The Summer 2021 Preview Guide
Life Lessons with Uramichi Oniisan
How would you rate episode 1 of
Life Lessons with Uramichi-Oniisan ?
What is this?
31-year-old Uramichi Omota has two sides to his personality. He appears as the young man in charge of physical exercises on the educational program Together with Maman. Although he has a fresh and upbeat demeanor on the show, he is actually a bit emotionally unstable.
How was the first episode?
Comedy is always a hard beast to review. After all, humor is so subjective that you can just as easily find yourself alienated by the same content that others find hilarious. I was more than a little worried this was going to happen to me when watching the first few minutes of Life Lessons with Uramichi-Oniisan as the titular character complains to the children about his life. I was afraid this show's running gag was going to be him traumatizing children with his pessimistic outlook on the adult world—which would get real old real fast.
Luckily, the actual joke is that, despite him complaining about the life problems they will all one day face, none of the kids are affected by it at all. I mean, they're kids. They don't even understand half of the words he is using.
Building on this joke, no one behind the scenes seems to mind when Uramichi complains about being hungover or laments the sadness of his lonely life. At first, I wondered whether all of his dark comments were only made in his head—things he wanted to say but didn't. Then the kids start innocently bringing up his past rants and it becomes obvious that he is indeed saying these things aloud. It's just that everyone making this kids show is as beaten down as he is, plastering on fake grins and just want filming to be done with as soon as possible.
This is my favorite thing about this series so far: the characters. Each of them is basically a highly-trained expert in their individual fields who just never made it big—be that athletes or classically-trained singers. Due to that, they find themselves on a children's TV show doing the same infantile dances and singing the same simple songs day in and day out with a random group of five-year-olds. It's equal parts funny and sad because it is just so real.
Perhaps the most important thing this episode accomplishes is making sure that Uramichi comes off more as depressed and disillusioned than as an asshole. He has no motivation beyond a paycheck, but he's not trying to take that out on the kids. When he sees a kid in the hallway, he puts his smile back on and waves, keeping up the illusion of the lovable big brother the kids believe in. When his complaints leak out during filming, he's more screaming into the void than anything else.
In short, if you like shows like Sayonara Zetsubō Sensei that find humor in the tragedy that is our everyday existence, this one is for you.
People seem to be fascinated by the idea that children's entertainers have some kind of dark, hidden side. Urban legends abounded about Mr. Rogers, such as claiming he was a sniper in Vietnam and wore cardigans to cover up full sleeve tattoos. I remember when Steve left Blue's Clues, it was rumored that he had died of a heroin overdose. Such myths rarely have any basis in truth; Mr. Rogers was a genuinely kind man who was educated in child development and wanted to use the new medium of television to provide children with a space where they could feel safe. Steve felt like his career was being restricted and also was starting to lose his hair.
Life Lessons with Uramichi-Oniisan indulges in that myth, as the titular Uramichi Omota, a 31-year-old former star gymnast, grins his way through his segments on a popular children's show even as he makes cynical comments to the children. It's not just him, either; most of the adults are in their late 20's or early 30's and similarly exhausted, though they're better at keeping up the facade. Still, under all those friendly, smiling faces are bitter millennials with no hope for the future who are only there because they failed to make it in their chosen fields.
Now we've come to the part of the preview guide where I reveal a personal connection to the material: my day job is teaching preschool. Like Uramichi, I spend my days surrounded by small children, answering their questions, singing songs, and rattling a tambourine, only to collapse on the break room couch the moment I'm out of sight of the children. So, you'd think I'd find the show hilarious and relatable, right?
But it's precisely that connection that makes it impossible for me to enjoy Uramichi. It's true that preschool teacher parties get wild – some of the crudest humor I've heard has been in work break rooms, and a shocking number of my colleagues have criminal records – but we're careful to let that steam off only outside the classroom. I just don't find humor in saying inappropriate or cynical things to young children, and the idea that the way we act when on the job is a fake persona is offensive to me. The only bit that rang true was Uramichi's whispered dick jokes in the hallway; that's exactly the kind of humor that happens at my workplace.
Everything I've described is particular to me, but that's kind of inescapable when evaluating humor, since it's so subjective and personal. Slightly more objectively (but still subjective, since that's just the nature of the thing), the comic timing constantly felt just a little bit off, robbing the humor of what little impact it might have had. But honestly, my personal discomfort for most of the episode was intense enough that I mostly just thought, “Why has this man not been fired?”
