So as you all probably know by now, way back in June, I was in a “documentary” called What’s Manzai?!!!, a project by Yoshimoto Creative Agency that was released worldwide on Netflix mainly so everyone could marvel at my bad on-the-spot Japanese-script-to-English-line translation and comment on how I don’t look my age (in the bad way). Of course, somewhere between the flubbed lines, gross mischaracterizations, and abuse of my unwitting in-show partner (yes, I know I was pretty much a huge Ron Jeremy-sized dick throughout the thing), we made an attempt to provide an introduction to the Japanese comedy form known as manzai.
In case you haven’t seen the thing yet (believe me when I say I wouldn’t be too upset if you didn’t), manzai is the prevalent form of “standup comedy” in Japan, a pseudo-continuation of the early twentieth century comedy style of vaudeville in the west. Generally performed by two people, manzai can often be roughly summarized as a “conversation” between a fool (the boke) and the straight man (the tsukkomi). Almost every single television program on Japanese television is dominated by comedians who broke into the industry through manzai, so I guess you can say it’s sorta a big deal.
So where did manzai come from? And how did it get so big?
Since What’s Manzai?!!! has sorta ruined my employability with almost every-single English language-focused company in Japan, I guess I’ll use some of my free time to half-assedly (is that word?) take you all through the history of this “unique” comedy form…
It all really started around a hundred years ago…
Yokoyama Entatsu and Hanabashi Achako
While comedy has existed in Japan for hundreds, if not thousands of years (things weren’t always about head-lopping and self-disembowlment back in the day), the modern iteration of manzai as we can commonly see it today really got going in the late 1920s and 1930s, thanks mainly to, of all things, radio and other technological advancements bringing more and more entertainment to the masses. Entatsu and Achako, two performers based in Osaka, historically a merchant city of fast-talkers and quicker wits, were two beneficiaries of this leap towards modernity.
Dressing in western-style clothing that veered wildly from the traditional stage garb of Japanese entertainers (garb still worn by rakugo performers to this day), Entatsu and Achako were practically Japanese comedy Elvis, bursting onto the scene with their “unusual clothes” and new crazy style of fast, pitter-patter conversation. They were trendy, fresh, and new, and, in a post-Meiji Japan looking towards the future, just the entertainers for a new western-influenced Japan.
Among Japanese comedy historians (if there even is such a thing), Entatsu and Achako are known as the originators of the widespread style now called shabekuri manzai, conversation manzai. Without these two groundbreakers, there would be no manzai as we know it. Or so I’ve been told. (As I’m contractually prohibited from posting videos of any company talents or acts, even my own, I’ll just share this link so you can see a bit of the two men in action yourself)
As we see in the clip, taken from a movie made in the 1930s when Entatsu and Achako were at the peak of their popularity, the duo take on a rudimentary form of the roles seen in modern manzai as the entire film around them grinds to a halt, bringing all of our inner film critics to tears. Looking at it now, with all of our special effects and nifty doodads and such, it’s hard to draw much entertainment value from the thing, but for the common Japanese person of the time film provided an avenue to see the hottest acts of the day (and more!!!) without having to trek out to Osaka in person.
Now, I know you’re all probably thinking, “Aren’t these two dudes just ripping off the style of vaudeville duos like Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy?” I’ve had these thoughts too. But no matter who I asked, when I asked, or how hard I tried looking for answers, pretty no one working in the Japanese entertainment industry today will admit to any sort of vaudeville influence or even acknowledge that they knew about vaudeville before I told them about it. If the two entertainers were in fact ripping off the vaudeville roles of the west, they weren’t exactly doing a great job (at least by our western standards), here moving very little and talking a lot faster than the film and recording technology of the time could probably handle.
From my perspective, there’s no doubt that vaudeville probably played some role in the development of manzai in Japan. I mean, one of the most common tsukkomi techniques in modern Japanese comedy (bashing the boke on the head whenever he says something dumb or stupid) is ripped straight from an old Three Stooges routine. But from Japanese eyes? Manzai is all Japan.
I’ll let you make your own decisions.