May 31, 2018

Laughing matters

A consistent observation from long-time Western observers is that Japanese don't do the whole "dripping with irony" thing. It's sand in the gears of a culture that depends so much on going with the flow. (Google "Japan" and "sarcasm" for many links about the subject.)

The sociolinguistic concept does exist in Japanese and hiniku (皮肉) seems to cover all the lexicographical bases. To paraphrase Tom Selleck at the end of Quigley Down Under, "I said I didn't have much use for it. Didn't say I didn't know what it means."

At the other end of the spectrum, clever word-play (kakekotoba) has been prized since before the Heian period and is a key element of classical poetry. Japanese attitudes in this regard can be very British English, bouncing wildly between Oscar Wilde and Benny Hill.

A broad streak of Benny Hill-type slapstick is part and parcel of any "fan service"-heavy anime comedy. Like horror and monster movies, these genres are more familiar in the west because subtle comedy just doesn't translate well, West to East or East to West.

Hollywood loves action films because comedy is such a hard sell in the huge Asian market (and even the action genre is no guarantee these days). There's even a term in Japan for the problem: "American joke," meaning the kind of humor that only Americans think is funny.

The American contemporary solo "standup" style never took hold in Japan. Japan's solo format is rakugo, storytelling based on an established repertoire of Aesop's Fables-type traditional tales and just-so stories. The storyteller plays all the parts.

The standup format is manzai, which hearkens back to the old vaudeville duos.

Manzai is how a nation of introverts work out their inner rage in public (Sheldon Cooper + Penny = manzai). Trading insults (as distinguished from sarcasm) is part and parcel of the genre, as is physical humor (whacking each other on the head).

At best, manzai compares to a Smothers Brothers routine, revolving around the repartee between a straight man (tsukkomi) and a funny man (boke). But can also be so aggressively passive-aggressive that I find it painfully unfunny (and difficult to follow).

Well, that's what I think of the Three Stooges too.

Manzai duos aside, comedy in Japan is often skit-based (known in Japanese as konto, from the French conte) or revolves around group activities, including every sort of chat show imaginable.

NHK regularly broadcasts stage performances of vaudevillian-style melodramas. Despite the Edo period settings (interrupted by anachronistic jokes, breaking fourth wall, and characters finding excuses to burst into song), they are surprisingly accessible.

Then there are all those game shows. Americans typically only hear about the ones so obvious or outrageous they don't need translation. But many are dang high-brow, like using using Auto-Tune technology to measure how precisely on-tune the contestants can sing a popular song.


The participants in these "game shows" mostly come from the ranks of B-list celebrities. More Hollywood Squares than Family Feud. Japanese by and large prefer to watch other people having a good time than get up on stage and make fools of themselves (though there are those too).

One of the longest-running shows on Japanese television is Shouten. It resembles What's My Line (though the participants usually remain seated). The panel members are all veteran rakugo performers.

Again, the emphasis is on wordplay, trading insults, and the occasional pratfall (and mild sexual innuendo). I get about half of the verbal jokes.

I do get most of the kanji jokes, where they start with a standard kanji radical and then add a few strokes to invent a new word that creates a humorous juxtaposition.

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