Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Manzai

I wonder about myself. On a purely philosophical level I believe in the purity of jobs like cooking and farming, because they intimately connect you to the physical world; if you push that pitchfork in too far or turn that knife to the wrong angle you cut a sweet-potato or your finger in half. The consequences and rewards of your work are tangible. I'm not smart enough to pursue work that I don't get immediate gratification from. Just another reason this abrupt return to Tokyo and the world of white-collar work has been such a shock to my system.

I'm ashamed to admit all the media I've taken in the past few weeks. It just doesn't feel healthy, but it's so addictive. I have limited myself to books for so long that unlimited internet and TV is like being giving free reign in a Belgian beer and chocolates shop. I don't know if such a shop exists, but I know I wouldn't be able to control myself if I entered one. Spending half your day working in front of a computer screen and the other half relaxing in front of one just doesn't seem like a good idea. My New Years Resolution is already made up.

Which is all just a prelude to this post's real topic: Manzai.

Last night I stayed up with my housemates to watch the annual televised "M-1" competition, a national contest of over 3000 manzai comedic duos for the grand prize of $100,000. So what is manzai? Well, think back to the one or two times you've heard the old Abbot & Costello "Who's On First?" routine. Then imagine a whole living world of comedian duos who make their living off routines just like that. That's manzai.

The standard format is your straight man and your funny man, your standard situation is man-in-a-taxicab, suitor-and-father, bartender-and-drunk. What is amazing about manzai is that not only has it survived where vaudeville comedians have faded into obscurity, but that it spawns new variations every year. Out of the standard format of two guys just talking about something you get a whole range of styles. This years M-1 finalists included a "Shibuya-kei" duo whose language and material comes out of Japanese youth culture with all it's obscure phrases and verbs absorbed from English to a duo who pattered along in the flattest and most unassuming of tones, but their subject an incredible free associaciative linguistic romp from professional baseball hat sizes to the proper gradation with which to mix total wins with milk. This only makes a kind of bizarre sense in Japanese, and I won't even try to translate it.

The M-1 contest is an annual TV Asahi competition for "the best" manzai group, with initial spots open to any group for a small entry fee. 3000 plus entrants are winnowed down to 64 groups, and then a mere 9 for the nationally televised competition. These remaining nine are judged by a panel of some of the most famous living Japanese comedians, who all seem unusually serious for this year-end event.

The results, while predictable, were still thrilling to watch. While the first place spot went to "Untouchable" a group in their early 30's that sticks to traditional manzai themes with impeccable timing and delivery (they won with a standard suitor-and-father routine done at a breakneck pace with excellent jokes), the second place spot went to "Nankai Candies" the first male-female duo ever to make the M-1 finals. Maybe I've been here too long, but it was astonishing to see a group that had so freshly reinvented the manzai style. "Untouchable" pretty much epitomizes the standard manzai style: two guys going through a routine about typical male concerns like women, sports or business at a breakneck pace and with amazing timing and delivery. Watching "Nankai Candies" must have been like seeing Monty Python for the first time: they totally destroyed the pacing and content of typical manzai, delivering in slow, unhurried voices. While Yamazato-san, the male half of the pair had his moments, it was Shizu-chan, the round faced, completely ordinary looking comedienne who destroyed the audience. She delivered her lines in a deep throated deadpan that was not so much parody as an almost punk rock vision of comedy. She had a twinkle in her eyes the whole time that broadcast out "can you believe this bullshit?" while she knocked through their routines. "The Japanese Janene Garafelo" is a terrible description of her, but it's the first one that comes to mind.

The routine that won them second place they must have written especially for the finals; they turned and addressed the hosts of the show during their directly, one of whom happens to be the almond eyed and coconut-titted super model Waka Inoue, the current standard of Japanese beauty in Japan. It was amazing to watch these two twenty-somethings, on their first big break on national TV, ragging on the host, and the idea of mass media created female beauty in general. The whole routine centered around how Shizu-chan could better increase her female appeal, and there was a moment where she was pretending to cavort in the ocean waves for a fashion photographer while her partner berated the unsexiness of her cavorting that was one of the funniest and most punk rock things I have seen on television.

I was encouraged to see that some of my favorite Japanese comedians loved the skit, with the oldest and most well known of the group getting up and asking Shizu-chan only half jokingly if she'd like to start a comedy duo with him. The anarchy of really good comedy doesn't heed age or custom; it cuts through the bullshit as fast as it piles up, and while the panel dissected the timing and pace to a T, in the end the craft will matter less than the material. Let's just see someone try to win next year on the old suitor routine...

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

If you can understand the jokes, your Japanese must be really getting good.
A small correction; "Who's on first" was an old Abbot and Costello routine. I Think Penn and Teller are magicians.
Dad

Jamie said...

Mistake noted, you're 100% right. My free associative no edit style is coming back to haunt me.

Alice Lee said...

Hi,

I watch Japanese TV as a hobby (although I know next to nothing about the language) and so when I've seen Nankai Candies appear I've always wondered what exactly was so funny about them. I assumed it had to do with their delivery and how untraditional it is, and from your post it definitely sounds like it. Thanks for writing this!