One of the sleeper hits of 2015-2016, Osomatsu-san’s huge commercial success cannot simply be attributed to its predecessor’s foundation. Where other vintage franchise reboots have failed, Osomatsu-san managed to make a name for itself worldwide, and with a touch of humour to boot!
Post-WWII Japan is a country that has rode the tides between economic prosperity and recession over the past half-century. As a result, its shifting cultural landscape plays a large role in influencing the types of stories, themes and characters that make their way into our favourite cartoons. This stands to reason, as commercial anime has always survived on a combination of viewership and merchandise. While there are certainly exceptions to this rule, the high cost of animation production is often a huge financial hurdle for many studios to overcome; in order for an anime to be a profitable venture, it needs to sell.
But this is not to say that creators must be slaves to consumerism. Market demand is a very real constraint on anime production, but like every constraint it simply needs to be worked around. Consumers of anime are people, much like the individuals behind its production – and thus there is common ground in shared life experiences. An anime that features a character that the audience can relate to or laugh at can often be enough to bridge the gap between the market and the creative vision. At the end of the day, it doesn’t hurt to look at commercial anime production from the angle of how a creative body can adapt their vision to suit their target audience’s needs, as per Japan’s ever-changing socio-economic reality.
An Introduction to the Osomatsu Franchise
Perhaps one of the best examples of an anime adapting to its audience is Fujio Akatsuka’s Osomatsu franchise – a name that remained relatively obscure in the West, up until recently. Akatsuka’s Osomatsu-kun (おそ松くん) was a gag comedy manga originally serialized in Weekly Shounen Sunday from 1962-1969, but continued its run up until 1990 in other magazines – amassing a total of 34 volumes by its completion. The manga revolved around a group of sextuplet brothers – Osomatsu, Karamatsu, Choromatsu, Ichimatsu, Jyushimatsu and Todomatsu – who often caused mischief and mass mayhem around their small village. Along the way they were joined by an ensemble of quirky cast members, including a self-proclaimed French conman called Iyami and an oden-loving boy named Chibita, who served as a rival to the Matsu brothers.
Due to the manga’s popularity and commercial success, Osomatsu-kun received not one but two TV anime adaptations in 1966 and 1988, respectively. The first TV anime, Osomatsu-kun (1966), was produced by Studio Zero and aired alongside the manga’s original serialization for 60 episodes. As the Osomatsu-kun manga continued well beyond the original anime’s run, it eventually grew into a cultural icon for the Japanese people, with many of its cartoony characters becoming household names. This lead to the production of a second anime series by Studio Pierrot, Osomatsu-kun (1988), which ran for 88 episodes. The second anime series was considered a departure from the original and even Akatsuka’s manga, as it focused predominantly on the schemes of Iyami and Chibita, while pushing the Matsu sextuplets to the background. Despite that, the 1988 Osomatsu-kun adaptation was still very well-received by fans of the original, with once secondary cast members Iyami and Chibita growing into the most popular characters in the franchise. At the height of the franchise’s popularity, Iyami’s trademark pose of stretching his arms and legs and shouting シェー! (Sheeeeh!) was mimicked by numerous celebrities and even The Beatles!
All good things eventually come to an end though, and with Osomatsu-kun’s second TV anime ending in December of 1989 and the manga finally reaching completion the following year, the franchise slowly faded to the back of people’s minds. For 25 years the franchise did not see the emergence of any new stories, and with author Fujio Akatsuka’s death in 2008, the prospect of Osomatsu-kun remaining a relic of the past seemed imminent.
But much to everyone’s surprise, in 2015 – the year which would be celebrating Akatsuka’s 80th birthday – Studio Pierrot announced a new Osomatsu project, titled Osomatsu-san (おそ松さん). This new TV anime was intended to be a complete franchise reboot, with the same cast of characters from Osomatsu-kun as adults. While there were longtime fans of Osomatsu-kun that happily jumped on board to see their beloved characters again, many of Osomatsu-san’s viewers were completely new to the franchise. To the current generation of anime fans, Osomatsu-kun was never a household name or cultural icon that they grew up with. As such, it truly seemed as if Osomatsu-san was destined to become a niche anime series – only to be viewed by longtime fans or those looking for something off the beaten path.
