An Update (August 2016 Edition) or Hot Spring Hell

Sorry for the relative dead air over the past month.  After the surprising amount of free time that came after the release of WHAT’S MANZAI?!!!, my schedule suddenly went back to being meanderingly busy.

As it turns out, summers are a relatively busy time in the Japanese entertainment world, what with summer events, festivals, the usual live schedule, and several projects that I’m not at liberty to reveal yet.

So what have I been up to (that I can tell you)?

Well, over the last half of July, I’ve been up in the mountains in the popular resort town of Hakone, living in staff lodgings and working 13 hour days running a hot spring attraction for a popular television show.  Well, not just me, of course, as my comedic partner has actually been bearing the brunt of the workload (yay, language barrier!).

It’s long, unforgiving work and honestly probably pays horribly (we don’t know how much money we’ll get until it’s actually in our bank accounts) but, when you’re a first year dude, any work offer is a good offer, which means you accept these stints no matter how much you may hate them.

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And believe me, this work does suck.  You wake up early, work until nine, work seven days a week, and stand in ankle deep people broth all day, resulting in the soles of your feet resembling stale bread crust, making your workday a living hell.  Even though it’s been a week since I’ve returned from Hakone, I still find myself waking up in the dead of night with foot pain.  I know, I know.  It comes with the territory.

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There’s supposedly a valley behind those clouds.

And since this is workaholic Japan, I’m going back for another shift in two weeks.

 

But hey, at least the view isn’t horrible.

You’re a Minor Netflix Celebrity, So Now What?

One minute you’re a broke dude who occasionally performs on stage and does menial tasks for money (aside from the whole having to hide the fact that you filmed an entire “documentary thing), the next minute your sweaty face is being shared all around the world by multiple Japanese news services, Netflix official social media outlets, and, on rare occasion, random people on the internet.  And through it all, you’re still broke.

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What’s Manzai?!!!, a documentary (using the term incredibly liberally here) meant to help introduce the west to the Japanese form of comedy largely resembling the legendary vaudeville acts of old (but don’t tell people here that), came out on Friday morning as part of Yoshimoto Kogyo’s, Japanese largest comedy conglomerate, push to internationalize for the twenty-first century.

For whatever reason, dumb luck, or somewhere in between, I somehow wound up being the star, being thrust into a project for which I was and still am completely unprepared.  Were this an actual documentary, I’d imagine that things would have gone a lot smoother and easier, but, as you can probably pick up in spots in the film, it wasn’t really that.  I’d imagine that actual documentaries don’t have scripts and countless rewrites until after the fact.  I’d imagine if they did, they wouldn’t be written completely by (very talented) Japanese screenwriters with no English skills and then dissected and re-assembled by a crew of dozens of people, none of whom have actually really worked on an English project before.

So yes, there were challenges.  Lots of challenges.  And to be completely honest, I probably could have handled a lot of the situation better.  Being tasked with, in the minds of the people in charge of this project, the introduction and explanation of an entire form of comedy to the English speaking world (and many other countries through the magic of subtitles), there were times where I simply crumbled to the pressure.  There were and still are other times where the things I was being asked to do or say completely clashed with the idea of this program being a documentary and I wound up having to play a version of myself that frankly isn’t me (unless you think that I wander around the streets of Tokyo at maximum velocity shouting about “the Japanese dream”).  This being a Japanese company, there were times where my American creative voice and ideas simply clashed with what the other people had in mind for the program.  There were compromises and, me being the hardheaded bastard I am, I didn’t necessarily take things completely in stride.

But overall, it was a great learning experience, not just in my own development as an on-screen presence but in terms of my understanding of the Japanese entertainment industry, which I’ve come to learn takes the whole getting things done perfectly and as written in the script seriously.

Which brings me to the actual release of the program.  We had actually finished filming (and dubbing) of this project two months ago but I was never actually told when the thing would drop.  Lo and behold, while I was hard at work on another undiscloseable project, the program essential dropped without my knowing with me actually finding out when I came across my own face staring back at me on my Twitter feed, a Japanese media blitz resulting in dozens of articles spewing the same rhetoric about my quest to become a manzai star.

