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An alien race known as the Oni arrive on Earth to invade the planet. Instead of taking over the planet by force, the Oni give humans a chance to fight for the rights to the planet by taking part in a competition. The competition is a variant of the game of tag (literally "the game of the Oni" in Japanese), in which the human player must touch the horns on the head of the Oni player within one week. The computer selected human player is Ataru Moroboshi, a lecherous, unlucky and stupid high school student from the Japanese city of Tomobiki, and the Oni player is Princess Lum, daughter of the leader of the Invasion force.
Despite his initial reluctance to take part in the competition, Ataru becomes interested in the game when he meets Lum. When the competition begins, Lum surprises everyone by flying away and Ataru finds himself unable to catch her. Before the last day of the competition, Ataru's girlfriend Shinobu Miyake encourages Ataru by pledging to marry him if he wins. On the final day of the competition, Ataru wins the game by stealing Lum's bikini top, which prevents her from protecting her horns in favor of protecting her modesty. In celebrating his victory, Ataru expresses his joy at being able to get married; however, Lum misinterprets this as a proposal from Ataru and accepts on live television. Despite the misunderstanding, Lum falls in love with Ataru and moves into his house.
Despite Ataru's lack of interest in Lum (due to immense shame that the tag game brought to him) and attempts to rekindle his relationship with Shinobu, Lum frequently interferes and Shinobu loses interest in Ataru. Still, Ataru's flirtatious nature persists despite Lum's attention. Lum attempts to stop him from flirting, which results in Ataru receiving powerful electric shock attacks from Lum as punishment. Two characteristics of Ataru are particularly strong: his bad luck that draws to him all weirdos of the planet, the spirit world and even galaxy. His prodigious ability to support extreme physical wounds without a scratch while doing incredible physical performances like ninja tricks and catching a katana with his bare hands, keeps him alive.
Later Lum begins attending the same school as Ataru despite his objections (he strangled himself with the food he was eating when he heard the news). Lum develops a fan base of admirers among the boys of the school, including Shutaro Mendou, the rich and handsome heir to a large corporation that all the girls from Tomobiki have a crush on ( who is in truth not so different from Ataru ). Despite their romantic interest, none of Lum's admirers will risk upsetting Lum by trying to force her and Ataru apart, although this doesn't stop them from trying to get Ataru punished due to his bad behavior, and interfering every time they get close to him.
As the series continues Ataru develops his own feelings for Lum but, for reasons never explained, he denies them even to himself and acts brashly towards her. Only when he is almost certain to lose her, he shows how much he values her, sometimes even putting his life in peril, almost to a suicidal level. After the danger passes, his idiocy and blasé attitude resume. Most visibly in the Destiny Production Arc, he had the opportunity to construct his ideal future, where he is the master of a harem. However, while visiting this future he discovered that Lum dumped him because of the ill-treatment that his future-self (to keep the harem, set in a mere six tatami mat apartment, he sold all of her things, made her find a part-time job, sleep on the roof, and even stopped feeding her) the present Ataru didn't think twice before throwing this future aside. Similarly, seeing how happy Lum was in a future where they were getting married, he did all he could to save it.
The stories are mostly unconnected and very few of them actually told events with later effects in the plot. The majority of the stories concluding without explaining how the things got settled, as in the next story, all is back to normal. The manga plot differs from the anime/movies plot in some details. First many characters, that appeared only a couple of times in the manga, became regulars in the anime. The best examples of this are the Lum Stormtroopers: Megane, Chibi, Perm and Kakugari. While in the manga they appeared only in the first two volumes, later replaced by Shuutaro Mendou, in the anime they are among the main characters (particularly Megane), filling the roles alongside Mendou. Another example is Ten, the arsonist cousin of Lum, in the manga appeared from the seventh volume, but in the anime he appeared since the third episode, so many tales are now modified to include him. Many of the anime episodes are based on two or more tales put together, others are entirely new tales, and others are expanded single chapters. Some of the tales composed of more than one chapter are compressed into single episodes. Finally, the order in which stories are told is different from the one of the manga.
Also, Ataru and Lum are closer in the anime, sharing many more romantic moments and even properly kissing each other a couple of times (something that never happened in the manga). However, their relationship in the anime is also more complicated, because the order of episodes is different than the original order of the manga, so the evolution of the characters isn't linear. So in some episodes Ataru is extremely (but subtly), attached to Lum, but in the next episode he tries to get rid of her forever. The same concept is applied to the other characters. For this reason the love square between Shinobu, Lum, Ataru and Mendou never came to an end, while in the manga Shinobu has a storyline devoted to her moving on from her crush, Mendou, in favor of Inaba, a trans-dimensional man dressed as a bunny, that in the anime appeared only in the first OVA and in the fifth movie.