However, the year of Osomatsu-san was certainly one with more surprises in store. Within weeks of the show’s first episode, it was already racking in thousands of pieces of fan art on Pixiv, most of which were of the sextuplets. This was only the beginning of Osomatsu-san’s claim to fame, as the fan response continued to grow with time. When the show’s first Blu-ray & DVD sets were released, modern anime fans were shocked that such a seemingly obscure franchise had suddenly claimed the top spot of best-selling anime. Osomatsu-san sold an incredible 79,108 units between its Blu-ray & DVD releases. To give an idea of how much Osomatsu-san outsold every other anime, second place went to Owarimonogatari (the then latest entry in Studio Shaft’s popular Monogatari franchise), which sold 24,146 copies.
Certainly this was a phenomena that most anime fans couldn’t have predicted, especially given how recent vintage franchise reboots such as Gatchaman Crowds and Yoru no Yatterman fared in comparison. So what made Osomatsu-san such a commercial success and how was it able to use the foundation from its predecessor Osomatsu-kun to win the hearts of many anime fans across the globe? In an attempt to answer that question, I’ll be looking at the style of humour in Osomatsu-kun (1988) and how its spiritual successor, Osomatsu-san, altered the franchise’s formula to appeal to a contemporary audience.
The 1960’s through the 1980’s were a time of rapid economic growth for Japan, as the country slowly rose from the ashes into one of the world’s largest economic superpowers. While the scars of the Second World War still hadn’t healed, the tail-end of the Showa era was a time of financial prosperity for Japan’s people. The middle-classes enjoyed an influx of new forms of entertainment such as foreign films and home gaming consoles. Advancements were made to medicine and housing to promote a better quality of living and support the aging population while unemployment rates remained low throughout. This was the socio-economic reality in which Osomatsu-kun was conceived; a period of hope and prosperity.
But good times need good laughs and Osomatsu-kun provided no shortage of those for audiences during its run. Its 1988 remake was an exceptionally goofy show, with an approach to comedy reminiscent of many Western cartoons of a similar vintage or even Charlie Chaplin slapstick comedies. A standard plotline in Osomatsu-kun (1988) would usually involve the two leads, Iyami and Chibita, trying to devise a ploy to con the residents of their small village and become filthy rich. They would don ridiculous disguises, impersonate doctors and ballet dancers and get away with their dirty deeds until something went horribly wrong. It was usually the Matsu brothers who would lead to Iyami and Chibita’s downfall, as they’d meddle in their affairs, smoke out their schemes and just contribute to the chaos in the process. While episodes usually started out peacefully, by the end the town would be left in shambles with characters covered from head to toe in soot from explosions – and Iyami’s medical expenses ensured he would never see the light of France again. But of course, by the next episode, everyone was totally fine again.
With an episodic narrative and the sky being the limit for wackiness in Osomatsu-kun (1988), the staff at Studio Pierrot often crafted stories that featured the characters in alternate universes. The series was a slapstick gag comedy at heart and character development, while still present, wasn’t its primary goal – so there was little consequence to removing the cast from reality and having them play roles that didn’t always suit their personalities. One alternate universe depicted the characters in Feudal Japan while another was set in 20th century Europe and had the cast paying homage to the Western cartoon, Wacky Races. Osomatsu-kun was very much a show that indulged in the absurd for laughs, with a cast of characters that literally and figuratively changed costumes to stay fashionable at the party.
While no two plotlines in Osomatsu-kun were ever the same, the show was surprisingly consistent with the targets of its humour. Given that Osomatsu-kun aired during a time of economic prosperity in Japan, much of its comedy stemmed from characters’ petty or outlandish behaviours concerning money. One episode featured the eldest Matsu brother coming down with a fever and being visited by a Shinigami salesman that attempted to sell his family goods to ease his departure to the afterlife. Although the episode also poked fun at the superstitious nature of Japanese society – with comical depictions of crucifixions, the Sanzu River and the Buddhist Nirvana – the central conflict still boiled down to a character that was struggling to make a living.
