Well, it’s certainly no Jim Hensen style puppeteering that’s for sure. But if my near over-consumption of Japanese popular media has taught me anything, it’s that even the most odd looking characters have their crowd. So even the uncanny valley type of effect live-action Fukumaru has, was oddly endearing to me by the end of the drama.
Considering this series is based off the smash hit manga, which just recently released it’s 7th volume, most likely many are already familiar with the story. In case you aren’t, here’s the quick run-down.
Kanda Fuyuki (Kusakari Masao), an elderly pianist and recent widower leads a solitary lifestyle. At the encouragement of his life-long friend Kobayashi Natsuto (Masu Takeshi), Kanda starts looking into an animal companion to ease his loneliness. He heads to a local pet-shop where he sees a very unique looking, and highly discounted exotic shorthair. This cat is often overlooked due to his appearance and age. However, Kanda sees through such appearances and ends up purchasing the cat, naming him Fukumaru (voiced by Kamiki Ryunsuke). Together the duo begin their heartwarming and occasionally hilarious misadventures as a man and his cat.
As you can tell, this is a low-stakes feel good kind of story in both print and live-action format. It starts with a fairly episodic beginning, with Kanda as a first time pet owner having a fair amount of mishaps. Fukumaru being unsocialized has his own unique traits on display. As the two naturally grow closer, we get more exploration into longer plotlines and Kanda’s backstory that manifests itself in unique ways.
This is also about time where I talk about comparison and contrasts from the source material. Overall, Oijisama to Neko the live action pulls directly from the source fairly well. This is shown in the closing credits for each episode where a manga panel, and still from the episode are compared with relatively spot-on replication. The live-action starts right at the beginning, and follows the story to around chapter fifty-eight(ish) of the manga with minor deviations. This is to be expected as Oijisama to Neko started fairly episodic itself, and relying heavily on one page or 4-kom style gags, many of which are referenced, but not every single one makes the cut in this version.
About the biggest difference that will make or break your enjoyment is the treatment of Kanda’s recently deceased wife, Suzune. The live action from episode one, makes Suzune a more predominant character then she was originally in the manga. In the first episode she is named, full face shown, and has full dialogue, something that happens significantly later in the manga. Personally, while a bit surprised, I was not off-put by this particular character change. The way she was incorporated, and the whens and hows were both natural and respectful to Kanda and her relationship, and reflective of the character dynamic within the manga. This is after all an adaptation, not a panel for panel re-shoot of the manga, some changes should be expected and this one while potentially divisive, was solid in my opinion.
The perhaps bigger problem, is Fukumaru himself. He’s a puppet. I’m not a puppeteer nor do I have any experiance making them myself, but he’s okay at best? It’s clear the puppet was chosen over using a real cat, in order to convey the iconic expressions that manga Fukumaru makes, as well as making sure Fukumaru fully looks like Fukumaru. Using a live cat wouldn’t work as smoothly, and the budget for this series would explode trying to insert a CGI cat that actually looked good. So overall, a safe choice in the grand scheme of things. I just wish a few more alterations had been made when it came to his legs, since they look pathetic in comparison to his face and body.
Additionally, Fukumaru is very unnatural. His expressions are awesome, being able to blink and emote to match the voice acting done by Kamiki Ryunsuke. Which, to give props to now, Kamiki does an amazing voicing Fukumaru to the point where it’s my personal canon for what he sounds like. (If this series gets an anime adaptation, I would petition to get Kamiki to reprise his role.) Yet, when Fukumaru is walking, eating, or doing any other action aside from an inner monologue close-up or standing still, are completely unnatural. I grew up watching Jim Henson shows (The Muppets, etc) so I know what puppeteering at it’s peak looks like. This isn’t it. It’s not completely unwatchable, as like Fukumaru himself, it’s oddly endearing at times, but it’s not fantastic. You’ll probably be able to decide within the first episode and a half if you can give it a pass or not.
In terms of casting, I think it was near spot on, and that they had good chemistry overall. Inititally, I was cold to Kusakari Masao since I didn’t think he looked enough like Kanda. But, within the first episode I completely changed my opinion. Kusakari Masao managed to manifest a real-life Kanda, in an effortless execution. He truly captured the essence of Kanda and made it real.
The rest of the cast was solid as well. Small adjustments were made, specifically with Moriyama-Sensei’s hair, but it didn’t impact the performance or your ability to recognize the key human characters. I liked the dynamic that Koseki Yuta as Moriyama-Sensei had with Kusakari Masao’s Kanda. Pianist Hibino Kan, who was played by Hirayama Hiroyuki was just as I always envisioned, with just that touch more real life sensibilities. I was hot and cold to Masu Takeshi as Kobayashi, just because I had such a specific idea of how he’d be in real life, but overall while the appearance isn’t exactly as drawn, he captured the spirit of Kobayashi and handled Chako-chan well.
As for other elements, it was a bit of a mixed bag. The studio chose to do the annoying volume up on the opening and ending themes, so I’d have to lower my volume for those, and raise it for the actual drama. I wasn’t a fan of the ending theme itself, but it’s an earworm if I’ve ever heard one. The locations were well scouted, and utilized well within the drama. The cinematography was solid, lots of angles to show the difference in perspective from Fukumaru to Kanda and in-between, but nothing outstanding. I was a little disappointed when they used hand-held/shaky camera angles, because it was jarring in comparison to the rest of the episode but not so obtrusive as to ruin my viewing experiance.
Overall, Oijisama to Neko the live action is a solid, but not outstanding series. It took some creative risks with it’s source material, and made an attempt to distinguish itself. The results of which are a mixed, but overall enjoyable experiance if you’re okay with puppet Fukumaru and his movement patterns. By no means is this a series you need to rush out and watch, but if you’re a fan of the manga and are looking for something to tide you over between chapters, this isn’t a bad series. It manages to hit those emotional notes, and give you the warm fuzzies just like the manga.