The major deciding factor of whether or not Life Lessons with Uramichi Oniisan is going to tickle your funny bone or not may just come down to whether or not you regularly work with or otherwise interact with small children and how much of an academic background you have in the field of early childhood education. That’s because for much of the show, a major gag is that Uramichi and his costars on the inexplicably popular children’s program Together with Maman all say wildly inappropriate things to the kids, and by the midway point of the series (around episode seven) we can see that the child regulars are definitely getting more cynical themselves. Kids are neither stupid nor oblivious, and if you don’t find them being fed inappropriate adult information funny, this is probably not going to be the show for you. On the other hand, working with little kids can be utterly exhausting, so reactions here may just be more or less equally divided between love and hate, because there is something at least a little relatable about how the adults all interact in their off-stage time and how hard it can sometimes be to balance your adult problems with the need to be artificially perky for the kiddies.
In many ways, the series in anime form (the source manga is also being released in English by Kodansha) hinges on the vocal flexibility of Uramichi’s voice actor(s). The disconnect between his regular deadpan voice and his perky childcare voice needs to be distinct, with the latter sounding ever-so-slightly fake, and that’s something that largely gets pulled off. (While it’s important for the other characters as well, no one goes to quite the extremes that Uramichi does.) It really highlights the overall weirdness of both Uramichi doing this particular job and the quality of Together with Maman‘s idea of good children’s programming, which often feels like it was written by a combination of enthusiastic giggling teenagers and adults who are desperately trying to think like kids. That this somehow turns into a winning combination for the show is one of the best jokes the series has to offer, especially when the kids start to notice that while the other actors get relatively regular costumes, Uramichi is consistently put in very odd shorts-and-tank-top combos; his “Bonjour Man” outfit from the final episode stands out like a nudist at a formal party. It’s moments like these that really strain Uramichi’s ability to keep his inner cynic in check, especially since at least two of his coworkers can barely restrain their laughter when they look at him.
Since all of this is very in your face, it’s interesting to note that Life Lessons with Uramichi Oniisan does know how to be subtle. Mostly this happens when it comes to the characters’ pasts – there’s a very strong suggestion that Uramichi and Iketeru had difficult childhoods, being pushed by their parents into very specific fields, and we get plenty of evidence that Utano’s career as an enka singer didn’t work out, although not from lack of really trying. Kumatani, who plays one of the costumed characters, ended up there because he couldn’t stand the artificiality and hierarchy of the office jobs he had (the detail that he saved a cat from being abused is wonderful), and it’s really only Usahara who doesn’t appear to have fallen into children’s entertainment as a last resort. For the others, it’s clear that this isn’t what they wanted to do and that they’re trying to make the best of it, which could definitely explain their attitudes in general.
Of course, the staff they’re all working with doesn’t help, and I do mean this in two senses. From the characters’ perspective, the staff makes things much more difficult than they need to be – director Derekida’s whims seem to be the major driving force behind virtually everything on the show and he’s remarkably oblivious to how this affects the actors; even Kumatani’s temper snap during a roasting hot “winter” music video shoot where he forces Derekida to understand how uncomfortable everyone is doesn’t seem to have long-lasting results. Uramichi is constantly hounded by both the merchandising department and the writer for ideas he doesn’t really have, and overall it just appears to be a truly annoying working environment. That can work as comedy, however, and it does in many cases; the other issue with the staff is one that’s more likely to affect viewers than the characters. This would be choreographer Capellini, a self-proclaimed “onee” character who definitely comes off as tone-deaf and offensive as an outdated stereotype of gay men from a western perspective. Clearly intended to be funny, Capellini spends much of the time hitting on a creeped-out Usahara, and while that’s obviously not an awesome workplace interaction, the bigger problem is the way that it’s plainly meant to be funny when it just…isn’t. It’s one thing to have Iketeru giggling like a ninny every time he hears a word that sounds remotely like “dick;” it’s another to continue using the trope of the predatory gay man as a joke.
Despite these issues, Life Lessons with Uramichi Oniisan does do a fair amount of things right. The dead-eyed stare of Uramichi, regardless of what his mouth is doing or whether or not there’s light drawn into his eyes, is a good running gag in general, and the impressively inappropriate song lyrics about adult cynicism are a great joke about how kids don’t always understand the words of their favorite songs; sort of like kids’ movies slipping in a joke or two for the parents. Little background details, such as tubby middle-aged men staring in envy and disbelief at Uramichi’s toned body in the locker room or every member of Iketeru’s family thinking in onigiri images (even his dog), are great bits of comedy and help move things along even when the characters aren’t talking about anything all that interesting. The animation is fairly limited, but it’s there when it needs to be, such as when Uramichi is demonstrating his gymnastic skills, and the designs for the god-awful merchandise for the show is hilariously terrible. The final episode’s metafictional tone is also fun, if not a bit too on the nose.
But really, this series lives and dies on how funny you find the base conceit. If it works for you, this has some laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of chuckles. If it doesn’t, nothing presented is likely to change your mind, because most of the jokes hinge on the contradiction between children’s entertainment and cynicism. I do think it may work a bit better in its original manga form, but no matter how you experience it, this is probably a love-it-or-hate-it kind of show.