing properties such as Devilman, Fruits Basket, and most recently Trigun back into the cultural moment. Chief among these images is a certain girl in a tiger-print bikini: Lum, the cute, sexy, alien heroine of Urusei Yatsura who was cemented as an ‘80s icon, and who floated back onto our screens in 2022 in a new adaptation. While Lum herself unquestionably remains an anime icon, looking to the different ways she’s depicted in the older anime versus the new can shed some light on changing attitudes to the genre and archetype she’s so nicely embodied over time.
Lum as Iconography
Takahashi Rumiko’s wildly successful manga series introduced the world to Lum, an alien princess widely considered to be one of the first and most popular magical anime girls of all time. In the premiere episode of the original 1981 anime, Lum’s tiger print bikini top is pulled off her chest by series main character, and Lum’s central romantic interest, Moroboshi Ataru. Her bare chest, areolas and nipples (an amount of detail that would later become an industry taboo) was broadcast to television screens around the world, marking her humiliating and complete loss from the alien race of Onis’ bid for domination of planet earth. From that moment, she became an instant sex symbol.
Lum is a character who enters popular culture at a point where comic iconography does not exist for iconography’s sake. Today anime characters appear on clothes, backpacks, and everything else you could think of. In these forms the art begins to gain a new aesthetic context while the source fiction becomes, in some cases, more unknown. Before the marketing teams that now make graphic t-shirts with the faces of every Naruto character in every textured filter, Lum’s unique but recognizable design led her to become a popular symbol in and out of Japan.
A floating, horned girl in a tiger print bikini and gogo boots, Lum is actually quite a toned down depiction of an alien by modern anime standards. In the central cast of the 1981 anime Urusei Yatsura, however, she stands out as the most visually interesting and colorful. Her outfit and bright green hair became something of a template for future anime characters who would transcend their source material and become symbols of the genre, especially for viewers outside of Japan. In the United States, Lum gained more wide awareness than Urusei Yatsura as a whole by making appearances in American media, including on the cover of American musician Matthew Sweet’s 1992 album. In this way she has become famous in her own right, outside of her world, becoming recognizable but lacking context.
Lum in 1981
And context is important for understanding Lum, and how she fits into—even embodies—the tropes of the genre and era that brought her into being. Urusei Yatsura (1981) is a supernatural rom-com that plays into misogynistic stereotypes with an enthusiasm many have tried but few have achieved since. It depicts the commodified feminine body expertly through consistent sight gags, following the climactic scene mentioned above where Ataru accidentally removes Lum’s bikini top.
This scene is framed around a narratively important game of tag between Lum and Ataru for ownership of planet Earth: Ataru must catch Lum by her horns in order to win, and uses the removal of her top to facilitate this. Up until this moment she has been playfully teasing Ataru and has been an otherworldly beacon of confidence; throughout their entire competition so far she has had an upper hand, floating easily away from his attempts to grapple her and taunting his complete inability to catch her. When her bikini top is pulled off, she displays genuine distress, “defeated” and embarrassed in a moment of vulnerability. After this, she attaches herself to Ataru, showering him with overbearing affection. The fantasy being played out here is that this feisty alien girl has been “won” and “conquered” by this violation, although the tables seemingly turn again when Ataru becomes “stuck with” a love interest who won’t leave him alone.
The confidence and lack of inhibition Lum carries is deeply alien in comparison to the behavior women are often expected to exhibit, as demonstrated by her stark contrast against other female characters in the show—most notably her rival for Ataru’s affection, Shinobu. Shinobu serves as a control for the conditions of womanhood. Described by Urusei Yatsura creator and mangaka Takahashi Rumiko as a perfectly normal girl, Shinobu’s femininity is the antithesis of Lum’s. Shinobu is cute and unassuming, and she is regularly frustrated by Ataru’s wandering eye. She exhibits physical strength only as a punchline, a common trope of women in shounen. Lum’s physical strength, however, is a consistent aspect of her, often even the solution to the problem of the episode.
Lum, by her alien nature, is freed from the confines of human womanhood and fulfills the role of wife as an absurdist one, as absurd as the alien invasion that brings Lum to Earth in the first place. Lum is the kind of partner Ataru never asked for, but the one he must learn to love. Many stories that invoke the geek-gets-the-girl trope invert this: the dweebish male main character wears down his prospective love interest, making his dream girl fall in love with him. By putting the onus of change onto the male character, the power dynamics of Lum and Ataru’s relationship shift, giving Lum (oddly enough) more agency and Ataru more dependency than he ever had on Shinobu.