However the primary target of Osomatsu-kun’s jabs at financial desperation was Iyami. At the beginning of Osomatsu-kun, Iyami returns to Japan from France with promises of wealth, to which his best friend Chibita is overjoyed to hear. Throughout the series it becomes increasingly apparent that Iyami is hopeless – he is unable to make even ends’ meat, is often homeless and resorts to conning and stealing (with most of his attempts ending in complete failure). But despite that, his failures and misfortunes were almost always played up for laughs.
Iyami was meant to be a character that the audience simultaneously took pity in, but also had no qualms jeering at when he fell into his own trap or was tortured by the Matsu brothers. Iyami – a man at the bottom rungs of society, a dreamer of a glamorous lifestyle and a thief and conman all the same – yet amassed enough of a following to swipe the lead role from the title characters; he was a hit, a cultural sensation. But as Osomatsu-san would later prove, Iyami was very much a character of his time.
Fast forward 25 years to present-day Japan. We have now entered a time of economic recession for the country. The aging population continues to grow, meanwhile a staggering amount of young adults are unemployed and unable to find a romantic partner. The country’s birth rate has declined as a result and Japan as a whole still hasn’t found a solution to this nation-wide issue. It is during tough times like these that humour becomes an effective tool for tackling touchy subjects. Shows such as Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei have proved in the past that a touch of satire and black comedy can go a long way – and Osomatsu-san is certainly taking a few pages from the anime comedies of the modern era.
Given that Osomatsu-kun’s approach to humour was a product of its era – lengthy slapstick skits with wacky, absurd tangents – the decision on the part of series director, Yoichi Fujita, to adapt a format closer to other skit-based, meta comedies was a smart choice. Fujita had served as the series director for a large chunk of Gintama’s anime adaptation and many of his comedic sensibilities can be seen throughout Osomatsu-san. However, this is not to say that Osomatsu-san is simply another Gintama clone as the staff at Studio Pierrot were respectful enough of the foundation laid out by Osomatsu-kun. Both the writing and animation teams were asked to check out specific episodes from Osomatsu-kun (1988) for inspiration, cementing Pierrot’s decision to not discard the franchise’s forefathers. Throughout its run, Osomatsu-san made the occasional allusion to plotlines from Osomatsu-kun, with one of the more notable examples being that both series have done Wacky Races homages. At the same time, Studio Pierrot was able to craft a unique identity for Osomatsu-san by drawing upon the characterization and comedy stylings of modern anime. To that end, Osomatsu-san is both a celebration of the old and the new – and is one of the few anime of our time that has found commercial success in that marriage between past and present.
One of the primary alterations Pierrot made to Osomatsu-san from Osomatsu-kun was in the series’ casting. Iyami and Chibita were relegated to side characters and the Matsu brothers were given the spotlight once again. Although Osomatsu-kun had all the Matsu brothers fundamentally behave as the same character by acting like a mob, Osomatsu-san was quick to change each brother into his own memorable character. Now fully grown adults in their 20’s, the Matsu brothers are still living with their parents as NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training). Below is a brief description of each brother’s personality in Osomatsu-san:
The title character, Osomatsu, is probably the most basic of the bunch. Despite being the eldest brother, Osomatsu is very self-centered and insensitive to his brothers’ troubles – traits that certainly run in the family. When he’s not staring at the ceiling, Osomatsu can be found squandering his time away at pachinko parlors and race tracks. So much for setting an example for the younger siblings!
The next in line is Karamatsu, a self-appointed ladies man who quite literally “wears himself” on his back. Karamatsu is a narcissist by nature, sporting shades, a leather jacket and his own musical accompaniment wherever he goes. He frequently tries to play it cool and smooth for the mythical “Karamatsu Girls” in the audience but unfortunately neither his brothers nor anyone in the anime seems to care. When Karamatsu spouts a line that he considers to be magnificent or intelligent (often accompanied by his broken English), he is either outright ignored by everyone on screen or cast into a fiery pit for a slapstick gag. Regardless of how painful Karamatsu’s presence is, he is an inseparable part of the show and slowly became one of the more popular Matsu brothers.
Choromatsu is the third brother, and compared to the over-the-top Karamatsu is more down to earth, relatively speaking. Choromatsu fits the mold of an idol otaku to a T and is often found obsessing over the latest female pop stars in a frenzied state. Choromatsu is quite clearly meant to be a satire of idol otaku in Japan, but his character also plays the tsukkomi or straight man in many of the show’s scenarios.