International media?  Not so much.  Makes sense right?  Yoshimoto’s a Japanese company with a strong hold on Japanese media outlets.  America news media?  Probably not.  Any non-Japanese attention I’ve gotten in the few days since the documentary went live has largely been from friends and family and random Japanese people living in the states who apparently have nothing better to do with their lives than watch questionable documentaries about Japan.  It looks like a Tonight Show appearance isn’t in the cards.  Which is cool.  I’m not sure I’m all that ready for international attention.  Not after this.

I just wish I weren’t broke.

Follow Stephen on twitter @STEPHEN_TETSU for updates on showtimes, weird things he sees in Japan, and angry basketball rants for some reason.

So hey again.

Pretty sure that this is against my company policies but the blog system they have had me use sucks donkey testes and was obviously not meant for English so for now, it’s back to this.

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What’s changed since my last post announcing the closing of this blog?

Well, to start out, I’m a minor Netflix celebrity now.  Starting from the 30th of June, What’s Manzai?!!!, a Yoshimoto sanctioned, Yoshimoto produced “documentary” (Can’t really talk about that for obvious reasons) about Japanese comedy went live worldwide on Netflix, which is a bigger deal than my Japanese overseers seem to realize.  What’s changed for me since that point?  Well, I sleep in the nude now.  That much is happening.

I’m also completely broke right now, completely fitting that stereotype of a broke struggling comedian.  Except I’m in Japan.

I’m also writing a book sorta.  But that’s way off in the distance.

 

Anyways, I’m back for the time being until my company shits this down.  So enjoy.

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.

Deep Breathing

The train was hot and crowded with drunk people, some asleep, some awake, some stuck somewhere in between, all victims of another hot summer’s evening spent drink, no doubt in some cramped small corner somewhere that smelt of stale beer and vomit caked into the walls after years and years of the same rough cycle.

This was Tokyo as he had come to know it.  A sticky, sweaty, hastily slapped together swirl of lights, stress, and piss.   Continue reading

Oh, Japanglish 2015 Winter Edition

As the country gets more and more tourism oriented in the run-up to the 2020 Summer Olympics, Japan’s collective English level has been slowly rising, which still doesn’t prevent the occasional awkward gem/ odd cultural misunderstanding.

Going to the Movies in Japan

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So unless you’ve been living under a rock with no connection to the outside world aside from this blog for the past two years (in which case, thank you and get a life), you may well know that this week saw the release of perhaps the most anticipated film of perhaps the last decade, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Part 4.

Since this is Japan, most new Western film releases generally show up in theaters after a several year delay (only a slight exaggeration), meaning that the new addition to the apparently lucrative Alvin and the Chipmunks franchise will show up in your nearest Tokyo theater around the time that I am married with several children.  So rather than watching everyone’s third favorite bunch of talking tree rodents, I had to settle for some movie called Star Wars instead.

Apparently, though I’m not quite sure, this movie was a sequel of some sort and just another cog in the Disney hype machine if I may say so myself.  Talking robots, spaceships, and laser swords, this movie will probably never catch on.  A box office bomb, I’m certain.

Anyways, even though I’ve been living in Japan for the past two years plus now, I broke my solemn vow of curmudgeonism and ventured for the first time ever to a movie theater in the hustling and bustling heart of Tokyo.

Now, if you’re ever planning on going to the movies, there are probably a couple of things you should know…

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Hello from the Japanese Entertainment Realm

It is December 14th and I am sitting in a so-called “family restaurant” by myself typing this on my increasingly finicky laptop while lamenting the fact that I tore off a chunk of skin on my ass in the name of Japanese late-night television.

Pretty glamorous right?

My transition from faceless Japanese teacher to “entertainment talent” under the umbrella of the largest, most powerful entertainment agency in Japan has had its bumps and derailments but has certainly been, well, “something”.

R藤本 Guest Appearance

One of the highlights of my foray into Japanese showbiz? Guest appearing on a Dragonball-themed TV show. Yes. That’s a thing. And it’s fun.

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