Whether you grew up with The Electric Company, Zoobilee Zoo, or The Wiggles, there's something kind of special about live-action children's programming starring adults. Part of that is the disconnect between watching them as kids and then revisiting them as adults – while I adored Zoobilee Zoo as an early elementary schooler, looking it up on YouTube now made me wonder why I didn't suffer from persistent human/animal hybrid-themed nightmares as a small child. But it's that very disconnect that makes the dark humor of Life Lessons with Uramichi Oniisan work, and if you can remember how much you enjoyed the sort of show he stars in, that just makes a lot of it so much funnier.
The story follows Uramichi Omota, one of five hosts on a children's show called “Together with Maman.” (“Maman” is French for “mom.”) At first blush, it just looks like Uramichi is really, really ill-suited to his job. He's the “taiso no oniichan,” a stock character in Japanese children's entertainment who leads exercises and physical games, and he's joined by an “uta no oniisan” (another stock character who does singalongs and other musical bits), an oneesan, and two costumed characters, Kumao and Usao, a guy in a bear suit and another in a rabbit suit. The show is filmed with a revolving cast of kids who interact with the adults, and every so often – which is more often than not – Uramichi just can't stop himself from giving the kids terrible life lessons about what a misery adulthood is.
Part of the gag is, of course, that “Together with Maman” is ludicrously popular, with Uramichi Oniisan being one of the most popular characters on it. But he's far from being the only vaguely inappropriate cast member – almost all of the songs sung by Iketeru and Utano are about drinking or money or faking happiness, and the costumes go from the bizarre to the definitely not right for a kiddy show. The story goes back and forth between whether the kids are aware of how odd things are, and it works best when they're painted as precocious but still children, because that really taps into a piece of what some children can be: a combination of childlike wonder and an understanding that ought to be beyond their years. This comes across more and more as the series goes on; one of the best moments comes in the latter half of volume two (which would be the original volume four; Kodansha is publishing the series in two-volume omnibuses), when during an advice corner, one little girl asks what to do about the boy in her preschool class who proposed to her and then proposed to another little girl in the class next door. This triggers a burst of tears from Utano Oneesan, who perpetually has trouble with her live-in boyfriend, at which point a group of five-year-old girls close ranks around her and tell off Iketeru and Uramichi because boys just don't get it. It's a very funny combination of expected and unexpected, making the point about how adults playing kids on television shows like “Together with Maman” blur the lines while still maintaining the cynicism of the cast.
Part of the reason why the series gets stronger as it goes on is this increased use of the kids to drive Uramichi's points home, but creator Gaku Kuze also begins to explore and develop Uramichi and the two animal-suited guys more, which allows us to understand how they all ended up on the show in the first place. The second omnibus leans into this a lot more, although the latter half of the first one begins to explain that Uramichi, Kumatani (Kumao), and Usahara (Usao) all went to the same college and roomed together for a time. Later on the second omnibus, we start to get a picture of what prompted Uramichi to do gymnastics in the first place, and that gives us some very clear hints as to where his cynicism comes from – and maybe why he'd decide to work with kids in the first place, bad at it as he may be.
Really, though, the heart of this series is in its humor and the way it riffs on live-action children's programming and the quirks of its actors. Iketeru, the youngest of the main cast, is in some ways the most basic member, but this allows him to be the easiest laugh-generator of the bunch – not because of his antics, but because of his relative innocence compared to the others. Even if we discount the fact that he refers to his Borzoi with the -san honorific, every single time we see his thoughts, he's thinking in pictures of onigiri. There's no explanation for this, and he doesn't seem to eat onigiri all that much, but that's where his brain goes. Alien spaceship? Onigiri. Broken heart? Onigiri torn in half to reveal the pickled plum. Making it even better is that his older sister and his dog also think in onigiri, taking things to an appropriately absurd level. The depiction of the kids also lends a hand in the humor department, managing to achieve a nice mix of the thoughtlessly cruel honesty many kids have and deadpan moments of preciosity. Casual comments, such as when a child asks Uramichi his age only to respond with, “My dad's twenty-eight. How come you don't have kids?” cut to the quick while also being totally relatable to anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of such commentary, like when a five-year-old asked my bald, bearded father why his head was on upside-down.
Simply put, Life Lessons with Uramichi Oniisan works because it melds absurdity with a dash of realism while reminding readers of their own experiences with children's programming. It does take a while to get going (making the omnibus editions a particularly good plan, because once you start to get into it, the second original volume is right there), but by the end of the second book, it has achieved just the right mix of humor and cynicism. The shows we loved as children may give us nightmares now, but whether the actors dressed up as the Shisio Deity in a mesh shirt and cutoffs or as Bonjour Man in a macaron-patterned crop top and striped boxers holding a stuffed baguette, they hold a place in our memories – and one in our senses of humor now that we're all grown up.