Japanese Comedy: An Introduction

So it’s almost been an entire year since I made the rather impulsive decision to uproot my (nominally) cushy life, quit my easy-to-do English teaching job, and moved to Tokyo to pursue a career in Japanese comedy.

As it turned out, joining the Japanese geinoukai (“entertainment world”) was both as simple as one, two, three and much much more complex than I anticipated.

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The main thing you need to understand about the Japanese entertainment system is that the agency rules all.  Whereas the wide-ranging perception of the western entertainment world is that of the managers and agents working for the talent, the reverse can be said of the Japanese system.

To get into the Japanese entertainment world, you need to get into a company.  And to get into a company, you need to go to school.  And so, go to school I did, a twenty four-old college graduate white dude in a world mostly unknown to the unwashed gaijin hordes (Take that, dude who just posted the five-thousandth weird-Japanese-ice-cream flavor reaction video on Youtube.)

I’ll possibly get into the different companies of the Japanese entertainment world somewhere down the line but for now, I’ll just tell you that I am on track to become a part of Japan’s largest comedy company by the end of the month after an arduous grind of a year at Tokyo NSC, Yoshimoto Kogyo’s school for aspiring comedians, wannabes, and people who have absolutely nothing better to do and drop out after three months (this constitutes a large chunk of the entering class every year).  It’s been a slog, some parts fun, a lot of parts varying degrees of infuriating and boring, but its almost done and I finally, FINALLY, find myself in a position where I’m allowed to talk about the stuff I’ve done, seen, and learned.

So here we are, tired, sick, with feet cold and wet from the rain.  What better time to start talking comedy.

Comedy in Japan

Japanese comedy has some similar traits to the American comedy that I grew up with and loved.  It also has inherently different traits of its own, the biggest being a general emphasis on small teams, opposed to the inherent “aloneness” of the Western stand-up comedian, which I guess makes sense, considering Japan’s inherent emphasis on team building and group harmony (Blatant stereotype alert!).  Sure there are solo acts but, for the most part, the comedians you see hosting TV shows, slumming it on stage, or bumming around train stations looking for loose change are doing it in pairs (known in Japan as owarai konbi).

In today’s modern Japanese comedy world, acts can roughly be broken up into three different categories.

Pin (ピン)

The broadest of the three categories, this category of Japanese stage comedy can simply be summed up as doing things on your own, be it traditional Japanese stand-up (or, more accurately, kneel-down) known as rakugo or doing things on stage in character or, and I kid you not this is sorta a thing, dancing around in a man-thong whilst doing poses that make you look naked.  Broad comedy, right?  I could get into the different kinds and styles of pin comedy but there’s a bit of overlap and by the time I’d finished explaining things, you’d all probably be bored out of your minds so let’s leave the nitty gritty off for another day.

Conte (コント)

Possibly the form of Japanese comedy most recognizable to people abroad, Japanese conte comedy has much in comedy with the sketch comedy of shows like SNL or half the shows being shown on Comedy Central when it’s not re-airing episodes of Scrubs that nobody watches (Sorry, Zach Braff).  In this form, the starring conbi or group in question gets their acting on to deliver a short scene of some comedic merit.  The audience, generally finding what they are seeing humorous to some degree, laughs, which is the action of exerting air through your windpipes in a manner that produces noise.

Really anyone who’s seen a episode of Saturday Night Live knows what a sketch is and if you don’t, well shame on you.

Manzai (漫才)

Two dudes (or three… or dudettes) and a mic.  Since I’ve come to be a part of the Japanese entertainment world, many a person has tried their damned hardest to convince me this is a style of comedy unique to Japan.  But as I see it, it’s unfortunately not.

Having much in common with vaudeville acts of old, manzai as it is commonly performed is a conversation between the boke (idiot) and the tsukkomi (straight man).  As a system of delivering jokes, it’s really fool proof and timeless and acts like Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy have shown us.

There is a certain slapstick element to the thing that can be a little hard for Westerners to swallow at first (along with the usual “cultural differences” problem that can make humor a little hard to go over for the foreign eye) but manzai can also be incredibly funny and is, more importantly, perhaps the most popular form of comedy in Japan, with countless theaters across Japan holding several manzai shows a day.

It is on this form of Japanese comedy that I will first focus.

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