As I wrote earlier, Fujio Akatsuka pioneered the gag manga genre in Japan. He showed what it means to do a funny comic for the mainstream circulation, and he did it well. He has created numerous series that have went on to become hits, but none more than Tensai Bakabon.
The Tensai Bakabon comic first appeared in 1967 in Weekly Shonen Magazine. It is about the misadventures of a boy named Bakabon and his insane father, who has no name other than “Bakabon’s Papa”. The name of the series is contradictory: “Tensai” means genius and “baka” in “Bakabon” means dumb, idiotic; in English speaking circles the series is sometimes referred to as “Bakabon the Idiot Genius”. Indeed, Bakabon is rather naïve and idiotic, and most of the humor in the series came from all sorts of stupid stuff that the two characters did, especially the father. The whole series serves as a way to point out common stupidity in the Japanese society, exaggerated up to 11 for comedy.
True to Fujio Akatsuka tradition, the secondary character quickly took over the spotlight. In this case, Bakabon’s Papa became the central character, and while Bakabon was still prominent, he was effectively a sidekick, serving as a foil to the insane, idiotic adventures that his father would get into. Even with the change, though, the characters’ stupidity has always been the focus. Papa, in fact, is a graduate of Bakada University (Idiot University), where he was highly regarded by his peers. Some of the later storylines feature Papa meeting up with his fellow students from the university, going on idiotic adventures together.
Other characters include Bakabon’s Mama (like Papa, she doesn’t have a name), who has more common sense than her husband but often puts up with his stupidity anyway. Bakabon has a baby brother named Hajime, who is a child prodigy, an actual genius in the family. Papa frequently makes mischief with the Omawari-san (Mr. Policeman), a bug-eyed law enforcer who only has one nostril on his nose, and would always react to Papa’s stupidity by shooting his gun wildly in the air and shouting “You’re under arrest! You’re under arrest!” Bakabon’s neighbor is Rerere no Oji-san (Mr. Rerere), an odd man whose sole purpose in life is to sweep up the street with his broom. He would always ask passerby “You’re going on a trip?” with the characters telling him what ridiculous plan they’re going to pull. The man’s only response to whatever is “Rerere?”
Of course, with a set-up like that, the comic was a huge hit with the Japanese audience. So it’s no surprise that an anime would come out of this. In fact, Bakabon had four TV anime.
The first anime, simply titled Tensai Bakabon, was produced by Tokyo Movie, with animation handled by A Production. 40 episodes were broadcast on Yomiuri Television from September 25, 1971 to June 24, 1972. Unfortunately, while Fujio’s insane sense of humor were allowed in print magazines, it was a different story with Japanese television, even if they allowed more content than what America’s Saturday Morning lineup would.
Due to Yomiuri TV’s instance, Tokyo Movie was forced to tone down the source material’s content. Papa was still an idiot, but not that dangerously so like in the comic. He actually held a job as a tree pruner (in the comic, he never held a long-term job and the family’s source of income was never revealed). Bakabon’s school life was a plot point for several episodes, which, again, was something that the comic never explored. The comic’s non-sense humor is practically non-existent, and the show’s writer seemingly tried to make it so that everything made sense. In short, the TV series practically neutered everything.
It’s no surprise that the show was a flop, having missed the point of what Fujio Akatsuka was trying to do when he created the comic. And Tokyo Movie was aware, too, because they decided they would give the series a second try, this time trying to be close to the source material.
And they did. Tokyo Movie got another try few years later, this time called Ganso Tensai Bakabon; “Ganso” meaning “Original”, which should tell you everything you need to know about how this show is different from the 1971 series. In deed, in the very first episode, there was a short scene where a mysterious figure asks everyone who the real Bakabon’s Papa is, and various doppelgangers, including one that looks just like the version from the earlier show, all answered that he’s the real Papa. The figure says they’re all liars, because the real Bakabon’s Papa is him, in all of his moronic glory.
One of the more famous episodes parodies the “gekiga” (gekiga is to manga as graphic novel is to comic book) movement. A gangster, drawn more realistically than the cartoonish Akatsuka characters, tries to claim Bakabon property as his. Bakabon’s Papa refuses to budge, so the gangster tries to kill him with his flute, which shoots out a bullet whenever he finishes a song. However, the song is really long, so Bakabon’s Papa easily escapes him because the criminal is never able to finish the song in time to actually get him. A storyline this insane would never work elsewhere except with Fujio Akatsuka’s settings.
“Ganso” aired from October 6, 1975 to September 26, 1977 on Nippon Television, and they was more than willing to go farther than what Yomiuri did in terms of content. 103 episodes were made for this series. This is the regarded by fans as the true Bakabon anime, and indeed, the additional two TV series that followed (both produced by Studio Pierrot, one 1990 and another 2000) tried to mimic the standards that Ganso set, but the mid-1970s TMS series truly understood the source material the best, and set the standards for all gag anime that has come since then.