Something I saw in Shibuya

Sitting around Shibuya, killing time at a Starbucks before my show tonight. A half-dozen college age Americans come in, probably exchange students. Also probably drunk.

They order their drinks, wait, pick up their orders and move en masse to a couple open tables smack dab in the middle of the store. Right away, I can tell something’s a little off.

All is calm for a couple of minutes as everyone enjoys their beverage with minimal conversation and I, way back in the corner of the shop, settle in for a bit of writing. That’s when things get hot.

A couple of chicks start jawing back and forth about being “backstabbed” and “just wanting to talk”. It gets louder and louder and all the Japanese people in the place go deathly silent (even the baristas and random people waiting for their milkshakes disguised as coffee drinks). One of the chicks pushes the other. Their friend tells them to go outside.

“I don’t want to go outside. F*** that b****. I just want to f***ing talk.”

“You just f***ing pushed me, b****. Don’t tell me you want to f****ing talk now.”

They’re practically screaming at each other now. A Japanese couple gets up to leave. One of the dudes waiting in line just sorta back-shuffles out the door like he’s decided now is the best time to learn to moonwalk. Continue reading

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You’re a (Very) Minor Japanese Television “Celebrity”, So Now What?

So we’ve beaten the whole Netflix horse for a while now and talked about introducing a manzai to the world (at least that was the idea) but what about my terrestrial career (i.e. the non-English language media)?

The Japanese new years holiday is one of shuttered shops and clogged transportation networks (interestingly enough, everyone is so busy getting out of Tokyo that the capital becomes an absolute breeze to get around for the week).  It is also, most helpfully for me, a time for people to gather around and watch a shitton of TV.  Almost every single popular program on television will put together a several hour long special show to be shown in the week around New Year’s Day as the Japanese public apparently still hasn’t figured out (a) how to use a DVR, (b) that you can watch almost anything you want on a streaming service, (c) the more time spent watching your favorite personality ham it up on screen means less spending quality time with your loved ones.

Yes, in Japan, on New Year’s, television is still king.  And thanks to the national network’s ravenous need to fill airtime with original “special” programming, this means young struggling comedians such as myself find themselves with increased opportunity to see some airtime. Continue reading

A (Half-Assed) History of Manzai: Entatsu and Achako

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…

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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.

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You can never really leave.

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You can take the boy out of the onsen but not the onsen out of the boy.

Thought I was done with the whole MechaIke Onsen thing but a cool opportunity came up so I was back up there on Sunday.  More info when I can share it.

 

(I do have a live show in Ikebukuro at 7PM tomorrow night, though, that I really need you all to come to.  Tickets are 1500 yen. Contact me for more info!)

The Dog Days of Summer?/Early Fall?

It is hot.  It’s rather obvious but it’s still hot out.

Here in Japan, most stores switch into autumn gear almost as soon as the clock hits 12 AM on September First despite the fact the weather often fails to make the same sudden transition to cool nights and fair days.  Really, the only difference here between the “late summer” (August) and the “early autumn” (September) is all the typhoons that conveniently decided to strike the Japanese mainland this month rather than the last.  What the hell’s up with that?  (That’s a rhetorical question, you humorless meteorologist.  I don’t need an actual explanation regarding high and low pressure systems.) Continue reading

“Let’s Have Sex Under That Crying Statue!”- What I Learned From the Onsen Ordeal

So I’ve made it back from Hakone alive and in one piece (relatively speaking).  This time around, our shift corresponded with perhaps the busiest travel season of the Japanese work year.  What did that mean for the relatively underplanned and ill-prepared Mecha-Ike Onsen?  Lots and lots of guests.  Way more than we probably knew what to do with.

The first time around, back in July, daily guest numbers ranged around 1000 with the weekend occasionally bumping things up to 2500 people or so.  In August, visitor numbers jumped to somewhere around 4000 people a day, many of whom all decided to visit the newly opened Mecha-Ike Onsen right around one o’clock, meaning two or so hours of hell a day for the staff, along with another ten or so hours of “Well, now what?” Continue reading

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.