Imagine Barney the Dinosaur, surrounded by all his child friends, bursting into a song about…how rough it is to be a single thirty-something and the meaningless of his life. That’s the basic premise of Life Lessons with Uramichi Oniisan, in which the titular character, a former gymnast turned sardonic children’s television host, mopes through his show and life along with his similarly languishing co-stars. Soon to be adapted into an anime, Life Lessons is often funny and hints at being meaningful, though by the end of Kodansha’s volume one release, it doesn’t seem to be sure of which way it wants to go: straight-up dark comedy or something appealing to a wider audience.
When focusing on comedy, the manga tends to be very, very good. Much like the hilarity of Way of the House Husband, Life Lessons hits just right, over and over again, when it focuses on a dichotomy. These set-ups feature Uramichi begining to provide an innocent lesson to the kids in the audience of his show before breaking off into a depressive conclusion, all with a smile on his face. Two of his juniors from his college days co-star as Usao-kun and Kumao-kun, wearing bear outfits (again, think Barney), and are treated very harshly by Uramichi, often on-air. The host is obviously fed up with everything, and holds back very little.
Thus goes the first dozen chapters of the series. Uramichi’s cynical view on life, shoved through the framework of a children’s show, is consistently funny. It’s also discomforting—this is dark humor, after all, and it has that edge to it. If the series focused just on Uramichi, then perhaps it would have become more uncomfortable still, but in the last half of volume one, Life Lessons trends toward an unexpected direction—right down the path of a typical manga. The cast and some crew are shown interacting with one another outside of filming, including, for instance, in a work retreat / hot springs episode. Their lives come more into focus, such as for Iketeru and Utano, the supporting characters on Together with Maman, who are functionally the more traditionally humorous characters of the series, pushing the manga more toward the tone of a usual workplace comedy. In a sense, they two characters are welcome (and maybe Utano particularly as the voice of a woman in this josei work), but their growing presence in the story and the movement away from the humor of the initial chapters creates an uneven and confusing tone: What exactly does this manga want to be?
Truth be told, it could be successful either way—that which it’s trending, toward the usual (and with hints that there’s some heart to it), or back toward the darker humor of the first half. The mangaka’s writing is sharp and can support the madness of the setup, so my hope is that even if Life Lessons becomes more basic, that it won’t lose that sense of depravity, reflected not just in the sneaky punchlines, but in longer jokes like the childrens song, several of which are written in full in these chapters. My favorite of these is “Arm Through the Neck Hole,” which begins, “Finally home at 2 a.m. / Time to put your chores off again.”
The strength of the manga’s writing leads me to believe that the change in direction isn’t a course-correction as much as a way to create a fuller experience through Life Lessons with Uramichi Oniisan, one that could present laugh after laugh but which seeks to go further, providing meaningful connections with the characters and, hinted at here and there, making significant and encouraging observations of where life can go if you feel underwhelmed by it. Right now, though, the series itself is a bit underwhelming as it tries to find its way, but there’s plenty of promise here to give it and future volumes a try.
Life Lessons with Uramichi Oniisan is available through Amazon.