Cartoonist Fujio Akatsuka (1935-2008) is a household name in Japan. He pioneered in “gag manga”, Japanese comics that are based around jokes and humor. Fujio made comics with outrageous characters and ridiculous storylines, often satirizing the Japanese society. He was, in another words, a Japanese Milt Gross. He was published since 1956, but it wasn’t until the debut of Osomatsu-Kun that Akatsuka made it big.
Osomatsu Kun first appeared in 1962 on Weekly Shōnen Sunday. The cartoon was about the misadventures of 10-year old sextuplets: Osomatsu, Karamatsu, Choromatsu, Ichimatsu, Jūshimatsu, and Todomatsu. They are all identical, all wearing the same clothes, same hairstyle, and having the same basic mischief personality. Early storylines were all based around people getting mixed up with the six kids due to how they all look alike.
After a while, though, this premise can get thin (the comic ran until 1969), and Fujio Akatsuka probably felt the same because he started featuring two characters that would ultimately steal the show: Iyami, a buck-toothed conman who claims to be from France, although there is evidence that he never even went there. A recurring trait is that, whenever Iyami is surprised, he would hold a special pose and yell “Shee!” This would become a pop culture staple in Japan, and was parodied in other media; Godzilla even did that pose in one of his films. The other character is Chibita, a short, bald-headed kid who is the butt of the jokes from the sextuplets. He is almost always seen eating “oden”, a popular Japanese food. Many later stories involve around those two characters scheming up get-rich plans, usually by scamming the sextuplets. In fact, it’s safe to say that Iyami and Chibita became the true stars of the series, with Osomatsu and his brothers being side-characters, if they appeared at all.
There are other characters such as Dekopan, a overweight man who is always naked except for his large boxers, in which he carries several cats inside; Hatabō, a tiny boy modeled after Buster Keaton who has a small Japanese flag growing out of his scalp; and Dayōn, a man with an incredibly large mouth who always shows up in random places.
In fact, if there is one Japanese cartoon that has little-to-no episode-by-episode continuity, it’s this one. Just about all the characters have different roles in every episode. In one episode, Iyami is a doctor, then an inventor in another, and even a detective in the next. Chibita is the same thing; sometimes he’s a sidekick to Iyami, but in another he’s a victim of his scams. They could also be ninjas in another episode, or filmmakers. Same thing with Dekopan and Dayōn. Basically, whatever role is needed in a storyline, they can fill it in just to service the plot.
One of the more famous (and surprisingly emotional) storylines features Chibita being released from prison after he was sentenced for breaking into safes, being reunited with his sidekick Hatabō. Upon release, he vows to never crack safes again, even though Detective Iyami doesn’t believe him, saying that if he breaks open just one more safe, he will be sent back to prison. He gets a job at a fish store, trying to make a new living. However, he had to break his vows when Osomatsu gets locked inside a large safe while it was being delivered to his home. With no key in sight, Chibita reluctantly cracks it open in order to let them go. Iyami, touched, tells Chibita that he won’t arrest him for it. Nonetheless, the next morning, Chibita has left his job, having decided to move to a new life with his former partner Hatabō.
Two anime series were made based on the comic.
The first show, which was filmed in black and white, aired on MBS (Mainichi Broadcasting System) from February 5, 1966 to March 25, 1967, on Saturday nights at 7:30 pm. 56 episodes, each divided into two segments, were made. It was co-produced by Children’s Corner (which also worked on Joe Oriolo’s Johnny Cypher) and Studio Zero.
Studio Zero was formed by a group of Japanese cartoonists, which included Fujiko Fujio (Motō Abiko and Hiroshi Fujimoto), Shotaro Ishinomori, Jirō Tsunoda, and Fujio Akatsuka himself. Studio Zero produced poor animation, although that was the norm in mid-1960s Japanese television. The only important person with an actual animation experience was Shin’ichi Suzuki (b. 1933), who served as one of the writers and directors of the show. Fujio Akatsuka himself supervised the show. Often times the show took advantage of the fact that there are six characters that look exactly alike by reusing the same character animation six times in a single shot. For example, if the sextuplets are running past the screen, they would simply reuse the same run cycle six times in a row.
The show did well enough to last a year, and it served well as the first original animation for the MBS network. Unfortunately, the show was produced in black and white, meaning that it didn’t have much shelf life once Japanese TV started to embrace color. It was being rerun into the 1970s, but the show went missing after that. In 1990, they found 16mm broadcast prints of the entire run in a TV station warehouse. The entire series was later released on DVD box-sets.
A second show, this time in color, was produced by Studio Pierrot, airing Saturday evenings at 6:30 pm on Fuji Television from February 13, 1988 to December 30, 1989. 86 episodes were made. While the 1966 series did emphasize the sextuplets, even with prominent appearances of Iyami and Chibita, the 1988 series just cuts to the chase and puts the spotlight on the two, Iyami especially. The theme song for the 1980s show was about Iyami, with very minor appearances of Osomatsu and his brothers. It’s a wonder why the show wasn’t named after him at this point. 90% of the show’s episodes are seemingly based around the latter half of the comic’s run, when Iyami and Chibita defacto became the star of the series, with Osomatsu and his brothers being glorified side-characters.
The 1980s show was better produced than the 1960s one. While the animation can be really frantic at times, it still suited the comic’s wacky tone better than the stilted black and white series. For this version, they opted to utilize the entire half-hour time-slot rather than dividing the episode into two segments, which I think was a good idea, giving room for more gags and situations, as well as providing some breathing room for the otherwise frantic and fast-paced humor in the show.
Nowadays, Osomatsu-Kun is overshadowed by Fujio Akatsuka’s other properties, such as Tensai Bakabon and Akko’s Secret, but the characters are still well-remembered and it’s still associated with the creator’s overall work. Hard to believe that a cartoon featuring identical sextuplets got overshadowed by a strange, buck-toothed man and a bald, short kid.