The fourth brother, Ichimatsu, is a natural loner with a bad case of social anxiety. He keeps to himself and becomes absorbed in his dark, depressing thoughts – with his only friends being the local neighborhood cats. Despite that, Ichimatsu still hangs around with his brothers a lot, bickering and getting into fights when there’s an issue that concerns the entire group. Throughout Osomatsu-san, Ichimatsu shows the occasional sign of wanting to open himself up to human contact, but his mental health issues often prevent him from doing so. Whether his troubles are played for laughs or a serious examination of an individual struggling socially, Ichimatsu is a character that many audiences found themselves attached to.
Last but not least is Todomatsu, the youngest brother. Todomatsu acts in an effeminate manner and is very vain, being concerned with his physical appearance and public image. While the other Matsu brothers are borderline hopeless with women, Todomatsu has shown some success in being able to go on dates – albeit as a result of his fake persona. Sadly, jealousy is something that runs in the Matsu family and Todomatsu’s brothers often sabotage many of his attempts at getting the girls. Goes to show that poor Totty can never escape his genes.
But wait, weren’t there six Matsu brothers? Oh right, Jyushimatsu! Jyushimatsu is…quite honestly difficult to describe. Behind his perpetual smile, he’s hyperactive, loves baseball and does not abide by the laws of reality; Jyushimatsu is a crazy cartoon character, even by the franchise’s standards. What sets Jyushimatsu apart from his other siblings is that he’s rarely shown to be bothered by his NEET status, remaining cheerful and upbeat to the point where others question his sanity. But perhaps this is what caused many people to contract the Jyushimatsu virus by the end of the show’s run, as Osomatsu-san wouldn’t have been the same without his random bursts of insanity.
Essentially the Matsu brothers were meant to be washed-up, unsuccessful bums. Yet amidst all their negative traits and collective bickering, the Matsus managed to be very entertaining and endearing. On the one hand, characters like Ichimatsu and Choromatsu had problems that some audiences may have been able to relate to, or at least emphasize with. While on the other hand, Karamatsu and Jyushimatsu were faces in the crowd that added to the hilarity with their over-the-top, absurd behaviours. Although distinguishing one Matsu from the next proved to be difficult at the start of the series – due to their appearances being identical aside from minor facial features – their personality quirks became distinctive enough that Pierrot had no qualms focusing on a single brother for an entire skit or episode. The occasional focus on character development allowed audiences to connect with the Matsu brothers on an emotional level beyond what a gag comedy would normally offer. Especially in an industry where anime needs recognizable, visually appealing designs and likable personalities to sell character merchandise, this decision payed off for the studio (quite literally).
However, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses for the cast of Osomatsu-san. While the brothers certainly took up the microphone and stole the spotlight, some of the supporting cast received the short-end of the stick. Iyami is perhaps the most notable example, given that he was previously the heart and soul of Osomatsu-kun. The issue with Iyami’s character in Osomatsu-san was he refused to change, unlike the Matsu brothers. Iyami was still the same conniving conman that he was from Osomatsu-kun, but Pierrot found great difficulty in trying to make him work for a modern audience. His シェー! catchphrase became the bread and butter of his character, and unfortunately ended up defining his personality and relegating him to reaction gags. While this allowed Iyami to function as a punchline of sorts, he simply couldn’t hold an episode together when he was the main focus, and as a result was mostly unseen during the show’s second half.
Likewise, Studio Pierrot faced a similar hurdle with adapting Chibita and love-interest, Totoko, to fit the contemporary slant of Osomatsu-san. While their transition wasn’t as awkward as Iyami’s due to their occasional interaction with the Matsu brothers, both Chibita and Totoko’s personalities were simplified in comparison to their Osomatsu-kun counterparts. Totoko, for instance, was still the same vanity queen as she was in Osomatsu-kun, but her portrayal in Osomatsu-san was limited to her fake idol persona. Unfortunately few attempts were made to stretch her beyond that mold throughout the show’s run – comically and emotionally.
