The Japanese Comedy Duet
Manzai is a kind of Japanese comic duo, very typical and popular in the country. It is a true institution, quite similar to the Western double act but with very precise codes. Many dream of becoming manzai-shi (manzai comedian). They benefit from a large choice of official theaters to perform, but competition is fierce due to a large number of groups.
Historically, the comic element was not part of manzai. It was a street performance in which a duet affiliated to a temple played a conversation between the gods and the spirits on earth, as they formed a wish for Humankind’s prosperity. One member of the duo imitated the gods, with a calm and wise voice, the other was questioning his words. It was one of the first Japanese theatrical forms that would lay the basis for the manzai we know today.
American-Japanese comedian Stephen Tetsu featured in the documentary-movie What’s Manzai ?. Willing to become manzai-shi, he enrolled in a specialized school (where actor Yuichi Kimura, who is notably famous for his role in Nobuta wo produce, teaches). Through various classes, from writing to choreography, the students learn to develop their writing skills as much as the way they move and they hone their physical abilities and their voice.
Two opposite characters: boke and tsukkomi
A manzai duo is in the line of the comedy duo as it is known in the West. The base idea is simple : two comedians face the public, speaking in the same microphone and each plays a specific persona:
- The boke or funny man, plays an absurd and irrational character, they speak nonsense, play dumb and exaggerate.
- The partner, the tsukkomi or straightman, is the reasonable one and will oppose rationality to the boke’s foolishness. The tsukkomi also represents the public.
The duo plays on the differences between the real world and the one imagined by the boke to please the public.
For example, if the boke says they saw something in the sky, the tsukkomi would agree or ask what it was. The conversation seems normal at this stage. However, when the boke starts to ramble on an imminent alien invasion of Japan, the tsukkomi look utterly surprised and ask about their sanity, etc. The humor lies within the two limits, of two voices that each have a very different perception of the world, in all these moments of the daily life that offer the opportunity for an absurd digression: it is an opposition of the absurd and the rational.
Only one mic for comic words
Another characteristic of this humor is the speech speed, that relies on a very precise rhythm and tone of play to make the public laugh. The alchemy between the two comedians is therefore primordial and long hours of rehearsing are necessary to polish each skit. Lastly, the manzai-shi often speak in Kansai-ben, the accent of the Osaka region, from where manzai is said to originate.
The fact that the two manzai comedians share the microphone has its roots in the history of genre. When they became popular through their comical aspects, manzai performances were mainly made on the radio, so body gesture and facial expression were not necessary. The duo had to focus on the language, with puns and tones to make the public laugh. Playing with only one microphone at the radio studio, the comedians continued the same way on stage, where it is still one of the key-elements of the genre.
High popularity and fierce competition in Japan
Manzai comedians, sometimes thanks to their young age, are very popular and can have as many fans as a music band. As Stephen Tetsu said in his documentary, the competition is strong among the would-be manzai-shi and going to a specialized school furthers the chances to reach TV contests’ stages.
Nowadays manzai naturally holds very important media exposure and economic aspects. However, this is still a continued celebration of a centuries-old art.