Stephen Starts a Diary: May 22nd

May 22nd Tuesday

So I suck at all video games.  When I was a high schooler, I had trouble beating Madden on Rookie mode.  Mario?  Only after a couple of years.  Zelda?  Forget about it.  What about first person shooters?  Forget about it.  Hell, I could barely beat Pokemon and that game is meant for grade schoolers.  Video games are fun, no doubt.  I’m just not all that good at them.

I mention all of this because, as I told you all yesterday, I got a Nintendo Switch.  I should say that I haven’t really played all that many video games since I moved to Japan, which meant that the graphical jump between the last time I played video games and when I played them for the first time today came as a major shock to me.

Playing Super Mario Odyssey, a couple of things hit me: (1) open worlds are now huge and open open and (2) years of not playing video games hasn’t made me any better at them.  My experience thus far playing the critically acclaimed game has gone somethign like this:  Stephen things “oh that looks cool”, Stephen gets distracted by cool thing, Stephen fails to succeed at basic game tasks, Stephen dies.  I think one of the problems about having an open world thingy is that it’s hard to find where the open world closes, leading to death after death.

Do you think Mario feels pain?  As graphics get better and better and programming improves to such a degree that artificial intelligence outpaces human intelligence, why is it hard to imagine a digital avatar feeling pain?

Stephen Starts a Diary: 5/6

5/6 Sunday

Today was the last day of Golden Week, the hellish week where every single Japanese person gets a week off of work.  Normally owarai comedians, being based in an industry predicated on the leisure dollars of the employed masses, are incredibly busy on vacation weeks like this one but I, after a string of gig cancellations and whatnot, was not.

Unfortunately, I also happened to catch a cold this week so I spent most of today layign around my small Japanese apartment feeling very sorry for myself.  I did get out for a walk (mainly just so my Apple Watch would stop yelling at me to exercise) but with it being the last day of Golden Week, my usual park of choice was supercrowded with families of people who either didn’t get out on their week of vacation or people who came back from their vacation a bit early.  It was not, unfortunately, all that relaxing.

Also, a kid ran over my foot with a tricycle.

Tomorrow brings the return of the working week and I have an English lesson first thing in the morning to get things started off right.  It’s my first lesson with a relatively higher up guy within the Yoshimoto corporate structure so we’ll just have to see how it goes.

Big in Japan, a show

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So now that WHAT’S MANZAI?!!! PART 2 is finally out (though seemingly not in the US) and that part of my life is now completely done with, I’d be remiss in not mentioning the one place where you can hear me discuss Japanese showbiz on my own terms without a Yoshimoto staffer constantly whispering in my ear about not offending my sempai or making sure that I don’t say something about sponsor X, Y, or Z. 

In case you were unsure about it or just went with the narrative of WHAT’S MANZAI?!!! that I am apparently the only non-Japanese person who ever thought about getting in Japanese comedy, there are others out there, and, starting a few months ago, a couple of us decided to get together and talk about our experiences as geinin in Japan because, quite frankly, you need an outlet for these sorts of things.

Those conversations kinda turned into regular thing that we decided to start recording and put out as the Big in Japan podcast, an uncensored, unfiltered, completely unendorsed by our agencies look at the Japanese entertainment world.  I’d like to emphasis the uncensored part of this description because some of the stories shared on the show have been pretty darn raunchy (mostly because, as members of the Japanese entertainment industry, we haven’t had the chance to work blue in years). Continue reading

Hey hey, it’s summer.

So after apologizing for not posting many updates of late, I promptly fell off the wagon again and neglected the whole blog thing for another week plus.  In my defense though, this time I’m busy!

In just a few days, I’ll be showing up in a play in Shinjuku in a bit part, the practices and rehearsals for which have taken up a huge amount of my time over the past month.  Spoiler alert, I’m only showing up in one scene.  It’s a fun change-of-pace role but it’s only like five lines and a couple minutes of standing around in the background as things happen with the main characters.

