Making sense out of the extremely unlikely commercial juggernaut—and an insanely fun ride in its own right.
Rewind to the preseason of fall 2015, where practically everyone stared at the show’s description box in the preview chart with either mild befuddlement or sheer apathy. A resurrection of an old-fashioned gag manga/anime that presumably no one in 2015 will give a damn about (save maybe for Fujio Akatsuka’s deeply nostalgic fans)? Yeah, it looks destined to be a mere footnote of yet another packed season in our modern era, and anyone who said now that they accurately predicted what’s going happen next is either a clairvoyant or a goddamn liar.
A spectacular premiere, two dozens remarkably versatile episodes, hundreds of thousands disc sales, and mountains of merch and fan art later, the show has become a bona fide cultural phenomenon in Japan, having spawned rabid fandom and appealed beyond even your typical anime-watching crowd.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasons for the success’ show, or even just to define what it really is. First off, it obviously inherited the DNA of its previous incarnation Osomatsu-kun, as well as stuff like Tsurupika Hagemaru and Akatsuka’s other work Tensai Bakabon, classic gag series centered around eccentric (and less than angelic) characters going about their daily lives, taking piss on each other, and usually get into trouble due to their idiocy. However, this show injected some steroids to the formula by updating the setting and characters to fit with contemporary trends, as well as amping up the comedic range and sense of self-awareness to the nth. The result is an entirely unique creation, one that repeatedly set an audacious new bar over the course of its run.
Osomatsu-san may ostensibly be about the thrashy NEET sextuplet and their wacky friends, but in execution it’s so much more than that. With the showrunners’ seemingly infinite supply of curveballs and their tendency to play fast and loose with continuity, you never know what you’d get from each episode; in one story you may just see the sextuplet bickering about how to distribute their snack evenly, in another segment they’re an idol bishonen group out to conquer the post-apocalyptic desert criminals, and in yet another one they’re gender-bent version of themselves.
Many comedy shows quickly wear out its welcome due to over-reliance on what amounts to a single joke, but this one is the exact opposite. There’s constant element of surprise as the showrunners cycle through their sizable cast and utilize them in often unpredictable ways, from low-brow gags with dicks and poops to avant garde philosophical musings, from genre parodies to meta comedy, from quick gag-driven skit to entirely dialogue-free segment, and from gallow humor to genuinely impactful emotional drama. This is simply the most versatile comedy show I’ve seen in like, ever.
That’s not to say the journey’s entirely free of bumps. After all, as the wise Iyami noted in one of the meta-episodies, there’s not a comedian in the world who can land every single one of their joke. The show occasionally fumble with the delivery of its gag, particularly early on; some dragged for a bit too long, some were unnecessarily lampshaded/underlined, and some just flew over my head. The next two episodes after the premiere might be among the show’s weakest, for instance.
Still, as you get more familiar with the characters and can finally tell each brother apart at a glance, it simply gets funnier and more effective. Also, while the first half of the series has its share of big hits, it’s in the second cour where the show really started rolling, achieving a dizzying level of consistency and free-form creativity (the rather limp finale aside).
Studio Pierrot picked an excellent choice of director for its second adaptation of the franchise (the first was in 1988, which was the second adaptation overall after Studio Zero’s 1966 version), as Yoichi Fujita can now add this achievement to a resume that already included another zany smash hit in Gintama. They also boasted stellar production value as a whole, with Naoyuki Asano spearheading the animation and character design department that made Osomatsu-san the best-looking anime comedy I can remember, on top of being very distinctive. The animation truly shined in particular during the lightning-fast slapstick sequence and the more outlandish segments, a big plus in a show that often leans on visual gags to bring out the laffs.
And then, there’s the star studded line-up of voice actors. To say that Osomatsu-san demands a lot from its VAs would be an understatement; they have to constantly riff off each other, pull off countless over the top reaction and hysterical cries, and adjust with the tonal swings from crazy farce to gentle drama to crazy farce again. Thankfully, they all brought their A game and did justice to the re-imagined characters, all while genuinely sounding like they’re having absolute ball doing all this.
The Matsu Mania can be at least partially attributed to terrific mix between nostalgic throwback and modern narrative refinement, I suppose. Squint a bit past the mean streak and all the wacky shenanigans, and you can also see a theme of familial connection emerging in its more grounded segments. Family values are always held with special regards in Japan, and in terms of fictional media, some of the country’s finest contribution to global cinema revolve around this very subject. Osomatsu-san will never be mistaken as a wholesome family entertainment, no matter how popular it becomes in the mainstream, but its depiction of modern family and brotherhood isn’t only hilarious, it’s unerringly honest and (in its own way) quite poignant.
To many people, family environment is the only space where you can be completely true to yourself, without the fear of being judged or deserted. The craft and wild variety of the comedy already make the show worth watching by themselves, but it’s the unapologetic thrashiness (and vulnerability) of the characters that lends the show most of its charm. It may take a while, but there’s a good chance that these irredeemable bastards would end up relentlessly worming their way into your heart.