With that said, the weakness of the side cast was hardly a call for concern with Osomatsu-san. In keeping with the show’s spirit, Studio Pierrot thought up some rather creative ways to make the best of the worst. One of Osomatsu-san’s strengths was it was aware that it was a reboot of a franchise nobody knew of anymore. Case in point, the show’s first episode kicked off with a scene produced in the style of the 1966 adaptation of Osomatsu-kun, with the characters shocked their show was going to receive an anime adaptation in the year 2015. However, being from the Showa era, most of them were not accustomed to the style of modern comedy, feeling their simple catchphrases would not be enough. Eventually the Matsu brothers settled on trying to do an anime in the style of a bishounen idol show, as they believed it was the best way to market an all-male cast. Sadly, just as things seemed like they were working out, their other cast members joined the fray and desperately referenced popular anime from other genres – culminating in a shameless parody of Shingeki no Kyojin.
This self-awareness would persist throughout the run of Osomatsu-san as characters would make occasional reference to their skits going against the wishes of the late Fujio Akatsuka. Iyami even acknowledged that nobody knew his catchphrase and was furious audiences weren’t finding him funny anymore. As such, the show always had that slight touch of meta humour at the ready and even evolved alongside its fanbase to focus on the more popular aspects (notably the Matsu brothers) during its second half. For example, when the studio realized that Osomatsu-san had a surprisingly large female following, they made the decision to include alternate universe skits featuring gender-swapped versions of the Matsu brothers. These skits, affectionately referred to as “GirlyMatsu”, adapted the characters’ personality traits into that of their female counterparts – the idol-obsessed Choromatsu became the fujoshi, Choroko. In short, Osomatsu-san’s meta humour was tied to its identity as a malleable franchise that had lived for over a half a century.
Amidst all the meta humour, crazy alternate universes and crude slapstick, there exists one aspect of Osomatsu-san that firmly anchors it to its passage in time. The decision to cast the Matsu brothers as NEETs was not simply an aesthetic choice, as certain segments of the show are very upfront about being a wake-up call for the young adults struggling both financially and romantically. While the cartoon depictions and general wackiness are still present, the issues that Osomatsu-san tackles are very much a reality for Japan. This is a major departure for the franchise, as Osomatsu-kun had always used satire to poke fun at less-pressing idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture as opposed to addressing a current issue. But times have certainly changed.
Through the skits focused on the mundane lives of the Matsu brothers we see a lot of their worries, anxieties and frustrations surrounding their futures come to light. The brothers are all jobless, socially and romantically inept and waste their lives away gambling, drinking and looking at pornography. Their characterization alone is a blunt reflection of NEETs taken to the extreme, and the show does not shy away from depreciating the brothers for laughs. Family and friends alike will often call them jobless virgins, with the Matsus themselves internalizing their own hopelessness. However, in keeping with their unique personalities, each brother deals with these social pressures differently. For instance, Ichimatsu continually refers to himself as “human trash” and chooses to isolate himself as much as possible to avoid being hurt. On the other hand, Karamatsu and Choromatsu simply escape reality by becoming enveloped in their fake narcissist and idol producer personas, respectively. The alternate universe skits can even be taken to be the Matsu brothers’ delusions of grandeur, with a few depicting the Matsus as bishounen idols. However, the lack of a defined narrative makes it tough to support this theory.
Interestingly enough, Osomatsu-san never proposes an idealized or romanticized solution to the brothers’ struggles, which is a rarity for anime dealing with these issues. This is perhaps a result of the show’s skit-based format and its minor threads of continuity, making Osomatsu-san more of a humourous portrait of contemporary NEET life, rather than an outright social discourse of it. Nevertheless, it’s a very effective one in my eyes, and is in many ways a more powerful statement than anime attempting to be dramatizations of reality, such as NHK ni Youkoso. Osomatsu-san uses its satire and black humour effectively to bring to light the shortcomings of its society, but never to the extent that it sacrificed its silliness.
In closing, the Osomatsu franchise has had one hell of a ride for the past half century. What started as a slapstick gag comedy has now transitioned into something that creator Fujio Akatsuka could have never envisioned. While respecting its roots, Osomatsu-san has achieved both commercial success and worldwide notoriety all thanks to Studio Pierrot’s willingness to adapt the franchise’s material into something more befitting of a contemporary audience. With six unforgettable faces and humour on its side, who knows where the Osomatsu name will end up in the coming years.