The Mike Toole Show
The Secret of Mr. Osomatsu

by Mike Toole,

There's a new TV anime running at the moment called Osomatsu-san ("Mr. Osomatsu," natch), which is actually based on a gag manga and anime about six dumb brothers from the 1960s. It should come as absolutely no surprise to you readers that I leapt on this series like a fat guy leaping on a slice of cake (which is to say like me, leaping on a slice of cake). This new series has a number of finer points: it stars pretty much the entire voice cast of Polar Bear Cafe, making it something of a spiritual successor to that great sitcom. It gleefully rams the original comic's simple, 60s aesthetic into modern tropes like ikemen singers over and over again, which is a reliable gag factory, especially if you're like me and you've actually seen both the old stuff they're referencing and the new material they're lampooning. I watch this new show, impressed that the original creator, some guy named Fujio, could come up with both Osomatsu-san and Doraemon.

"Wait a minute," you all say, leaping to your feet and talking in unison like Osomatsu-san's titular sextuplets, "Osomatsu-san was created by Fujio Akatsuka, but Doraemon is by Fujiko F. Fujio. You don't know nothin', Mike!" Yep, here's another column in which we learn that your dear writer is kind of stupid. I learn more about this amazing phenomenon every day! But think about it: it's a pretty easy mistake to make when the artists in question both do this:

See? See?! Look at that thing with the mouth! They could be twins, those two! Alright, I guess I had my jump to conclusions mat out for that one.

Fujiko F. Fujio's Doraemon is something that never really went away after it cemented its popularity in 1979 (it had been a big hit earlier in the decade, but it was really the '79 Pierrot TV series that put it over the top), but most of the works of Fujio Akatsuka, Japan's late and forever-reigning king of gag manga, are things that ebb and flow with the years. Born in Manchuria, Akatsuka came back to Japan with his family after the war and worked, during his high school years, as a sign painter. As the fifties made way for the sixties, he took up with a kid named Shotaro Ishimori, who introduced him to his friends, a fired-up gang of comic artists who'd all recently taken up residence in Tokiwa, a rooming house crawling with manga artists. Turns out that the famous Osamu Tezuka, when he first moved from Osaka to Tokyo, stayed at Tokiwa for a year-- and numerous other artists moved right in, eager to work as assistants and learn from the genius.

Tezuka didn't stay at Tokiwa for too long, but he started a virtuous cycle of young artists moving into the building, refining their craft, and launching their first commercially successful comics. Akatsuka, seduced by the idea of drawing comics surrounded by other artists (his earlier solo attempts had been unsuccessful), moved into the place in 1956 - he was right down the hall from a couple of roomates named Fujimoto and Akibo, a gregarious and funny pair who collaborated under the pen name Fujiko F. Fujio, and now you see how every-goddamn-thing about manga in the 1960s was literally connected. You could probably write an entire book about how instrumental the Tokiwa house was to the development of manga. Fujio's work took a great leap forward during his two years at Tokiwa. In collaboration with his friend Ishimori and Hideko Mizuno, one of the first female manga artists to break out, Akatsuka helped create a shoujo manga tale called "Angel in the Darkness" - his first real taste of commercial success.

Yep, that's what it looked like. It's interesting to me that so many of shonen and seinen manga's luminaries also created shoujo manga. I've pointed out that Leiji Matsumoto did it in this space before, and Tezuka did as well, and for many years so did Akatsuka. Turns out that their friend, collaborator, and housemate Hideko Mizuno would be one of the first female artists to show the boys how it was done-- her Fire! and Honey Honey comics are gorgeous pieces of work that helped lead to more and more female manga artists entering the field. Akatsuka's biggest shoujo hit was Secret Akko-chan, which is arguably the first magical girl manga (the first anime is Sally the Witch, which beat Akko to the airwaves by a couple of years). The formula we all know and love - girl gets magical item which allows her to transform into a slightly older, more distinguished girl - was formed right in the pages of Secret Akko-chan, featuring Akko and her magical mirror, which transforms her into anything she wants when she speaks the magic words. Akko returns to the airwaves about once a decade, with multiple animated versions and even a live-action film, which perplexingly ages the characters up into early adulthood. But that neat 15 years or so of magical girl anime dominance enjoyed by Toei? It was largely the fault of Akatsuka, whose Akko-chan was enjoyed by so many fans.

Osomatsu-kun, which debuted in Shonen Sunday in 1962, has a simple conceit: what if there were identical sextuplets, only distinguishable by their names and attendant personality quirks? Hence, we get Todomatsu, happy but kinda dumb; Jushimatsu, who's kind to a fault; Ichimatsu, honest to a fault; Choromatsu, smart to a fault; Karamatsu, meticulous to a fault; and Osomatsu, whose very name means "lame." He's ostensibly the "head" sextuplet in charge, and is very good at leading his brothers straight into trouble. These schoolkids squabble with other neighborhood weirdos like Chibita (bald, loves Oden), Dekapan (Hitler mustache; wears big striped pants and no shirt, just like Obelix), and Iyami (big buck teeth; poses hilariously and yells "cheeeee!" derisively at things he doesn't like), chase after their romantic interest, the fisherman's daughter Totoko, and generally get into all sorts of mischief. It's a reliable formula, and one that has, like Akko-chan, kept the Osomatsu brothers creeping back into the spotlight once every decade or so, with an additional 80s TV anime series and even a TV drama under their belt. But with Osomatsu-kun, something interesting happened: spurred largely by the popularity of the TV series, the brothers were gradually edged out by Iyami and Chibita-- the former's histrionics and the latter's motormouthed dialogue proved more popular with kids than the title characters! This wouldn't be the last time this happened, either.