Comedy is one of the most difficult things to critique, in my opinion, because it often boils down to either going into laborious detail to explain exactly why a joke failed on some mechanical level, or you end up simply throwing your hands in the air and saying, “It wasn't funny to me!” So, if you want the short explanation for the two-star rating I've given the premiere of Life Lessons with Uramichi-Oniisan, there you go: I didn't laugh once, because it wasn't very funny to me.
It's a shame, too, because it's a pretty great idea in theory: The corny and eternally chipper hosts of a cliché kids' variety show end up being jaded, cynical millennials who can barely mask their contempt for their work, for one another, and for the world at large. It's nothing if not relatable, that's for sure. It just doesn't work, though, and to break it down even further, there are a few core problems with how this episode executed on its premise that we could analyze.
For one, I don't think the show plays up the absurdity of its central joke enough. For my money, this kind of Death to Smoochy type of media satire often works the best when it's being played as dark and strange as possible. Sure, the titular Uramichi often interrupts the breezy conversations he has with his kids to drop some truth bombs on them, but most of it lands without so much as a faint fizzle. There's a base level of ironic dissonance that comes from Uramichi telling the kids how nobody will be playing peek-a-boo when they're older, or how they have to learn to withstand the endless monotony of the workaday grind, but the kids' reactions are mostly limited to some mild befuddlement, and maybe a moment or two of genuine shock. I think it would have worked better to either really play up how inappropriately grim and adult Uramichi is being, and to either have absolutely nobody respond to his desperate cries for help, or for his words to utterly traumatize the kids forever. Go big or go home, you know?
Also, while I appreciate it when a Japanese comedy is willing to go understated instead of zany and screamy, the episode just doesn't have many jokes. There's all of the aforementioned irony that the millennial cast is soaking in at all times, but Life Lessons doesn't do much with it aside from letting the camera roll on a bunch of exhausted and bitter twenty-somethings. Uramichi's costumed castmates freak out about how scary he looks off-screen and…that's it! The sole female member of the crew is pissed that her boyfriend of five years hasn't proposed…and that's it! Do you see the pattern here? There were, at the very least, two moments that I recognize to be kind of amusing — I didn't laugh or anything, but I might have breathed air out of my nose at a slightly more forceful rate. The first is the ridiculous nightmare bird thing that Uramichi draws as his “friend” for a game segment, which is good for a visual gag. Then there's the bit where Iketeru can't stop laughing at the many penis puns that Uramichi throws at him before filming. The dick jokes weren't funny, but Mamoru Miyano gives a vocal performance as Iketeru that felt a whole lot more naturalistic than what you usually get in anime, which sold the joke way better than the puns themselves.
All of this is to say that I don't think Life Lessons with Uramichi-Oniisan is a very good comedy. Maybe if it were an anime short, the bits would land better without all of the padding in the middle. As it stands, I'll likely not be revisiting the magical world of Uramichi Oniisan any time soon.
Rating: Mood (4)
Uramichi Oniisan has about one joke in its premiere episode and its effectiveness will be limited to just how "#relatable" you find Uramichi's two-faced personality. Are you quickly approaching 30 and found yourself in a customer-facing job that is slowly crushing your soul? That's essentially the premise of Uramichi Oniisan, a show about a small group of adults whose original aspirations were all met with failure and now have to fake optimism and joy to a group of innocent children twice a day. It's a very specific type of dark humor, one I assume will miss the mark for anyone who hasn't grown disillusioned with the entire world.
Is that outlook healthy? That's another hurdle for viewers to overcome with the show; I imagine the more empathetic folks will see Uramichi as a walking red flag for depression (honestly, true) as he waxes on about how "being alone doesn't make you a loser, it's feeling lonely that does" or quips about how there are some jobs you can't quit even when all the joy is gone, like life.
It's difficult to explain the appeal of this kind of humor. Have any of you watched Bo Burnham's Inside? It's a cross between having your creeping feeling of dread about the future validated while also being wracked with guilt for indulging in someone's mental health crisis for entertainment. It's amazing and you should watch it – is what I would say, but after recommending it to my parents I came away wondering if they would think *I* was okay for suggesting it in the first place.
Uramichi Oniisan is also like that. If you find this funny, it also probably says something about you and your personal life experiences, your outlook on the world at large. It's part humor and part commiseration in that we're pretending the world isn't on fire, the economy doesn't commodify the appearance of happiness in order to continue justifying its exploitation, and that we all weren't raised to feel that we're uniquely special and meant to live out adventurous dreams. Uramichi was held up as some kind of elite athlete who would achieve greatness – and now he has to dance like a monkey for children on TV while hiding all the strings that hold him up.