Lum is a character who exists at the intersection of several archetypes: a spurned lover, an alien warlord, and a well meaning klutz. She’s framed by a series of contrasts and contradictions. She is a strong, fast, fundamentally dangerous character who regularly and willfully puts the entire planet in danger, yet is largely motivated by either following orders from her father or, as is more common post-bikini moment, her relationship with Ataru. The way Urusei Yatsura interacts with gender roles and misogyny is evident in how Lum both is and is not considered acceptably feminine. Her appearance and interests are aligned with traditional femininity but her proactive and violent pursuit of her interests is not.
Lum in 2022
In order to recontextualize this work that is so definitive of its era for modern audiences, adjustments had to be made to accommodate the social changes of the last four decades. In doing so, the 2022 reboot serves as a great example of the advances and pitfalls of how acceptable depictions of women have changed in that time. Lum’s extra-narrative success as a pop culture icon is most easily seen in the changes to the introduction for the 2022 reboot. In the original intro sequence, Lum’s image looms over an anxious Ataru and later dances beside Shinobu and Ataru to reflect the central conflict between the two girls over their shared love interest. The 2022 intro, however, contains an extended sequence of several images of Lum projected directly to the audience, without the need to frame her from Ataru’s perspective. Lum’s presence no longer requires an in-narrative explanation, since her popularity now far exceeds the awareness of her source material. Lum’s iconography takes precedence over the love triangle that takes up the majority of the screen time of the actual show.
Very little of the plot has changed. It still revolves around Ataru playing a game of tag with Lum, with the fate of the earth hanging in the balance. The biggest change is in the climactic scene where Ataru takes off Lum’s bikini top. This time her bare chest is not depicted, and instead the camera cuts away until she is able to cover herself. This is not only reflective of the increased regulation of nudity on Japanese television but also reveals a textual discomfort with showing Lum’s body to the audience against her will, in a moment of humiliation. In some ways, the impact of this scene is cheapened by shying away from it. It is a difficult and upsetting scene, especially considering it is meant to set up Lum falling in love with Ataru. But to include this scene in a more censored way feels dishonest to the force that gender and gender roles play in Lum losing the competition.
Lum’s character in the 2022 reboot has small behavioral changes that stick out amongst what is otherwise a pretty exact replication of the 1981 show. Her entry scene, evocative of the magical girl transformation sequence, is where the audience sees her in full for the first time. In 1981, she is beamed down to earth by her father; in 2022, she chooses the moment of her explosive entrance. When speaking with Ataru for the first time, she is more self-assured and less demure in 2022, facing him the entire time and leaning back casually, quite distinct from her coy, over the shoulder look in 1981.
These changes, too, somewhat obscure the gender-specific tropes that Urusei Yatsura engages with: while her framing has been altered, the content and humor of the story is largely the same. Lum’s status as a pop culture icon undoubtedly influenced how her portrayal is tweaked in the reboot, as did changing sensibilities from the early 1980s to the 2020s. But while her increased time in the spotlight and increased confidence are satisfying, these adaptations can feel a little surface-level when the text of the show remains largely the same. There is still plenty to love about Lum as a character and plenty to critique about her depiction.
An Enduring Lum
As a fictional character—and a pop culture image, an icon—created and consumed by real people, Lum exists under the misogyny of the real world. In a 1982 interview with Itoi Shigesato, Takahashi Rumiko said, “You could say I draw based on my own image of a perfect woman. In short, what I think women should be. Or, the kind of woman I couldn’t be.” In creating Lum, she is able to create a woman who crossed boundaries she could not. In a time where acceptable female emoting behavior is greatly outnumbered by examples of the unacceptable, creating an unacceptable woman is the most interesting option by far. And Lum is wildly unacceptable: superhumanly strong, naive, foolish, devoted, rash, and occasionally a bit genocidal. She is all that in a fur bikini.
In Urusei Yatsura misogyny and gender roles are central to the plot of the story and its absurdity. It isn’t the aliens alone who make this property fantastical, but the highly dramatic acts of the human characters as well. While her image may thrive out of context, we can learn a lot from Lum about the changes in time, place, and moment in media history that she currently occupies and originates from.