Uramichi is a 31-year-old cynical man, with an obsession for physical fitness and has no filter when it comes to running his mouth with any depressing thought he happens to have. He’s also the last person you’d expect to be the presenter of a popular children’s programme: Together with Maman. His brutal honesty and on-screen charisma make him a hit, but what with dealing with hyper children, budget cuts and inattentive directors, on top of his regular exercise, when can he ever find time to get some sleep, or time off for that matter?
I was instantly drawn to this manga from the premise. I had not heard of the popular web manga previously, and news of its anime adaptation obviously helped Kodansha to really push this series for newcomers. But the reason I was particularly interested was because I happen to work in children’s television myself. Admittedly most of my experience comes from the post-production side of things, but I have worked with presenters (kids and adults) and filming both on location and studio-based stuff in the past, and stories set in or around television production, especially children’s TV, are very rare. So, I was happy to not only find a manga series primarily set on a children’s show, but also for it to be accurate in multiple ways. It’s true that no two programmes are created the same, and obviously there will be differences between UK and Japanese productions, however I can tell you first-hand that some of the most outlandish things that happen in the book, that you think might be too silly to happen in real life… they have absolutely happened. Yes, it’s super common to work on Christmas items in the middle of spring/summer and vice versa. Yes, budgets for props and costumes are often tiny and staff members often have to muck in and throw on stupid costumes for a quick gag, and yes, it sometimes feels like a thankless job, but it’s also really worth it.
But does the comedy work in this series if you have none of that foreknowledge or experience? Luckily it very much does; the whole appeal of this manga is the stark contrast between the light, upbeat and bubbly nature of kids’ programming, and the depressive and cynical nature of the actors themselves. Sort-of like the web original ‘Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared’ but with a more comical and pessimistic edge, rather than horror or shock value. There’s so many laugh-out-loud moments when we have Uramichi interacting with the audience, and giving life advice that starts with his youthful, happy, presenter-mask, only for the next panel to be his true face with shadows under his eyes and his expression full of lost hope. It’s the whiplash and sharp dialogue that will provide much meme-worthy content once the anime is out. There are also several fourth wall jokes, some fantastic songs (with full lyrics provided at the end of chapters, thankfully) and jokes at the large cast’s expense. The dynamic between the actors, and eventually the crew behind the camera, is very distinct from the first volume; from the strung-up merchandising employee Hanbei Kikaku, to the airheaded but dirty-minded Iketeru Daga, there’s a natural flow to their introductions and interactions that really feels like they’ve worked together for a long while. Not all of the in-studio politics will be foreign to non-TV readers however, for I’m sure we’ve all had bosses who expected us to work late at short notice, and gave feedback on work that was either not helpful or completely irrelevant to what you were actually doing.
As this is a comedy manga, there’s no on-going plot, although there’s a few chapters that are clearly set after one another (like business trips, for example), but most of them are self-contained stories. The punchline/joke for each chapter is well set up and delivered, however within the second English volume the manga seems to try to give our lead, Uramichi, a character arc, with mixed results. Because most of the chapters are disconnected, and often finish on the already established status quo, it makes the development of the lead feel like one foot in the door but then immediately drawn back out again. Also, there’s multiple chapters that take place during Uramichi’s college days that show how he first met most of the cast, and whilst the first chapter is nicely set up, the sequel chapters are placed poorly and without warning. Lastly, there are a few scenarios that are quite repetitive, with Tobikichi and Mitsuo’s interactions (in and out of costumes) becoming especially tiresome by the end of the second book.
I was very surprised to see that the mangaka, Gaku Kuze, has only ever worked on this manga (plus the forthcoming anime adaptation) and nothing else, because the artwork is stellar. The characters are beautifully detailed, the studio set and backstage given life in every panel, and the jump between the character’s fake smiles and true frowns is illustrated perfectly. Also I do love the difference in downer moods he gives to the cast, for example when aforementioned Hanbei Kikaku starts to have a breakdown, his face and art looks like something out of a horror manga, which really gives his screaming fits an edge that makes the cast’s reaction to him all the more authentic.
Translation is provided by Matt Treyvaud and he did have his work cut out for him on this one; not only making sure to translate the comedy to work in a whole new language, but also the lyrics to the multiple songs have to fit in the speech bubbles, and there’s a ton of Japanese puns/food/culture references sprinkled in that the translation notes at the end of each book takes multiple pages to explain them all in great detail. Despite the hurdles, however, it’s a very funny read and flows really well, so well done Matt.
It should be noted that the two books are omnibuses; they each contain two volumes of the original Japanese editions, and so far, there’s only five Japanese books, so within these volumes you’ll own 90% of the series. Each volume also contains multiple colour pages, but sadly in my copy of the first book, the very first colour page came out of the binding within hours of reading it, so treat the books carefully when reading.
Life Lessons with Uramichi Oniisan is a very witty and depressingly sharp series, that has not only a great cast, but also very detailed art and seamless pacing to deliver the perfectly timed laugh on each page. The anime is set to debut in July 2021, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it’s brought to life in animation, especially the off-beat songs created for the in-universe show.
Read a preview of chapter one on Kodansha’s website here.