It took me a while to figure out what happened here – I'd read the first two omnibus editions of the manga and found them at least partially funny, so why was the first episode of Life Lessons with Uramichi-Oniisan not only leaving me cold, but also kind of off-putting? I went back to my books for the answer: this is a story that takes a little while to find its footing. The first parts are the least funny, because the story hasn't yet figured out the right balance between Uramichi's world-weary cynicism and his job as a perky “gymnast oniisan” on an inexplicably popular children's TV show.
If you didn't know, adults in live-action children's programing in Japan tend to fall into either the “active” or “singing” categories. Uramichi is the former – a celebrated gymnast, he's somehow ended up working as Uramichi Oniisan on the TV show Together with Maman, leading exercises and other activities, and he very much feels like he's come down in the world – or maybe that the world has let him down. He's able to put on a squeakily happy voice and a smile most of the time he's on air, but his inner cynic seeps through on more than one occasion. When that happens, he's prone to both going off- script and telling the kiddies inappropriate things, like his voice going hoarse from his hard drinking, stuff which they, being kids, repeat back at later points in the show. While he's doing this, the director just sits there smiling proudly and nodding. I'm not sure why this thing is still on the air, but it's probably a bit of commentary on how insufferable many adults find children's programming. And hey, no matter how awful the things Uramichi says are, it's still better than Caillou!
Obviously Uramichi's inappropriate comments and the fact that he's a hard-drinking, smoking, cynic off the clock are supposed to be funny. Unfortunately, this episode is more uncomfortable, as the show just jumps right in with that one basic joke – saying inappropriate things to children is funny – and doesn't do anything more. What we're left with is a grown man interacting with children in a way that would make any preschool or elementary school teacher scream, and it hasn't found ways to balance this out with other material yet. There are signs that it's beginning to: Iketeru, one of the singing characters, has the sense of humor of a third-grader and thinks about onigiri all the time, which is nicely different from Uramichi's dark demeanor, and Utano, the other singer, has an impressively bad career track record, which gives her a completely different reason to be disillusioned with her current role. But neither of these have come to the fore yet, and we have an episode that basically consists of Uramichi being…Uramichi. The contrasts between the colors of the show and Uramichi's dark moments are good, and I like the vocal cast's delivery, but I'm having a hard time getting behind this episode in general. It does get better, but getting there could be a schlep.
One of the contradictions of modern entertainment that often fascinates me is that of the adult performer in young children's media. Take Steve Burns, the original host of Blue's Clues, who despite his show's massive success, chose to leave the part as the responsibility of maintaining an eternally friendly and childlike persona for a global audience of children that overwhelmed him. That dichotomy of keeping up a performative, child-friendly persona when you're still just a flawed adult trying to make your way in life seems like material rife for both comedy and drama, so when Uramichi Oniisan was announced I figured it could be pretty interesting in the right hands.
Unfortunately, this premiere didn't do much for me. Part of that is the structure; as with a lot of one-joke series, the episode is broken up into a number of shorter segments. They're so short, in fact, that a lot of the punchlines never have the time to land. You would think an integral part of Uramichi's mask slipping would be seeing the innocent and impressionable kids around him react to his cynical “life lessons”, but more often than not the show cuts away once he's made his grim-faced proclamation. Ditto to the seemingly indifferent film crew who never object or call for another take on any of this, despite our main character constantly changing the script. Perhaps that disconnect is intentional, as that's probably the only way Uramichi wouldn't have been fired the first time he pulled this shtick, but it still feels like unnecessarily undercutting the show's central joke.
There are at least a few gags that land. My personal favorite is Uramichi making his co-worker corpse with a bunch of dick jokes right before they start filming. It's one of those backstage pranks that I'm sure has happened plenty of times on the set of real kids shows, and it feels like the ideal mixing of Uramichi Oniisan's comedic material. I did also like the off-camera Uramichi looking directly into the camera and telling the “kids” at home not to snitch on him for smoking. Those slight breaks from formula kept this premiere from feeling like a total bummer, but unfortunately most of the other jokes just didn't land. And since the jokes are so short and repetitive, it honestly made this premiere kind of a slog to get through; not necessarily unpleasant, but consistently disappointing in a way that's a real bummer.
It's a pity, because this past year has had me in the mood for darker humor more than ever, but so far Uramichi Oniisan just hasn't delivered. Perhaps, like a lot of one-joke comedies, it'll find its groove better as it progresses, and with a premise this solid there's plenty of room to grow. For now though, I'm inclined to change the channel.
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