In fact, it happened again pretty quickly, with the ascent of 1967's Tensai Bakabon. Here's another gag comedy that starts with a simple idea-- a young boy named Bakabon fancies himself a genius, but is actually a complete idiot. His father is convinced he's the smartest man in history, but in reality it's the opposite. Bakabon's mom is a good mother and college graduate, but even she's not the smartest in the world. Only Hajime, the baby of the family, has any damned common sense. These heroes, along with side characters like Rerere, their neighbor who's obsessed with sweeping the floor, and Mr. Policeman, who's notoriously trigger-happy, then proceed to get into a variety of adventures and schemes. But Tensai Bakabon isn't really known for Bakabon-- it's known for his dad.

Bakabon's dad, instantly recognizable in his neatly knotted hachimaki, shot to prominence with the debut of the TV series-- the character's constant troublemaking, along with Masashi Amemori's gravel-voiced, ingratiating delivery of dad's numerous catchphrases, swiftly stole the show from Bakabon. Relating a bizarre anecdote, dad wraps it up by hollering "It's strange, but true! It's true, but strange!" Later, he'll swipe something from Rerere, reassuring his neighbor with the utterance, "Don't worry-- I'm doing you the opposite of a favor!" His signature remark, usually uttered as the entire family is fleeing his latest disaster? "It'll be fine!" Along with Sazae-san, KochiKame, and Chibi Maruko-chan, Tensai Bakabon is one of the great titans of manga/anime domestic comedy-- no wonder there's never been an English-translated version. There was a single volume of the manga released as one of those Kodansha bilingual books, which I swiftly acquired and read. (I think I ended up getting almost all of the ones that Kondansha created-- you can have my copies of Section Chief Kosaku Shima when you pry them outta my cold, dead hands!)

Like Doraemon, Tensai Bakabon is also one of those shows that never really went away after it got popular. It's led to hundreds of TV episodes, TV specials, dramas, comics, and other crap. I'm actually really eager to see one of the latest installments in the Tensai Bakabon odyssey, a film released last year titled Tensai Bakabon: The Resurrection of the Dog of Flanders. "Haha," I thought to myself when I first saw the title, "Are they really going to spoof one of the most fondly remembered, heart-rending installments of World Masterpiece Theatre?! They wouldn't dare!" Yeah, well...

The film seems to take a pretty simple approach: just like in the original story, Nello and his faithful dog Patrasche die tragically, starved to death on the floor of a church. Only then, they go and live with Bakabon's family. No wait, actually, then they go and run a criminal syndicate, which only Bakabon's family can break up. It seems like pretty amazing fare, but it's worth remembering that this isn't even the first time that Bakabon has taken a shot at World Masterpiece Theatre - a couple of decades back there was a TV special called Tensai Bakabon: 3,000 Leagues in Search of Osomatsu's Curry. It's pretty much about what you think it's about, and it's one of those lost shows that you can only access by buying a videotape from Yahoo Auctions Japan and going down to VHS Hell.

But what of Osomatsu-san, the new TV series? Osomatsu-san opens with a tantalizing notion: what if the protagonists of a 60s black-and-white TV anime had to reinvent and update themselves for the present day? As the show refreshes the characters' personalities (Ichimatsu is a mumbling grouch; Karamatsu tries to act cool but can't; Osomatsu is still the "main" sibling), they sit and fret over which successful show they need to imitate, inviting parodies that range from Love Live! all the way to Gundam. The brothers confront the reality of the job market, at one point even going through a round of job interviews to move back into their house with the parents, and continue to pine after Totoko, who's lately been trying to launch an idol career. The show is funny and fresh, and amazingly, a lot of younger anime fans seem to be paying attention. For me, this is good news-- not only is it really good to be a fan of Fujio Akatsuka's work in real time, it means I can spend an entire damn column writing about obscure cultural touchstones that got popular in the sixties, and it'll still be relevant.

I could go on at length about Doraemon as well, but Doraemon needs his own column, which I'll probably write after I finally sit down and watch Stand By Me Doraemon, the 2014 3DCG film that is apparently available dubbed in English - but only on iTunes Japan. But the single Fujio behind Osomatsu-kun and the two Fujios behind Doraemon definitely have a few things in common - and not just a shared history. For one, they both shaped a side of anime and manga that's gotten limited exposure in the west - their characters are hugely famous in Japan, but are only just starting to get noticed in these parts. For another thing, their work has more in common than just similar curves to the characters' big grins. Part of the central joke that makes Tensai Bakabon (and, to a lesser extent, Osomatsu-kun) work is the notion that even complete idiots can stumble upon great truths. This is also a foundational theme of Doraemon. I can only hope that Osomatsu-san's success leads to a renaissance of works based on Akatsuka's comics-- or, at least, a movie where the Bakabon family runs roughshod over Heidi or Anne of Green Gables!

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