“What about your career in showbiz?” – Working as a low level entertainer during COVID-19 in Japan

It’s day two of my new “write more crap!” mindset and, I’ve gotta tell ya, I’ve run out of things to tell ya.

In case you’re just emerging from a long medically-induced coma or living in the COVID-free paradise of New Zealand, the world has been in the grips of a raging pandemic over the last year, which isn’t really conducive to a lifestyle full of things for a random dude to write about on his site that no one reads.

Sure, Japan has thankfully avoided the full brunt of the pandemic but I’ve tried to my part to stay inside, wear a mask, and interact with as few people as possible. (In my defense, this was pretty much my strategy pre-pandemic as well.) The furthest I’ve traveled in the past year is probably my aforementioned long-ass trip to the Chiba countryside for a TV thing and even that was only an hour away by freeway. My travels within Tokyo itself have been just as limited, which is to say I can pretty much count the number of times I have rode the train in the last year on my fingers alone.

Really one of the best parts of this entire situation (if pandemics can even have good parts) has been the long walks I get to take on the abandoned Tokyo streets at night. Sure, it’s night so you wouldn’t expect many people out and about anyways but in the before times, an uncrowded Tokyo street was still crowded by normal human being standards. Now though? Pure solitude. And now I can laugh at dumb podcasts while walking without having to worry about drunk old salarymen giving me the stinkeye.

“But what about your career in showbiz, Stephen?” you ask, sleepily feigning interest as you read this while taking a poop.

Ah, good question! Let me see…

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So What the Hell IS Manzai Anyways?

Don’t tell anyone now but this is apparently “real” manzai.

When we last left off, we were talking about the rise of a new batch of Japanese comedy stars, dubbed by the media as the Seventh Generation of Japanese Comedy, a term determined more by savvy marketers than by any actual generational shift in how comedy is crafted in Japan.

I had originally planned on introducing some of the “top” members of this “new” group in a new post but while writing it, I had a long and deep conversation with my podcast co-host and actual Japanese comedy researcher Nick about manzai and its various evolutionary shifts as a comedy form. More specifically, we spoke about the act of performing manzai in the era of remote lives and plastic shields aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. (Side note, it was a great and really deep conversation about the craft of being a manzai comedian that probably only five or six people in the entire world would probably enjoy hearing.)

A long long time ago, Yoshimoto attempted to introduce the world to manzai via a Netflix “documentary” that I still have crazy stress nightmares about being in. In it, we said that manzai was one mic, two people, and the “Japanese Dream” (Note: I really wasn’t lying about those stress nightmares.). But is that really true? In the four years since then and in the last several months, I’ve given this idea a lot of thought.

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The Comedy Landscape in 2020 Japan – The Seventh Owarai Generation and the Great Corona Pause

The “New” Generation of Comedians appearing on Ametalk

As pretty much any returning reader to this blog knows, I am an “owarai geinin” in Japan. Why don’t I just call myself a comedian? Because the more and more time I spend in the Japanese entertainment industry, the more I’ve come to understand that comedians and geinin are two completely different categories of roles/people entirely.

With the novel coronavirus pretty much putting everything on hold everywhere in the world, now is the perfect time to take of stock of how the Japanese entertainment world has changed or shifted over the last couple of years.

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Keeping it Corona

I’d rather be alive and broke than dead and still in a functioning economy. In recent days as this whole new reality, this bizarre world of social distancing and quarantines and complete and total lockdowns, this thought has become a light sort of mantra, the general idea being that the economic sacrifice of shutting down restaurants, offices, and retail outlets to quell the spread of this new deadly virus (the result, I always finding myself thinking, of some dude somewhere in China deciding eating undercooked bat meat was a good idea) would be worth it in the sheer number of lives saved. Japan, it turns out, seems to operating under the complete opposite doctrine.

Dumb people DO exist in Japan.

Really I’d compare living in current bizzaro state-of-emergency-in-name-only Japan after watching things unfold (badly, it should be said) around the world to watching Jaws and knowing that there’s a giant rabid shark (can sharks get rabies?) swimming in the water where those teenagers are gonna try to get it on. Since Prime Minister Abe declared a State of “Emergency” earlier this week, it’s become abundantly clear that what he had in mind lies somewhere between an “Emergency” in name only and some oddball reinforcement of the tried-and-true nihonjinron concept of Japan being safe from the worst of the coronavirus outbreak simply by being Japan. Yes, it is the 21st century and, yes, just like the rest of the world, Japan is still being run by morons.

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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

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.

Sakura Season

It's spring.  That means it's flower time.  Everyone party!

It’s spring. That means it’s flower time. Everyone party!

It’s April 2014, the weather is finally starting to take a turn for the better, spring break has come and gone for those people fortunate enough to get one at all.  April means spring.  And here in Japan, spring means sakura.

For those not in the know or those who are otherwise uninitiated in the art of contemplating the falling cherry blossoms with a great degree of self-importance and pretension, sakura is the Japanese term for “cherry blossoms”, a type of plant/tree/thing that is apparently different from plain old cherries in that sakura trees don’t actually bear any fruit (Thanks Obama), are probably a bitch to clean up what with their falling petals and all, and look dead for most of the year save a one week (or sometimes less than that) period in which their flowers blossom and millions of Japanese people flock to parks and groves in droves, eager to ring in the tidings of warm weather with copious amounts of booze, food, and shenanigans.  It’s like college, only with old, beaten-down businessmen and cold, neglected housewives instead of frat bros and skanks in tubetops and heels.

I would would be lying if I said that I didn’t appreciate the cherry blossoms or the warmer weather but I would also be lying if I said I appreciated it as much as I appreciate the internet or a shirt that isn’t either too big or too small.

The thing about sakura season in Japan is that it pretty much is three months of build up, followed by three days of peak blossom season, followed by weeks of fallen blossom petals blowing everywhere and generally causing a big mess and allergies for a lot of Japan’s more nebbish, hypochondriac population (“My nose is runny, I have hay fever!”).

Over the years, sakura and hanami have come to be associated with the passage of time, more specifically, graduation, which, unlike America, usually happens right around March and April.  As a result, most of the nation’s pop culture pretty much stops what it’s doing and shifts course into full blown sakura-mania, complete with daily sakura forecasts, sakura-themed TV specials, and more sakura songs than you ever thought could be possible.  It’s like Christmas is in America, except in this case you don’t get any presents and there are (more) drunk people in the train station (than usual) singing old folk tunes to themselves.

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So sure, the sakura blossoms maybe pretty to look at but overall they may be a bit of a pain in the ass.  Plus, once you get over the fact that you no longer need to wear arctic expedition gear to work everyday, everything else is just peachy (or maybe in this case cherry-y?).

Or maybe I’m just a cynical, hardened bastard…  Yeah, that’s the ticket.

 

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