This being Japan, me being in one scene requires me to be present at every single practice, meeting, and rehearsal, even the ones where the scene in question isn’t even brought up.  Being on the lowest tier of the Yoshimoto media conglomerate hierarchy, my primary duty in this place can best be described as a crazy mishmash of stagehand, personal assistant to the executive producer (lots and lots of sprinting to the convenience store to buy random shit), and general punching bag.  You want to be a comedian in Japan?  That’s what you’re gonna have to do.

Once all three performances of the play are done, I have a bunch of other live shows and appearances coming up in the month of July.  Most of them are in Shibuya during the work week.  All of them are in Japanese.

I’ll hopefully also have more exciting information to share with y’all in the coming weeks regarding the release of a certain part two of a certain manzai-centric Netflix show.

 

Stay tuned and stay in touch.  You can find my live schedule below (along with the poster of my play)! Continue reading

Looking Towards a New Year

So with the first month of 2017 almost over, I thought it’d be prudent to finally talk about what I hope to get done this year (not that any of you probably care anyways).

As I “covered” earlier, 2016 was a year full of change and random things and getting fired from your job waiting tables because you had to leave town a couple of woks for a job out in the boonies.  The first month of 2017 has continued this trend.  Not the getting fired part, mind you.  You need to have a job first before you can get fired.  Thus far, the new year has brought me a half dozen stage appearances, a couple of token television appearances, and a steady
succession of bad colds and flu-like symptoms.img_7995

Which brings me to my resolutions and goals for the new year.  Everyone has them.  Almost everyone makes theirs public.  I’m just doing mine a whole month later than everyone else. Continue reading

Stephen Eats Weird(ish) Japan: Clam Chowder Cup Ramen

It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of these but while I’ve neglected the whole try-weird-Japanese-food-product-and-talk-about-how-zany-it-is thing, it hasn’t been for a lack of Japanese food companies throwing odd things at the wall to see what sticks (or, probably more accurately, get free publicity from people going “isn’t this weird?” online).

But then, a few weeks back, I started hearing about 7-11’s newest special “LIMITED TIME ONLY” cup noodle creation, a “clam chowder” ramen developed in collaboration with every aging American urban hipster’s favorite chain ramen restaurant, Ippudo.  The clam chowder, they claimed, was a speciality brought over from the New York outpost.

Being a guy desperately trying to find things to write about that won’t bring me the wrath of my corporate overlords, I decided to give it a try.img_8008

Continue reading

You’re a Minor Netflix Celebrity, So Now What? Part II – “Aren’t you that guy from that thing?”

In case you haven’t been keeping track (you haven’t), What’s Manzai?!!! has been out on Netflix for over a half year now and, much to my welcome surprise, people are still stopping me on the street to talk about it.

So, yes, I am that dude from that one thing you might have watched on Netflix and, yes, I am an actual struggling comedian with actual struggling comedian problems, problems that a Netflix film debut and the subsequent slight surge of recognition that came with it did nothing to really alleviate.

I’m writing this blog post in a Starbucks bathroom.  Why?  Because I’m an internet freeloader but also don’t want to pay three hundred yen for coffee.  Also, I’m broke, which I’m pretty sure is simply a rite of passage for anyone going down the career path that I am.  Also, Japanese toilet seats are super comfy so I could literally spend hours here without feeling too much rectal distress.

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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After the Show’s Ended: A Post-Solo Show Postmortem

So it’s done!  Over!  I can finally take a step back and breathe!  After a long month plus of preparation, practice, and figuring out how exactly to fill an entire hour of stage time, Iruka Punch’s first solo live show went off with minimal hitches and nary a tear to be seen.

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Here’s the general order of our show, for those of you who can read Japanese.

The thing you learn the most when doing a solo comedy show in Japan?  Pacing and tempo is everything.  When working as an owarai conbi in Japan, you generally have two different categories of comedy to work with: manzai, Japanese “stand-up” comedy, and conte, a sort of minimalistic take on sketch comedy.  My conbi, Iruka Punch, happens to have a foot in both pools, which makes doing a solo show a bit harder than it would have been if we had just simply have done an hour of manzai. Continue reading